FOR some time now, I’ve been searching for a mantra of sorts around which we might coalesce as a people, and which might help us to take the development of our country far more seriously than we have in the past. I’m hoping that “PUTTING OUR CHILDREN FIRST” can be that mantra. You will immediately recognize that it’s a play on the Government’s mantra of “Putting People First.” However, given the abundant evidence before us, I feel that a focus on our children is desperately needed.
“If we bungle raising our children, whatever else we do well, will not matter very much,” wrote Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And this is true, not just for the family but the country as well. Across our society, there is a vast and imposing body of evidence that proves that we ARE bungling the raising of our children. We are guilty of the charge of gross dereliction of our duties and responsibilities whether in our roles as parents, family, citizens, or decision-makers.
In embracing a Putting Children First mantra, I’m working off the assumption that the innate desire of all Saint Lucian parents is to bequeath a better life to their children. At least, that’s the way it should be. From the moment our children are born, oftentimes well before, we are preoccupied with building a secure future for them. We try to ensure that at least their basic needs are met. We aim to give them the best education and to that end, we open bank accounts in their name to finance their education. We defer the satisfaction of our needs so theirs can be met. We worry when they fall ill and promptly take them to the nearest health facility. And we wish that our approach to parenting will be exemplary enough to inspire them to do for their children and grandchildren what we did for them. Of course, for various reasons, that script does not always hold true. Indeed, it is being shredded before our very eyes, and this is why we are afflicted with such wide-ranging and widespread social ills in our beloved country.
Importance of Good Parenting
The importance of good parenting cannot be overstated. The best citizen is the best parent, and vice versa. How often have we proclaimed that the character of the child starts in the family and that every family member has a responsibility to make the home a wholesome and harmonious place? To what extent have we embraced this proclamation?
I accept that parents are unequally endowed with the resources needed to raise their children. Some do not have the money to send their children to school; some can’t afford to feed their children properly; and some don’t have the counseling skills to help their children to manage emotional crises. Importantly too, parents today do not have the extended family support of their predecessors, especially when family members lived in the same holding or compound. By and large, this is still the case in some rural communities. I know that this feature greatly assisted my parents who were able to draw on an extra set of eyes to watch over us while they were away from home or busy at home. Even when families were separated through rural-to-urban migration, parents in Castries were able to send their children to spend all or part of their school vacation with family members in the countryside; and vice versa.
The Role of the School
I accept too that the current social and economic landscape presents far more challenges for today’s parents than in the past. Many parents do not have the skills to help their children to cope with the negative social influences that assail them. And because of this, the school system is being overburdened with issues that would ordinarily be addressed in a functional family setting. The few counselors we have in our schools are exhausted by the welter of issues presented to them. Saint Lucia is not unique in this regard. A friend who works as a Counselor in the Fairfax County school system in Virginia-which has a bigger budget than Saint Lucia – regularly shares his challenges with my wife and me. Still, I can take no comfort from the fact that we are not alone in this fight.
Should we be teaching the essentials of parenting in our schools? I believe we should because more school children are becoming parents. Should our teenagers be taught to practice responsible sex behaviour? I believe we should because our children need to appreciate at the earliest possible age, the vast scope of responsibilities that come with parenting. Schools have an important part to play in the ecosystem of care that our children need, but I believe it’s unreasonable to expect our schools to assume the roles of the family as the primary source of positive values.
The Value of Positive Parental Example
The chasm of deepest concern to me is the inter-generational decline in the core values that once served as our country’s moral compass. I refer to values such as HONESTY, INTEGRITY, COMPASSION, EMPATHY, RESPONSIBILITY, SELF-SACRIFICE, SELF-DISCIPLINE, SELF-RELIANCE, CURIOSITY and GRATITUDE. These values are best transferred through parental example. My siblings and I were not allowed to bring into our home anything that did not belong to us. The only exception to that rule was books. We were not allowed to accept money from anybody. I confess that I got a good whipping from my mother for violating this rule. It didn’t matter that I’d given her the money that was given to me by a good friend of hers. We observed the self-discipline of our parents who routinely prioritize our needs over theirs. The phrase “I wish I had” was not tolerated in our home. Our parents made do with what they had, and we learned to do the same. Our parents invested in building the family name on a foundation of integrity and trust that we still happily draw upon today. My Dad used to say, “he who steals my possessions steals trash; he who steals my good name steals my all.” We appreciated the value of empathy and compassion from the way our parents cared for family, friends, and strangers. I can’t count the days when I returned from school to find a child that my parents had taken in. We were taught to “give back” to our country and to give willingly to others in need without expectation of reward.
I share these anecdotes, not to claim that this values-laden approach to parenting was unique to my parents. Indeed, that most parents of that generation did their best to raise their children with the same positive values that their parents imparted to them.
Some may question my inclusion of curiosity as a value. In my mind, its weighting is no less than the others. Curiosity is the catalyst for knowledge. My father never abandoned his sense of curiosity. His willingness to read every book, or magazine within reach, rubbed off on all of us. I fondly recall that I once gave him a high-quality, Grundig transistor radio on the morning of his birthday. When I returned home for lunch, I was mortified to find the entrails of the radio spread over his bed, as he tried to figure out its construction. Curiosity is key to helping our children to think for themselves; to challenge “received wisdom” and to never accept things at face value. This will help them to repel the herd instinct that gangs thrive on. We should be encouraging our children at home and at school to ask questions and we must train our teachers to embrace and encourage children who display a sense of inquiry and curiosity.
A Role for Government
There is a significant role for Government in helping parents to raise their children into upstanding citizens. A Government has a vested interest in ensuring that a child is safe in his/her home; receives the best schooling; is assured of full protection under the law; and is provided with as many avenues as possible to achieve his/her full potential. A critical role for our Government is ensuring that no child is left behind and that at least the basic needs of all children are met. When the basic needs model of development was first introduced in the 1960s, it was decried as an anti-capitalist, socialist construct that frowned on economic growth and development. The reality is that the widening of social and income inequality, where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor does a country no good, as it only creates the conditions for social unrest. My notion of a basic needs model of development involves the targeted distribution of the benefits of economic growth to enable the poor to pull themselves out of poverty. In the overall scheme of things, social equity is more than the name of a Ministry. It’s a creed that should be applied by all Ministries when formulating policies and strategies, led by this simple but powerful question: will this policy and/or activity harm or help our at-risk families and children in the short, medium, and long term? At a macro level, a “putting children first” mantra can help inform decisions regarding the financing of development. How can we best ensure that the financing decisions we make today will not compromise the ability of future generations (our children and their children) to finance their own development?
Building the Policy Platform
I charge our Government to commit to putting children first by inter alia, following the lead of the Philippines-with the adoption of a Child and Youth Welfare Code-and Barbados which earlier this year, passed a Child Protection Act to, amongst other things, give effect to the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child and the UN Declaration on Human Rights and to afford the child the necessary protection and assistance so he/she can assume his/her eventual responsibilities within the society. Further, the Act aims to promote the full development of a child’s personality and to ensure that the child grows up in a family environment imbued with happiness, love and understanding.
In the same way that there’s a Ministry for Elderly Affairs, I believe there ought to be a Ministry responsible for Children Affairs.
I feel confident that if we approach our country’s development through the prism of our children’s welfare and future, we will over time, fashion a better Saint Lucia.