[OPINION] Your child is my child is not just a hashtag

I was privileged enough to grow up on the Cape Flats where the phrase ‘your child is my child’ was not just a hashtag used after the brutal and senseless killing of a toddler, tween or teenager. My three sisters and I grew up in our Athlone home with few but non-negotiable rules. Along with both our parents we were raised among their siblings, our cousins, uncles, aunts and family friends. This was our norm. This was our privilege.

Many, many children still grow up like that. I know this because I see them. I watch how they respect adults. I do some work on the Cape Flats with youth there. They call me aunty. It sounds foreign in 2017 but it feels right and respectful and like we understand the rules. For 18 years I have lived in the leafy suburbs, behind high boundary walls with little white spikes to keep out robbers. We all know if robbers want to burgle your house, wild horses, snakes, dogs, security guards, ADT, laser beams or high walls don’t hold them back.

Sadly for us, but conveniently for many neighbours, the high walls also keep out courtesy and neighbourliness. It is a tricky situation. When we do occasionally meet up with our neighbours as we all reverse out of our driveways to get on with our day, or to close it, the salutations are cordial or non-existent. This is what my children see.

What I saw was my dad and Mr Dodgen talking over the waist-high fence for a good couple of minutes before he came indoors. We had the first television in our road so it was not unusual for neighbours we didn’t know that well to pop over and ask permission with a TV guide in their hands to come and view a particular programme. Mrs Van Schoor donned a fake fur coat, some glitzy chandelier type earrings, blue eye shadow and a sprayed poofy hairdo to sit in our lounge, on dining room chairs, her feet touching like a queen (no crossing legs!) to watch the Formula 1 racing on a Sunday night. It was normal and nice!

Growing up, we played in the road with all the neighbourhood children. There were spoilt ones, bullies, cry babies, spoil sports, “lurties” as two of us were referred to for our less-than-capable capacity for running, jumping and our lack of coordination with skipping ropes and high jumps made of pantyhose. Those were the best years of my childhood. We all belonged to families of different social and economic circumstance. Some had a bathroom and shower, some had a pool, some had no food, some had absent parents, some were blended, some had alcoholic parents, some did well at school, others bunked, and we knew them all. We shared openly and supported each other. Our parents helped each other out materially, with some sobering ultimatums and generally we all knew and played by the rules. If you got too “big for your boots” your peers or an adult would be there to reprimand, or fix you.

Where we live now, our first contact with our neighbour was when their au pair realised our kids were at the same school and we started sharing lifts. I met the parents much later when the au pair went off on leave. I had by then been driving their child for a few terms. They had no idea who we were, so the frighteningly stranger danger was not an issue. Is this not a common mistake we make? We make assumptions about people. Well, if they live next door, drive a nice car and their child is our child’s age, they must be ok? As a disclaimer, your children are protected and safe with us as long as you know the same rules that apply to our children we will apply to your children. Most of our four children’s friends have grown up at our kitchen table and have had their feet put on our tables and couches. They have been coming back for more than a decade so I think they are ok with the few non-negotiable rules.

These days I do appreciate the number of parents who call before their children come over for a play date and a sleepover to ask a few questions about who will be supervising, what the kids will be doing and so forth. I feel inherently sad that it has become necessary.

I regularly cross the bridge between my childhood and contemporary childhoods and I am clear it is time we went back to basics. Adults have to guide children, set the boundaries, lead by example and raise adults, not big spoilt children. Children need to be free to express themselves within a context, with conditions and with respect. There have to be consequences when trust is broken but until then, we must trust them. They know what we have taught them and we must teach them, they don’t know any better as young children. That is why so many follow bad examples as they can’t distinguish the norm from the dysfunction. We need to take adulting and parenting a lot more seriously and make it a fun responsibility we chose.

We must do this the same way we take on a sports car, a bond, a hobby, a marriage, but with more determination and checklists. There are no unplanned babies, only unplanned pregnancies, either way the baby had no choice. As adults we get to choose. We can choose to parent our children for a world in which they are not special, but a home where they are. We can let them feel loved, protected and understood. We were all children, adolescents, teenagers and young adults once, how was it? What did we learn that we can teach? What did we need that we can give? Who were our role models? What were our values and do they still work or are our lives unworkable because we made bad choices? Did we honour our parents, even if they were awful parents? They were the only parents we had. Did we have cheerleaders, grandparents, friends, classmates, teachers or other children? Did we cheer other people and support them? Whether we did or did not, there are lessons we can teach children. Are we able to see the truth for the untruth, are we able to listen to both sides of a story without judgement? Do we revert to crowd judging, blaming and taking sides of the popular, not of the right?

There is much we as adults can do to influence society, to help raise children at risk to their best potential. To help them to see what is possible, that they are possible. We can also dispatch clever parental advice on Facebook, in the media, among our friends about how other people, other families should be developing their children, our future generation. If we talk it, we must walk it. How else will we know if it works? I too was a perfect parent before I actually had any children. Every day my question to myself is what can I do where I am with what I have, and there is a myriad of things. Obviously, I am not a perfect parent, but I am giving my one hundred percent most days.

Too many children are unprotected, vulnerable, leaderless, shameful, holding secrets, carrying scars, physical and emotional, and many are at risk. There are likely generations in a family who grew up in spite of their circumstances and now have to survive without the possibility of thriving because they do not know they are possible.

Every few days in our country there are more and more statistics of young children and girls being raped and murdered. I think sorrowfully of Sinoxolo and Franziska. The only difference each of us can make is putting our words into action and looking around at the need. There may be someone who works at your home who has a daughter keen to finish matric, keen to find a job, keen to move upcountry to an aunt or granny where it is calmer. There may be among our peers who are abusing their kids. Children do not have to come through us to come to us. They are everywhere, we have to open our hearts and our hands to receive them. Not everybody needs material help, some need a safe space.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn