Upaakki - what do you think the word means?
"What language is it?", I can almost hear you ask back.
Would you be surprised if I responded saying, "It doesn't matter. Just tell me what you think it means."?
So before reading any further, pause here for a moment.
Say the word "Upaakki" in your mind. Slowly. Close your eyes. Let the word echo around in your mouth. Let it stoke your imagination. Now tell me, what were some of the images that came dancing in to your mind's eye?
A Japanese dish? Something African, maybe? A Tamil movie, perhaps?
It is nothing of the kind actually; it was just the name of a monster that used to appear routinely, almost on cue, outside the window of the bedroom where my two-year-old son was supposed to have his afternoon nap.
A monster with a strange head and not much of a body; the head flaring up into long spikes, resembling a fanned out broom. The resemblance was not coincidental, because it was indeed a fanned out broom, with the broomsticks transforming into the long spikes on the monster's head. The broom would usually be held up above the level of the window by an ardent grandfather, outside in the garden, hunched beneath the window, careful not to let any part of his body be seen. The corrugated glass pane on the window, which distorted the images when seen from inside the bedroom, helped to increase the overall visual effect. Coupled with the sound of loud scraping and the occasional thumps on the window, I must say that it was a pretty scary monster that roamed around in our garden those days. As soon as the monster made his appearance, the little fellow would immediately quieten down and turn his face away from the window. He, who normally hated being hugged, would now have no problem in being hugged tightly by his mother. His eyes would be desperately shut and in a matter of minutes, he would be sleeping peacefully. And Upaakki, mission accomplished for the day, would also disappear almost magically, only to come back the next day.
Upaakki was at best the result of a creative figment of imagination; at worst it was a downright lie told to a two-year-old boy.
Which brings me to the main theme of this note - the lies* that we often tell our children. Harmless lies, as we sometimes refer to them. I am sure most, if not all of us have done it, at some stage. And I am also sure that most of us can remember at least a few lies that we ourselves have been told as kids. I have done it myself and I am not saying that it is right or wrong; to be frank I don't know. But at least now, I think I know why we tell these lies. And it is interesting to go through some of these reasons so that the next time we do it, we will at least know why we did it!
I believe that most of the lies we tell our children can broadly be categorised as those that we sincerely believe are "stuff or things that they are better off not knowing", at a very young age at least. Into this general category would fall our answers to questions that children may ask about sex, how babies mysteriously appear inside stomachs, questions about death, about a problem in the family or maybe about the violence that we see around us. We feel that our kids are better off not knowing more about these things, because we sincerely believe that it is "too much" for a young child to grasp. Most of the stuff that we read in our newspapers and see on TV will harm and pollute the young mind, we argue. And without doubt, there is indeed some truth to this reasoning. But the problem is that in most cases, we do not follow up by giving our children a better or clearer picture of these things as they grow up - we often do not take the effort to correct some of the lies that we may have told them earlier. For instance, how many of us upgrade the versions of "how your little sister got inside mommy's stomach" when our children outgrow a particular age? Not many, I am afraid. Could this be one of the reasons why children generally do not trust adults?
An interesting aside - just as we believe there are certain things that our young children are better off not knowing, isn't it fair to expect that there may also be certain things that they think we are better off not knowing too? But when that happens, we get upset; failing to realise and accept that they are just using the same reasoning when they "lie" to us! If we are purely objective about it, and going by the same logic, we will find it difficult to fault a ten-year-old who gets into some trouble at school and does not tell his parents about it, or maybe even lies about it, because he believes that the parents are better off not knowing about the whole incident! But that is a discussion for another day.
Coming back to some of the categories of lies that we tell our children - there are the lies that we tell them, because that is what our parents told us when we were children. And even though we now know that they are not true, for some strange reason we keep the chain going. Into this category falls the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and the Christmas gifts by the Christmas tree. I believe we do this not only because these stories are so ingrained in us but also because we do not see any apparent harm or danger in most of such lies. In fact, there is a "cuteness" element to some of these lies, which is especially applicable when the kids are very young.
Then there are the lies that can be attributed to superstition and in some cases social compulsions. I remember hearing when I was a child that a lizard's cry (or chirp?) confirmed the truth in something that was just said! Or a strange one that meant some harm would come to an uncle if I shook my legs while sitting! And then of course the danger of the black cat crossing our path or a warning not to turn back when setting out from home for an important task. Thankfully, I dare say that most of these are not being passed on to our children's generation nowadays.
And then there are lies of the Upaakki kind - lies that we tell our kids just so that they may be distracted for a moment or maybe just for our own convenience! "I don't have my wallet with me". "If you don't finish your food, you will shrink and your bones will crumble". There is no sinister or ulterior motive to such lies. It just seems much easier to bring in an Upaakki than to run after the little one for a couple of hours, waiting for him to become exhausted and literally fall down to sleep.
We do not usually reflect on whether there could be any impact on our children because of the lies that we tell them. Some of those lies may have been harmless, may even have been necessary. Maybe some of them were unnecessary and could have been avoided. But by and large, other than a few extreme cases, I doubt if any of these lies have any long term impact on the children after they have grown up.
Were we worried, for instance, about frightening our little boy with the Upaakki character? To be frank, I don't think we even thought about it in that sense. I will not deny that the little one must have been scared for a while. But before long, in about a month's time, he kind of got used to the fact that the monster really did not seem to be doing much more than making a ruckus outside the window. And then gradually he began to stop turning away from the window and even became daring enough to keep his eyes open throughout the Upaakki show. I don't know how he got wind of it, but little children are awfully sharp, much more than we are ready to give them credit for. Soon enough, one day he had a sly grin on his face and whispered Appachan*, looking at the monster by the window! That is when we realized that this ploy was not going to work much longer; so we decided to let him have the fun of uncovering Upaakki on his own. One afternoon when Upaakki was doing his act, a tiptoeing mother and child slowly made their way out of bed, went outside the house, came around to the window side and caught Appachan Upaakki red-handed in the act, complete with the incriminating broom and all! I did not witness the scene, but apparently the sparkle in the little eyes and the grin on his face was something to behold.
Needless to say, Upaakki did not make an appearance after that day.
There are some who warn against the consequences of telling such lies to young children, of creating a lasting negative impact on the little ones. I personally am of the opinion that in the vast majority of cases, there is no such impact. As the children grow up into young adults and are able to think and comprehend on their own, most of these lies are replaced by the facts that they then understand.
And so, while I believe that it may be fine to create an Upaakki once in a while, there should also be a conscious effort whenever possible, to take the child on a journey that ends up uncovering the Upaakki. The joy that such a discovery brings to the child will erase any negative impact that may have been inadvertently created on the young mind.
What about you? Have you created any Upaakki's of your own? Do you remember some of the lies that you were told as a child? Looking back, have they had any impact on your overall outlook? I would love to hear your stories..
* Along with the more obvious lies that we often tell, for purposes of this note, I have included into the definition of this term, the half-truths we sometimes tell our children that may not be outright lies themselves, and also those that we sometimes consciously keep from telling them at all.
^ Appachan: Grandfather