[OPINION] We all have a role to play in raising good adults
I know nothing about legal fostering. Many, many courageous people do it. I was invited to mediate in a community a few years ago and upon meeting some concerned parents, I also met some at-risk children.
They are growing up among adults who themselves were not raised but left to their own devices to survive in a world of have-nots. These families are not only living on or below the breadline, they don’t know any other way. A lot of the children have definitely been taught values at home, but in order to survive in a system where their needs are overlooked or ignored, they adapt to being self-serving and many go with the toughest group. Rape, assault, addiction, stealing, taking and seldom giving are the norm for these young minds.
I am in relationships with a number of these children whom I see on a regular basis in their own environment and as and when I can, I expose them to a new possibility. Sometimes this means I collect five or six of them and take them to the movies, a school production at my children’s school or an outing to a local restaurant.
Allowing them to be who they are and who they can be is an experience that can’t really be prescribed but it can be felt. Approaching them with conscious non-judgement and unconditional acceptance over and over, builds trust and friendship. Asking questions instead of always trying to teach them is a skill they have taught me. I have few but firm boundaries. I am not a bank. I do not give money, but where there is a need I will make every effort to assist them. Sometimes this means a pair of school shoes. Sometimes a maths set or a sports shorts or golf shirt.
Mostly we meet and talk, we play games and we do sums. I offer them affirmation and allow myself to be the student. Getting into their world is not easy as often there is a simple solution, which is only simple to me because I have had access to resources, privilege, education and a mostly functional home life.
Enrolling my own children into the possibilities we as a family can offer these children was tricky. They needed to agree to me sharing my attention between them and these young ones who have so much potential yet also, a fairly predictable life of reacting from their spaces of trauma, abuse, under-privilege and unmet expectations. Together, we have all learnt lessons for life. We take nothing for granted and we are not available to be taken advantage of.
I treat all these children as closely as I can the way I would want someone who loved my children to treat them. I don’t patronise them with gifts and once-off luxury items. I instill in them self-respect, confidence that they are enough as they are and as they aren’t and that no matter what life you have, you get to choose how it goes.
I am emotionally connected and committed to them. I have four children of my own, so I am not working to replace a mom or dad, I am offering them access to what is possible in the world in spite of what they have been conditioned to believe. “When young children are abused, they don’t stop loving their parents, they stop loving themselves”.
After building a careful circle of trust I find they open up and show their vulnerability without guarding themselves. This has taken a lot of time but it is measurable and worth it. Some are looking forward to going to school. Some are changing their friendship circles and are no longer just in it to be with the big guns (read bullies) because they are finding words and ways to guard against a repeat of the history some adults around them carry.
This is the most purposeful way I can give back in a country where things are complex, the big picture is sometimes overwhelming and to make a difference we need to start with the goals in front of us. Focusing on making our country work better for more people through working with these children is keeping me confident that we all can make that difference.
There are too many children living in communities where they know too much about bail, ballistic reports, magistrate court hearings, what happens in prisons, how to buck the system and which shops have the best security cameras. This is not the way to develop young leaders. We can’t all be leaders, but we can all be decent human beings, loved, cared for, prompted to the best we can be through the interest and contribution of the people around us.
I actively encourage people I know to be curious about how the other people around us live and how we can contribute to their potential, greatness and success.
Many of us can contribute materially, that is also necessary. More of us can make a significant difference by showing up, learning and teaching for the long run, not just for Christmas or big days. There are children whom we can impact every day in small ways that will leave them with a myriad of new ways to think about themselves and their futures.
It is so easy to turn a blind eye and focus on our own trials and challenges. The barriers between what we know, what we don’t know and what we don’t know we don’t know can be broken just by us taking an interest in the young people around us.
After a sleepover birthday party last year, we found a child still asleep at our home, her single dad had had a late night and forgot to collect her. It came to light that this happens regularly at play dates and other sleepovers. The children we can mentor, coach, love and informally foster are not always and only from poor communities. Sometimes when we take a look they are in our homes, our families, our domestic’s family or the home of a friend.
If we adopt the approach that raising children takes a village, which it truly does, imagine how many hearts we can heal, traumas we can help unravel and disconnect from and how we can personally grow from contributing and being contributed to.
It has been a fascinating process. I have cried, questioned myself, my beliefs, my values and I have smiled as I reaffirm what I know about how to be a role model to children and be part of them growing up whole and purposeful.
My purest wish for 2019 is that as many of us who can will impact the lives of all the young children around us who need someone in their corner. They will benefit and make life choices to suit themselves, not to fit into a fractured and confused society.
Raising good adults is a collective job. We have enough grown-ups behaving like children and we need a regeneration of adults who are responsible, accountable, innovative, creative and self-sufficient.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn