Damaging our children
Abuse isn’t the only way to harm a child – neglect can be as destructive.
In Cape Town, the parents of an 8-year-old girl who was found drunk far away from home, were arrested a few months ago. A toddler aged 18 months drowned in a 20-litre bucket of water while playing unattended outside her home. In St Francis Bay, we hear of a boy of 8 being murdered in the township, apparently by two friends, aged 12 and 14. We've heard serious high-level debate about whether to allow maternity leave for pregnant school-girls. And we read of girls of 11 and 12 who are pregnant.

Neglect just as harmful

Media and society tend to rally around in defence of children when cases of abuse emerge. Without minimising the awfulness of physical and sexual abuse, we must not ignore the damage done by parental and family neglect.

Children can be damaged by being overlooked by parents and adults who pay no attention to what they‘re doing. Or who only pay attention to the child when it gets into trouble. In such situations, children learn no positive community and personal values, and indeed may only feel important when they create a crisis.

Deprivation of a childhood

They are being deprived of a childhood. This is an important time for our social and mental health. It isn't just a blank period of marking time, waiting to grow up. It’s a factory, not a waiting room. There are vitally important skills and attitudes to develop and practice, as well as the duty to have wholesome fun.

Increasingly, we see adults, who are very busy being childish late into their 30s or beyond, in part because they didn't play and enjoy the irresponsibilities of childhood when they were actually children.

When a child has children

What are the effects when a child has children? The physical risks of the pregnancy, to the child-mother, and to her infant, are substantially greater than usual (though they can be minimised if she gets good medical care). Any woman who has had a baby knows the extent of the physiological and psychological stresses she needs to withstand. In such a very young mother, the complex physical adjustments of pregnancy and childbirth occur while a girl’s own body is still adjusting to puberty.

What are the chances that a child who has herself not experienced good parenting and caring, will be able to care for and be a good parent to her own child? Psychologically, she is still developing and far from mature enough to handle the experience comfortably or beneficially.

There has been encouraging news from the US where a good educational programme and the provision of condoms has caused a decline in sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage pregnancies. This hasn’t happened in South Africa. Even when schools or other programmes provide accurate information, there needs to be a strong social structure encouraging kids to delay the start of their sexual activities. Knowledge itself doesn’t prevent teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. As younger and younger children become sexually active, they are often not yet intellectually able to recognise and retain the recognition that enjoyable activities today will have undesirable future consequences.

Recent surveys suggest that some two-thirds of sexually experienced teenagers wish they had waited longer before having intercourse, while it is also clear that unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are more common among those who start sexuality early.

In the end, one of a parent’s most important jobs is to stop their child from coming to harm (as far as they can). Being an involved parent is no guarantee that your child will not have a head-on collision with the grim realities of life, but at least the child will be better equipped to deal with crises – and have a soft place to fall.

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