Why is Jamaica such a hostile place for children?

November 8, 2007

Our children are collateral damage and we have only ourselves to blame.  This is what I concluded when I read the article about the recent Gleaner Editors’ Forum.  That article provoked some thoughts that I want to share.

I have asked this question for many, many years, and rarely am I taken seriously.  What you mean?  That’s usually the response.  Ah whey yuh hear dat? Nutt’n nuh go so.  The problem is, we as adults rarely stop to take children seriously as human beings, or the conditions that we create to deal with our own dilemmas, and how they shape the ideas and worldviews of our children.  Instead, children are treated as something that we “own” to discard, manipulate, drag along, brainwash at will.  Children are not treated as assets in our lives, a way to make us even more human, and to once and for all, be accountable to ourselves and the people around us.   Instead, they are put on display, often left for long periods of time gathering layers of dust, taken out and paraded on those occasions where we feel that we must bring them along, and then shoved back in the yard, in front of the TV until we call for them or order them to do something for us.  They must be grateful to us, we didn’t have to have them or care about them.  This is what we say to them and to ourselves.  

Children are asked to parrot what we say, not think for themselves.  We don’t want to hear what they have to say, because as far as we are concerned, nothing they say has import or signficance in the small or big scheme of things.  In our minds, idle chatter is all they can give.  Nonsense is what comes out of their mouths.  Nutt’n nuh go so – how many times have we – you – said that to a child, in the most disdainful, ridiculing tones, looking at them like they grew two heads and had a bowel movement in the same moment?  How many times have we laughed at them, not with them?  How often do we work to create safe spaces for children everywhere?  Can we say that there are any safe spaces for children in Jamaica?  Are our homes safe for the children we harbour or other children who are seeking refuge? We sexually assault them in church, deny them information and assistance, beat and degrade them at school, mistrust them, and offer as little stimulation as possible, and don’t think twice about what we give, say, or tell them, as long as it is convenient for us.

I remember a song that I used to sing off-key when I was much young; it made me feel good then, hopeful even, that its words were or could make my life a little bit easier:

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter
Remind us of how we used to be.

Now, I am very bad at lyrics; most times I hear things that were never uttered.  But I don’t think I am too far off on this one.

Now I think, what a piece of propaganda! “Children are our future” – a pathetic truism if you ask me.  Well, of course children are our future.  If they manage to survive the trauma that we lavish on them, they will turn into the callous, selfish, self-destructive, money-hungry, rootless souls we have worked so hard to produce. 

So when I read this article I asked myself: what was the point of this forum? How does it help us to realize the promise of our children?  Was it to have children air their sense of despair? Ok, I can live with that, even if I know that those same sentiments are echoed all over the place, including in the newspapers, and we haven’t been listening all this time; so, what’s going to be different this time.

For the editors to gain better insight into the issues that face children living in war-torn communities?  Well, we already claim to know what these are, given that many donor dollars and political stump speeches have been based on this topic.

And then I realized something that’s been niggling at me for a while: it is only children who live in disenfranchised communities whose suffering is regularly made into fodder for the rest of us to consume. Such despair is used by these reporters, who take yet another opportunity to promote reactionary thinking and to stoke elitism, and who cannot even respect the feelings and experiences of these children enough to write a decent story.  And by decent, I mean doing more than writing what was said and done.  They provide no analysis, no insight, don’t ask any questions to get beyond what we think we already know, no articulation of the kind of social policy that might address the issues, don’t offer any evaluation of the armchair psychology and the religious dogma that is being offered as a salve or solution, and don’t even know how to talk about these issues.   For example, the term “marginalized” is used as a descriptor and not a status, or an analysis of power relations;  but, communities aren’t simply “marginalized” just so; that status is an outcome and reflection of social policy and political will in the society.  If our children are suffering, its because of something we have done or not done.  It’s because we didn’t and haven’t responded to the needs of their families and communities. It is because we have and continue to endorse policies, explanations, behaviors and practices that actively marginalize people in impoverished communities in Kingston and elsewhere.   The children who live in these communities are merely expressing the effects of a condition that we have visited on them.  No mystery there.

If our policies are not sufficient to have contained the gang-related violence, corruption and the further entrenchment of poverty that is produced as a result of these (poverty creates the conditions for and is nurtured by these elements ie. disinvestment, poor mental health, etc.), then there are many someones to be held accountable.

And let me just say that it’s not just the gangsters, dead fathers, or absentee parents who have created this situation.   For us to have consistently ignored the ways in which children are devalued in EVERY social space, terrorized by adults, and their futures handicapped by our collective refusal to recognize their humanity,  is itself a form of violence.   None of what these children are talking about happened overnight. We have been silent bystanders for many years.

Children look to parents and childcare providers to protect them and interpret the world for them.  It is not just their fathers and friends who are killed; their mothers are too, but there is nary a mention in this article. The reality these children are describing is one where nobody can protect them, or has enough courage to do what it takes to protect them.

But, we have been so busy pushing the bullshit theories (“the family is the building block”),  explanations (“they need fathers”) and ideas (“a family is composed of one man and one woman plus their biological offspring”) that we have never bothered to validate and make sure that all family forms and households are able to thrive, not just the ones we have given the stamp of approval.  In fact, we dutifully work against this. It is not a mystery — when women are poor and left alone, the children will suffer. But, the answer is not simply to find a man to step into that household.  The answer is to promote values, create institutions and develop adequate resources that make it clear that we as a society value families and celebrate our children, so that no woman – no matter how old – is parenting a child by herself, but by the grace of God.  Any parent, including myself, will tell you that more than one set of hands and eyes is essential for raising children, and not going insane and strangling them (I’m not kidding; children can take you to some places that you don’t want to go).  That’s why you need to have a second pair of hands; so nobody go to wukhouse or asylum before dem time.  

There is also no evidence to suggest that that other person has to be a man.   Because the majority of studies show that two parents are better than one, and because the majority of family forms with two parents are heterosexual units, we have come to the ridiculous conclusion that its the type of person in the household that matters, not simply that there is another adult.   This is how our narrowmindedness can literally kill our kids.

We KNOW what the problem is; if we bothered to look, we would be able to find and cobble together SOLUTIONS that address the various levels of distress being visited on this society.  But no.  We would rather proselytize, tief people money, call fi all gunman fi dead, blame women, and ask that men who don’t have the first clue about what it means to be a parent to step into families and assume the role of “father”.

The other day I was sitting in the Tastee on Princess Street (or was it Orange Street? can’t remember, it was near Parade), eating and watching the people traffic.   To my right, I noticed a little girl half-sitting half-laying on one of those uncomfortable seats.  

Occasionally, I glanced over at her and smiled. 

Occasionally, that glance was interrupted by some grumbling person who was complaining about the child laying there.   You can guess the nature of the grumbling so I don’t need to spell it out.  I moved closer to her and said hello, and asked her if she was there by herself.  She said no, and pointed to the window; her mother was sitting on the piazza on the other side of it, selling her goods.  I asked her why she wasn’t in school that day.  She said she was sick.  So of course I ask her what was wrong with her.  She said the doctor told her that she had meningitis. I looked at her, and blinked a couple times, as I tried to stop myself from blurting out — you should be in the hospital or at home. Her father was at work. He didn’t or couldn’t take time off to take care of his sick child. 

But the sad reality was that neither of these options was available to that woman, and the best she could do was spread a cardboard bed along the wall of Tastee where her child could lay down.  Or, for a change of setting, lay on one of Tastee’s behind-numbing seats. 

Amid the curious and sometimes condemning glances from other customers, I talked to her and read to her from a book I had with me, while she spent as much time listening and responding as staring at me as if I had two heads.  I gave her some money to buy some food and to give her mother to get her medications.

And I felt like shit as I got up and walked out of Tastee to go back to work.  This is not the world that I want to live in.  This is not what I want for anybody’s child, including my own.  How could our so-called child advocates and policymakers not see the pain we are causing these generations?  How could we become so comfortable and complicit?  What will it take for each of us to act in our own collective interests and stop the madness?  Do you know?  In the meantime, what are you doing to create safe spaces for our children?

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