How to Photograph Children

If you are a parent, you most likely spend more than 80% of your memory card (or film?!) photographing your children.  As a photography enthusiast and parent, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you some helpful tips on making the most of this pursuit.

Does the camera matter?

Any camera is basically a device that lets you capture light in an instant. To that end, if the available light is adequate, just about any camera will do. However, when it comes to photographing young children, you will do a whole lot better with a camera that has a fast response-time.

Most modern DSLRs (or SLRs) offer ultra-fast startup times and shutter speeds that will allow you to capture that “Kodak” moment in a flash! For the more technically inclined, there are decisions to be made about shooting modes, film/ISO speeds, lens choices, etc.  As a rule of thumb, higher ISOs will allow you to extract the most from available light, especially when you’re shooting indoors. And, using a fast lens (with a large maximum aperture) in Portrait or Aperture Priority mode will work wonders, especially when photographing children. If you are trying to capture a moving child or pet, choosing faster shutter speeds (or switching to Shutter Priority mode) will help you snap that action shot without causing motion-blur.

What about the Technique?

As with any subject, learn to hold your camera steady so that your movements don’t cause blur in the pictures. If you’re planning an outdoor trip or vacation, avoid taking a camera that you are unfamiliar with – the last thing you want is to miss a great shot while trying to figure out which settings to change in your camera. If you’re using Flash, know that most modern cameras have a red-eye reduction mode that lights up the flash bulb more than once for each shot – this can confuse your young (or even older) subjects, so turn that off before you begin. My personal preference is to avoid using the built-in Flash as far as possible – you get much better skintones and the results look much more natural if you can work with the available light.

Coming to the actual shooting, it’s been said countless times that photographing children is best done when the child is comfortable with the surroundings and the photographer.  Whatever you can do to make them more comfortable will help, and whatever you do to cause stress will not! If you’re unfamiliar with the location, it may help to do a small walk-around and plan your shots in terms of where the children will feel most naturally at ease.  Candid shots may yield far better results than your attempts to make the child pose in a certain way, but sometimes a child’s attempt at artificially posing can make for a memorable photograph.  If your camera has a burst mode, you can get interesting results of your kids in action as the camera tries to capture one motion in a series of shots.

Most importantly, try to get down to their level and see their world from that height – the photographs you shoot from their height may turn out to be the ones you most want to keep.

For good measure, read this excellent article from Digital Photography School on How to Photograph Children; it also sports some great children shots for inspiration.

Happy clicking!

Changing the Education System

A few weeks ago, Rajesh Jain in a post entitled ‘Rethinking Education‘ blogged about the various approaches towards changing the prevalent Education system in India, and about his own thoughts on what’s needed:

One approach is to work within the current system and see what best can be done. It assumes that the legacy that exists will be very hard to change — everyone has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. Parents are not keen to take risks with their kids, the ones in the education business would prefer to stick to the status quo since they are already in the business, the government seems to be quite happy with the way things are, and the kids don’t have much of a choice anyways.  So, even as some of us believe that the current education system needs a dramatic revamp, it is not easy to figure out where to begin. (Perhaps, there isn’t an entrance at all for those not already in.)

The second approach, advocated by Atanu, is to create a parallel system from scratch — encompassing K-12 and beyond. This thinking starts with the belief that the current education system is fatally flawed and there is no way to apply band-aid. What is needed is a new system, a new standard. And there will be early adopters among parents and kids who will be drawn to this new system.

My personal vote goes for the second approach.  The world has changed a lot, especially in the past couple decades, and the simplicity that needs to be there in the education system has vanished. One hears of kids as young as two and three years going for coaching so they can get into the preferred school of their parents. IIT coaching now starts in the sixth standard. It is reaching ridiculous heights (or lows). And then look at  the quality of the product that comes out of this system.

This is a burning issue for many parents, and naturally, Rajesh’s post saw a flurry of comments in a short span.  Here’s what I wrote in response :

My view is that disruptive innovation has a place in many things, but not in something as well-rooted in society as our present education system… There is just too much at stake for parents.

… most people within the system are averse to change of any sort – that is typical human response to any new idea. However, with a new system, even if you get some folks to switch over, many others will not fearing what will happen to their children once the system’s runway ends.

Already, I hear many concerned and informed parents voicing their fears of how their children will eventually have to cope up with the “mainstream” once they graduate from their gurukuls or whatever liberal-minded school system they follow. That fear is what keeps many of them from sending their kids down the less-trodden path in the first place! And until a critical mass of people *do* choose the new route, the fear of the majority would always remain…

… I think a more agreeable option would be to make small but significant changes in the existing system (even if that takes more effort), so that more and more people eventually benefit from the changes.  As a parent of two, I would certainly welcome a move in that direction.

Rajesh sent me an email in reply, later that day, in which he mentioned that the best solution may well be a combination of the two approaches.  What do you think?

The Discipline Toolkit

The BabyCenter website carries a detailed write-up on how you can address discipline issues in your children, irrespective of their age.  It’s a subject that should strike a chord with every parent, as sometime or the other, we’ve all been at the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour by our children.

Why is discipline such a big dilemma? Because it feels like a tightrope act. On one side there’s the peril of permissiveness – no one wants to raise a brat. On the other side there’s the fear of over-control – who wants to be the hardliner raising cowed, sullen kids?

The article provides interesting tips for children of various age-groups, with examples of “real-life applications” for each of the rules.  Here’s just a small sample of the Ground Rules it speaks of:

1. We’re all in this together… Right from the start, teach your kids that your family is a mutual support system, meaning that everyone pitches in.

2. Respect is mutual… Set a good example early on: When your child tries to tell you something, stop what you’re doing, focus your attention, and listen. Later you can require the same courtesy from her.

3. Consistency is king… Even if you pick just one chore to insist on, your child will be better off, Kindlon says. “Being firm and consistent teaches your child that you care enough about him to expect responsible behavior.”

4. Life’s not always fair… So if your child’s upset because a younger sibling got a different punishment, for example, it’s okay to say “I understand that this seems unfair to you, and I’m sorry you’re upset, but life isn’t always fair.”

I strongly recommended you read it in entirety.

Is TV bad for your child?

The world is divided among those who think that TV is harmful to young children, and those who don’t.

ParentCenter has a page on TV watching guidelines that says: “The best way to approach television is to think of it as refined sugar: You want your kids to enjoy the seductive stuff without consuming it to excess. So you’ll need to stay on top of the time your child spends in front of the television.”  It offers some helpful pointers, among them:

– Make television physically inconvenient
– Help your child become a critical viewer
– Go with calm, quiet programs

BabyCenter has a Community Debate section on TV viewing that gets parents to respond to the question: Do you think television contributes to developmental and/or behavioral issues in children?

There’s even an article in Slate arguing that TV really might cause Autism!

The other side of the argument?  If you haven’t already, read the brilliantly-insightful Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner where he writes that “children who watch TV don’t do any worse (or better) on early childhood test scores than kids who don’t watch.” (And then, read his blog post on how TV Really IS Dangerous!)

These articles are about all you’ll need to read on this subject, to make up your mind on the issue.

My take?  As a child, I could only dream of exploring new worlds in full-blown multimedia on almost any topic of my interest… something that NatGeo and Discovery enable today, at the mere click of a remote control.  Modern TV has opened up entirely new worlds for my little ones, and I’m glad it has.

As a parent, I restrict my 4-year-old to about an hour or two of TV per day*, so that other forms of activity and learning are also a part of her routine.  I also make sure my 1-year-old does not get more than a few minutes exposure, until he’s past the age of two.  But, I don’t ban TV viewing completely.

As the old saying goes, any thing can be good, as long as it’s in moderation.

* Update: Aug 2011: Given the plethora of screens that surround us, this criterion has been revised to reflect at most two hours per day of “screen time” that includes TVs, computers, iPads, electronic games, etc.  The only exclusion is the amazing Kindle which encourages reading without causing eye strain.

Rules of Parenting

Can parenting ever be taught as “rules” to be followed?  Is there even a right answer to most questions concerning parenting?

I must confess, my initial response to the title – Rules of Parenting – was one of apprehension.  I was sure that this one had got it wrong: After all each child-and-parent situation is unique, and rules could only do so much to help.  But, I was wrong.

I was left so impressed with the contents that, at any point in time, I now have multiple copies of this book in my house – ready to be gifted away to needy parents.  In part, this is also on account of my frequently encountering parents who have absolutely no idea how to address the critical demands of parenting.

Templar’s simple rules will reveal the small things that you can do to make a big difference; the behaviours, the motivations, the ways of thinking that will help you through both the early and later years of parenting. None of them guarantee success, but they all increase your chances of bringing up happy, healthy children. And they will all show you how to remain sane, keep your sense of humour and be a great parent; after all, it’s an important job to get right.

The “rules” are neatly classified into a variety of helpful categories like Everyday Rules, Crisis Rules, Grownup Rules, etc.  In the author’s own words: “Rules of Parenting are the set of golden behaviours that help you to help your kids look after themselves, enjoy life, be caring and kind, and help you to enjoy the whole experience too.”

As Michael Levine noted, “Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”  In our own case, even though the wife and I are quite well-read on most aspects concerning our children, there were a number of very helpful pointers in the book, that we could both benefit from.

Don’t miss this one.  It’s definitely worth a read…

Why do kids lie?

The New York Magazine featured an interesting story, this February, on a handful of intrepid scholars attempting to understand why kids lie. The essay questioned many of our popularly-held beliefs, offering rich insights into the behaviour of kids, and into the motivations behind their “white lies”:

Although we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, it turns out that lying is the more advanced skill… lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require. “It’s a developmental milestone.”

One common belief is that stories with a moral, especially ones with a disincentive at the end, work wonders in teaching children the lessons of how to behave. However, the research showed that positive motivation worked far better than negative motivation, in driving desirable behaviour:

… One story read aloud is The Boy Who Cried Wolf—the version in which both the boy and the sheep get eaten because of his repeated lies. Alternatively, they read George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which young George confesses to his father that he chopped down the prized tree with his new hatchet. The story ends with his father’s reply: “George, I’m glad that you cut down the tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth instead of a lie is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.”

Now, which story do you think reduced lying more? When we surveyed 1,300 people, 75 percent thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf would work better. However, this famous fable actually did not cut down lying at all… In fact, after hearing the story, kids lied even a little more than normal. Meanwhile, hearing George Washington and the Cherry Tree reduced lying a sizable 43 percent in kids…

Is there any thing we can do as parents to influence the outcome? Fortunately, the answer is yes!  If you have a child of any age, don’t delay reading this story.

Parent Hacks

Over the years, I’ve picked up quite a few tricks from ParentHacks.  The post that got me absolutely hooked was the one on the benefits of the humble “kitchen timer“!

After I read that post, I promptly ordered us a kitchen timer, and started using it actively for my preschooler.  Since then, I’ve come to observe how poor a little child’s sense of “time” really is, and how that can be a major cause of stress among parents and their children.

A simple and elegant solution is the ringing of the timer’s alarm, that helps young ones understand just when their “ten minutes” or “half an hour” is really up!  Now, I use the timer for a hundred different reasons, from buying myself a few minutes to complete a phone conversation, to limiting my child’s screen time.

If you’d like to give ParentHacks a spin, I suggest you look no further than the excellent summary by ZenHabits on Top 20 Parent Hacks: Tips for Organization, Kid Optimization and Happiness:

Parenting is equal parts skill and art. The skills can be learned well enough. But the art…now there’s the tricky part. We all have to find our own way with our children, and there are times when only another parent’s “I’ve been there” advice can point us in the right direction.

At Parent Hacks, we swap parenting tips we’ve stumbled on through experience (and sometimes dumb luck), often with a twist of the unconventional or the surprising solution. Parent Hacks is collecting all those hard-earned nuggets of wisdom in the hopes of building the ultimate “back fence” where parents can get real-world advice on the stuff that rarely makes it into the books and mags.

More often than not, the best solution is the simplest one, isn’t it?