“A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” goes a popular African proverb that imparts valuable wisdom to us on the dangers of diminishing the existence of a child.
We are seeing the effects of this in The Bahamas every day as youngsters and teens longing for recognition and acceptance engage in destructive behaviors and adults who struggle with low self esteem and inferiority complexes born out of childhood repression bring grief to those with whom they interact, manage and govern.
When parliamentarians this week joined the world in observing International Children’s Day, Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell remarked while drawing contrast to changing times that in his day, children were to be seen and not heard.
Little has changed in the way many in our society view children, due in large part to insufficient avenues and social acceptance for learning new ways of parenting and of appreciating the value of a child’s unique personality traits.
In Bahamian culture, some of what children hear most apart from “no” includes “be quiet”; “sit down”; “shut up”; “nobody asked you anything” or “don’t ask me any questions”, with almost any expression by a child running the risk of being branded as rudeness worthy of painful consequences.
As such, we train our children that their voice, opinion and presence are an inconvenience, something worthy of punishment and not as worthy as that of an adult.
What this does is create generations of Bahamian adults who have little confidence in their ability to think and so they choose not to be thinkers, and since they have been taught that their voice is a bad thing, they either keep passively silent when they should speak out or they use their voice to silence others in the same ways they were silenced.
When we do not give our children safe spaces to develop and voice their opinions, we disempower them and teach them to become followers instead of self-driven individuals – which plays out in a child’s likelihood to bow to negative peer pressure as opposed to having the confidence to stand firm against the crowd.
Not giving our children the freedom to state their wants, dislikes and desires teaches them that their needs and feelings do not matter, and is one of the reasons they grow into adults who are reluctant to ask for what they want or to walk away when in circumstances or relationships that are abusive or repressive.
Allowing children room to safely express their emotions, particularly as young toddlers who do not have the developmental capacity to be as controlled as most parents wish, helps them to learn how to regulate their emotions as they get older.
The downside to refusing to do this shows up in our schools, where children can be difficult to manage because they have not been taught how to understand their emotions and express them in appropriate ways, and have instead been forced to bottle emotions in silence while in their parents’ presence.
Condemning children for asking questions not only stifles their creativity and limits their capacity for intellectual growth, but it can have the effect of discouraging children from asking for help when they need it.
It is likely a prevailing reason that when they find themselves in frightening or confusing situations, they suffer in silence or make dangerous choices that could have been averted had they not been afraid to ask, “Why?”
Children in The Bahamas need not only to be seen, but heard.
Failing this, we will continue to see children and the adults they grow into fail, falter and fall victim to abuse and exploitation because we would not take the time to hear the thoughts in their head and the feelings and cries of their heart.