A good friend of mine once shared with me his personal story of how he got divorced with meat and chicken related foods. He was too little a boy to recall, but his mother told him what had happened. It was on a sunny January day, he says, that his uncle, then a teenager who would herd goats, came back home for lunch.
As a matter of coincidence, he saw that a goat had been slaughtered and there was meat right in front of him. He asked the innocent little boy, who happened to be right there right then, what the meat was. The toddler replied it was meat from a goat they had slaughtered. Wrong, his uncle told him, it was rather their dog which had been slaughtered.
My friend then after was so paralysed by the incident that he believed all meat came from dogs. He forgot why he even hated non-vegetarian food to begin with. His receptive mind thus refused to let go of what this bad joke signified. Not only does a child learn something new but it is also natural that he will study patterns and form archetypes to classify different occurrences.
The modern man would say this would make him better off, as vegetarians are believed to be healthier. Unfortunately, born into a poor household in a remote rural Ethiopia, this poor boy had to depend on monotonous, straw-like, cheap and nutrition-free food for the most important – mainly in terms of his physiological but also mental growth – part of his age.
Another similar incident took place last week. I was sitting in a nice café. Two men and a small girl, who looked approximately 10 years old, came and sat near where I was. She was cute and active. The two men looked between their late 40s and early 50s, and from their conversation, which I involuntarily listened to, it was possible to tell that one of them was her father. Among the many things they spoke of with each other and to the young girl, one thing pierced my ears and forced me to give them a contemptuous and scornful gaze.
While they both laughed, one of them told her to devour the burger they bought her so that she could be bigger. They proceeded to talk about inappropriate matters, which to the unsophisticated may seem innocuous but were obviously detrimental to a child’s psychology.
My empathy to the little girl remains in my heart while I will now attempt to highlight my concern about how people should not raise children.
What is common in the two stories is that some unsuitable comment, irrespective of the intention, ends up spoiling an innocent child’s mind. What makes it more shocking is that it is inflicted, most certainly unwittingly, by the very people who are caretakers of the victims.
To not instil a sense of empowerment and inquisitiveness in a child’s mind so that he or she grows with an open mind towards everything, with love of science and a healthy self-esteem, is one thing parents should be concerned with. If they cannot do that, they should refrain from making things worse.
To someone who lives in a country where kids endure endless suffering, and there are fewer to no institutions which serve as insurance against the misfortunes adolescents may encounter, the stories mentioned above may sound superficial and harmless.
The psychological underpinnings and the institutional failures are, however, similar in the continuum of such seemingly harmless incidences and those excruciating forms of child abuse.
These are instances of a broken underlying value system towards children. Although there is an instinct to associate this with the parents’ lack of education, the second story leaves me sceptical as it occurred in one of the big cities in Ethiopia. The men in the story were even throwing big English vocabularies in their conversation.
The role of parents in child growth is beyond description. They are the world the child meets first, and it is through this small world that a newly born baby tries to perceive a little bit about the vast universe into which it finds itself thrown.
As kids are born with clean slates, what is written on them by their caretakers is likely to remain there for the rest of their lives. Once parents recognize that, they may start to pay more attention to what and how their child’s delicate brain may be affected.
People in control of public resources and who are also parents are kindly reminded to have this value in their daily principles while those who are not parents can still find enough reason to stand for the rights of the future taxpayers in their care for the future of their country.
Protecting children is safeguarding the future of the country, and so is investing in them. The most optimal investment that could be made to earn the highest and most sustained payoff is to invest in children and youth. And by investment here, I refer to the effort parents put in trying to distinguish between words, actions and behavioural manifestations which make their children’s future and those which break it.
Investing in fancy clothes, best toys, most delicious ice cream and extravagantly expensive excursions may be the last things I would recommend given that what matters in the future of kids is not what parents put in their bellies or bodies but what they inculcate in their mind.
The school system, the social protection bestowed to children and the responsibility that each parent should bear are entry points where we could make improvements to enhance the livelihoods and prospects of kids. Another kind reminder is that no sooner has parenting become easier than it became more worrying in the age of smartphones and the worldwide web. These days, parents can and do outsource most of the effort to entertain and teach children through gadgets. But the whole society risks raising dull people whose account shows zero or negative balance on the social capital entry.
This is a peculiar parenting challenge which comes in the form of a ‘winner’s curse’ to the haves. The challenges of raising healthy – in both body and spirit – children among the have-nots is more to do with capacity besides the overall ill-informed and biased value system. A rule in societies dominated by citizens that are not well read.
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