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Meet A MediaParenting Family: Interview With Kokilashree Alangaram Vickneswaran.

The Vickneswaran family is an inspiring lot! Vickneswaran is an IT professional-turned-farmer who loves working with the soil, making, breaking and fixing things, building things from scratch. A techie who loves working with his hands. Kokilashree is an Engineer-turned-eco-evangelist who loves farming, cooking, painting, music, crafts, do-it-yourself stuff and practising yoga in everyday living (she says, basically doing everything else other than electronic engineering). They are a made-for-each-other couple who both love the same things - so much so that they quit the great-Indian-middle-class-dream of a life in the US to handcraft a life from scratch, according to their principles - meaning, they now live the pioneer life on a small farm in a village in Kerala. They are also homeschooling parents of two lovely boys aged 9 and 6, and a dog called Rusty.

Hello Kokila and thank you so much agreeing to do this interview! So you were living the American dream of a successful couple making a ton of money in software. You changed course dramatically and moved to India - to live on a farm. What caused this shift?

Hello! Thanks Deepa and it is a pleasure doing this with you. Happy to share our experience so it can help other people.

When you are from a middle-class background, with exposure to hardships early on in life, you are automatically connected with reality. You remain rooted. When we moved to the US for our software jobs, we were quite shocked by the rampant materialism - surprisingly for us, the most aggressive consumerism was by our own compatriots.

To me, being a mom is a transformative experience. In fact, I owe my growth to my boys. When I became mom to these two gorgeous children, my priorities changed. I wanted every good thing for them - not in terms of money but in terms of life experiences. Especially in terms of people. Just like I grew up being close with my grand moms, I wanted my sons to be close with their grandparents. Be connected to people, their cousins, their roots. We didn’t want them to grow up to be the typical ABCD (American Born Confused Desi).

We anyway wanted to homeschool them. we felt it was a more meaningful approach to learning, connected with nature. So it didn't matter whether we did it in India or the US. We also wanted to be there - in every sense - for our parents in their old age. My own spiritual leanings also egged me on to move closer to my roots. I wanted to be a human being who can work towards my social responsibilities. And there was so much work to be done back home so staying in the USA did not make much sense to me. Add to that, I was sick with gastritis and really longed to be closer to a my family. So, while our green cards were being processed, we cancelled the whole thing and hopped on a flight back home with our two boys.

That’s fantastic. Very few people have the courage to follow their heart, especially when so much seems to be at stake. Tell us about your initial days here.

We moved back to India. Settled into a gated community in the IT hub of Chennai, eagerly looking forward to living our ideal of a balanced Indian life. We were in for a rude awakening! That gated community was in fact, a mini-US! They were living the American dream in Chennai! We moved as fast as we could to an older locality in Thiruvanmiyur, closer to some of our homeschooling friends. Then the dream of starting an organic farm took shape. And several months later, here we are, on our farm! In a way, we wanted the changes to be done gradually so that it did not shock either our children or our parents. That way the move to the gated community, then the community in Thiruvanmiyur of like-minded friends, our two long years of farm visits, land hunting etc. made the transition to the village easier on the kids.

As you know, we work to raise awareness about media and technology among parents and children, advocating MediaParentingTM. And you are one of our early supporters - thank you for that! What rules do you follow at home with respect to media and technology?

Your work is highly crucial for children and parents in today’s scenario. We are so happy that you are doing it and will be happier to support your work in any way possible. While we were at Chicago, we learned about the Waldorf system. I used to attend their Mom & Baby classes once a week and got to learn a lot about child development. It resonated so much with me. Child development isn't just about physical growth. It is also about spiritual development also. My husband and I had this in mind even before being introduced to Waldorf. So, even when I was pregnant with my first son, we wouldn't watch movies. We would stick to decent comedy. And lots of melodious music. We were very clear we didn't want to influence the baby with anything negative.

The Waldorf system also prescribes no screens for children. They have a lot of statistics to prove that screens affect neuron connections, creativity and pretend-play. I’ve seen some children among friends and families being affected by too much media. Their minds become compartmentalized and they definitely are more aggressive. They are so used to the fast-moving and changing screens that they are unable to connect to the much slower pace of real life, as a result their cognitive development is highly impaired.

Till date, we don't have a TV at home and our children have probably not more than half an hour of video per week. We are particular that they watch childsafe educative videos only We have lovely neighbors at the farm, with two young daughters nearly the same age as our sons. So the four of them are treated to movies on their birthdays. We’ve watched Cars 2, Ratatouille, Bee, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and so on. But nothing else.

So many parents would like to do that! But what happens when you aren't in your home space? And how do your children respond to the media rules?

When we visit relatives and they have their TV on, my kids do watch a bit. Earlier, it was difficult because they would be exposed to extreme content - imagine watching scenes from a mass movie like Theri! But now, they’ve learned to say no to such content - they ask for the TV to be switched off. They watch the cartoon channels with their cousins when they go visiting - that can’t be helped I suppose.

Of course, children always compare with their peer group. “They have iPads, why don't I” and so on. They also question us about their media rules. We sit and explain why we do what we do and slowly they understand. At the end of the day, they know it is for their own good. It is a balancing act that I am learning each day and it is not easy

You are also a homeschooling family. That is still nascent in India. Tell us about your homeschooling journey.

Back in the US, we found a lot of Waldorf parents homeschooling there; one, because Waldorf schools can be expensive and two, because homeschooling gives you a lot of flexibility and freedom. I thought that was sensible. When I felt strongly about homeschooling, I told my husband about it and he agreed immediately. He is also a hands-on learner and feels there are quite a lot of draw backs in our current mainstream educational system.

S had just started Kindergarten when we moved to Kentucky. So we pulled him out and started just being with him at home. Both my sons are unschooled - they explore what they want at their pace. They play, read books, learn, do - whatever catches their fancy. I trust in their natural curiosity and need to understand the world around them. Learning happens always! Yes, with their inherent curiosity none of us can stop their learning. We should be just cautious about what kind of role models we are to them, for our actions are more powerful tools in their learning than our words!

We get time for DIY projects. Their latest - their own idea by the way! - is a venture selling organic seeds, farm produce and organic jams, pickles and chutneys. They have just started and are making good progress, I must say. Of course we help them but still there is a lot of learning happening.

This is amazing! So tell me, what is this ideal media-free homeschooling day like?

Right after breakfast, the kids go out to play. We have lots of open space and we spend most of our time outdoors. They cycle for hours, climb up and down the hills, run around with our dog and lots more. I’d go crazy inside the house the whole day! In an urban setting, this would be difficult. Also, the kids love to read - so they can even read the whole day on rainy days. It helps there are two of them - they have each other’s company always.

We are unschoolers - we didn't have a proper learning structure till a while ago. But my elder one wanted to learn a few specific things - Grammar, Math - so we do that. We are much faster than the regular curriculum - what the usual syllabus takes a year to do, we can do in a few months (if we sit consistently, haha!). We are trying to explore some structured activities these days, lets see how it goes.

They also play a lot. They make-believe and pretend-play. We always buy them open-ended toys - wooden blocks, puzzles - that they can tinker with. Then, they are busy with chores. Oh yes, I have a chore chart. We have taught them basic cleaning, mopping, folding laundry. They get age-appropriate chores assigned and of course they need to be reminded constantly about their chores See, we are used to being treated like royalty as kids - “padikkira kozhanda” (studying child) is brought up unable to even make dosa. The gaps in our society are widening because the kids believe the maid or someone else is supposed clean up after them, cleaning and household chores are considered lowly. The sense of responsibility towards them and the world gets screwed up growing up like royalty, hence I am very particular about all of us sharing the work at home. Our take on breaking the gender-biased roles too I suppose.

Once in a while, we take them out. Our favourite places are beaches, parks, libraries.

Any parting words for our parents?

We all want the best for our children. But there’s so much else going on in our busy lives that children become another chore to be ticked off. We need a change of priorities that puts the needs of the child first. That doesn't mean the child always comes first. Your children are important but don't make them feel they are the centre of the Universe. That makes them entitled and insensitive. Don’t focus all your attention on the child. But be mindfully present, sensitive to their needs. We should show them that happiness or success in life is not equal to the money in the bank account but rather its about how meaningful and soul-satisfying our lives are! Life is to live and learn, let us not steal our children's childhood and innocence prematurely in the name of success and fake education!

Well, thank you so much Kokila for sharing so freely and from the heart. We hope to hear more from you!

And we hope, you, dear readers, enjoyed reading this interview and are inspired! You can explore Kokila's world in her blog Head, Heart and Hands Together. And please do share with us your MediaParenting journey in comments below.

Take care!

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