Saturday, November 7, 2009

Protecting our children

I grew up in suburbia in Johannesburg in the 1960s and '70s. Apartheid was at its height. White people were safe and black people were not. And black people didn't come to bother us much in the suburbs, because they had to live "elsewhere".

In this idyllic white world in which we lived, I can remember having freedom of the streets. At first, I was expected to walk to Nursery school and back home - on my own. It was four or five fairly decent sized blocks away. That would have made me 6years old, or so.

My mother didn't trust me entirely at that age, and I found her once, hiding, dressed in green, in a hedge opposite the road. It was most embarrassing - but her motives were pure. She wanted to see for herself that I looked left, looked right, looked left again before crossing the road. And when she was satisfied that I was doing that, I walked there and back on a daily basis, on my own.

As friends in the neighbourhood, we played on the streets, on our bikes. We had wars withe rival groups. We walked to primary school - most of the time alone. Later, I rode to primary school on a bicycle.

I remember this now, because my children are virtually incompetent on the roads. And. I have to say that we have made them to be like that through ensuring that there is an adult with them, every second of their day. They are taken to school, they are delivered home after school and the rest of the time, they are never left to their own devices.

I am not so certain that this is a good thing. Perhaps it may be a necessary thing in a world of child predators and human traffickers, but is it actually a good thing in the development of the child? The fact is, they are growing up in a world where they almost never have to take control of their own lives. They depend on adults all the time. And they simply expect that an adult will be there to deal with whatever potentially dangerous situation in which they may find themselves.

Of course, there is the other extreme. In setting up Public Viewing Areas for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, throughout the Western Cape Province, one of the things we have found (I have to say to my astonishment) is that parents simply come and dump children at the site, and then disappear, leaving the children there for the entire day, unaccompanied by any semblance of an adult. The risks of this are, of course, enormous, but it does not seem that the parents are in any way concerned. What is true, however, is that those children learn street savvy, fairly early on. Probably too early and probably far too much in too many areas. To compare them with my children would be chalk versus cheese. But, in my opinion, both are disadvantaged.

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