The recent riots in England provide useful lessons for Africa. The state must not take away parental control over children!
Back in May 2009, I wrote in this column about giving children their rights. My stance was that the only “right” children should have is the right to education, love, food, and shelter. I wrote back then: “These days not a day passes that we don’t hear of a child stabbing another in the UK. Being in a gang and carrying weapons such as guns and knives appear to be the norm now for children growing up in the UK. And who is there to discipline them? Certainly not their parents or teachers, as the state has taken over that role.”
In light of the recent riots in England, I find myself once more reflecting on this issue of children’s rights. Like everyone else who watched the scenes unfolding live on television, I was appalled by the behaviour of these children, some as young as 10 years old. But I was not shocked. What happened was bound to happen. It was just a matter of time.
And although there are many factors to consider when trying to account for what happened, for me, the major reason is children’s rights. The day the state decided to give children their rights was the beginning of the end. Thanks to children’s rights, adults can no longer discipline children. The power of the parent, the power of the teacher, the power of the elders in the community, were all taken away by the state. So what we saw in the UK riots was a reflection of a society in which children can do as they please. No adult would dare discipline them for fear of being reported to the authorities as abusers.
Thus I found it rather ironic that as riots the broke out across England and young people decided to loot as many goods as they could, the powers that be actually had the nerve to come on television and demand of parents to “phone your children to come home” (as Sir Paul Stephenson, Britain’s police chief, put it). I mean, as I watched him speak, I wondered if my ears were deceiving me. Was that really the Commissioner of Police asking parents to tell their children what to do? What? Was this not England? The land where children have rights? The land where children can tell their parents to take the high road, but not in such a nice way?
Amazingly, Sir Paul Stephenson was not the only one. Soon politicians and other players in the field joined in. And I had to laugh. Not the kind of laugh that you do when you are happy, but the kind of laugh that asks “Are you for real?” Seriously. Did these people, these policy and decision-makers, really think, after taking away the power of parents, that any child out looting and rioting, would answer their parents’ phonecall and “come back home”? Was it not a little too late to be calling on parents?
And for once I think England should really sit up and learn something solid and positive from Africa. In Africa, children do not have rights over adults. I mean, they are not abused, but the sense of community is still alive, so much so that parents do not take umbrage when their children are disciplined by other adults.
In England it is each man for himself. The welfare state has taken over everything. So by the age of 17 years, a child can decide to leave home and the local council will house him or her. Seventeen! Do you remember when you were seventeen years old? At that age, we think we know it all, but in reality we are still children. And this is something the state seemed to have forgotten.
Right now, England is on a downward spiral. And if some drastic action is not taken, only God knows what will happen. I do not believe this is the end of the disturbances. I believe the youth still have a lot more coming our way. Unless we take drastic action to stop them now. The first thing the authorities need to do is to restore the power of adults. Parents, teachers, and anybody who is older should be recognised by children as someone who has the right to tell them right from wrong. For some parents, the day the state took over was the day they also stopped parenting their children. Realising they could do little to discipline their children, these parents simply stopped being parents. Realising that at 17 years their babies are considered adults by the state, some parents found it easier to throw their difficult children out of their homes than to try and work on them.
For example, after the riots, I read a report in the Daily Mail (14 August) in which one mother, Maite da la Calva, actually said: “We as parents are not responsible for the decisions our children make.” Um, I beg to differ. Parenting is not easy. But from the day we made the decision to keep a pregnancy, we agreed to be responsible for our children – and their decisions. Plain and simple. When does that responsibility end? When we have taught our children to be respectable adults who can contribute positively to society.
The next thing the authorities need to do is to raise the age a child is considered an adult. If it were up to me, everyone under 21 would still be considered a child who has to live at home, under the protection and guardianship of his/her parents. They can work, they can go to school, travel, party, and do whatever; but their parents should be made responsible for them up to the age of 21.
And this responsibility should be backed up with a national curfew. For example, up to the age of 15, children should be at home by 8pm, unless accompanied by an adult, because really, after 8pm, what is a child doing out alone or with other children? Oh yes, England needs harsh measures if things are to be right again. I can’t speak for all of Africa, but at least in the parts I have seen, children are home by a certain time. It is not normal to see a group of children just hanging out together at street corners at night. Hell, we do not even see this in the daytime. Children know their place in society. There is an unspoken rule. And it simply works!
Which brings me to what Africa has to learn from these riots. Unfortunately these days, Africa seems to be catching up with the rest of the world in so many ways. I remember when I first moved to Ghana in 1995, it was still a bit of a taboo for women and girls to expose their bodies. These days, tell the Ghanaian girl or young woman that her underpants are showing under her clothes, and she will tell you: “I am aware”.
Thanks to the privatisation of the airwaves, the Ghanaian youth now have the likes of Nicki Minaj as their role models, and whereas in the past they would not dare leave their homes looking anything but decent, now, many don’t fear walking out looking like prostitutes. It seems African parents are losing some of the hold they had on children. And it frightens me.
Back in the days I was growing up in the UK, when there was trouble involving black boys, it was always “the West Indians”. Continental African youths were never part of any disturbances. There was an “us and them” divide. But now it is shocking the number of African names we hear when there is talk of stabbings and killings. It seems African parents are losing the control and power they had over their children. And looking at the recent events in the UK, I think parents in Africa need to sit up now, before it is too late. As we can see, the powers that be in the UK have realised their mistake. But it is rather late in the day. But at least now they are trying to think out of the box as to how to solve this problem. It is a problem when adults have to walk as if on eggshells around children. It simply does not make sense.
At the end of the day, people live together to form a society. And the powers that be have to put in place policies that benefit the collective, not individuals. Sometimes we have to admire so-called “repressive” governments because some do think about the collective good. Today, China finds England hypocritical because all of a sudden there is talk of monitoring people’s internet and Blackberry usage. China decided a long time ago that it would curtail certain aspects of individual behaviour for the collective good of society. It may seem harsh, but sometimes I believe harsh tones have to be adopted if we are all to live in harmony.
But hey, these are just the reflections of an ordinary African woman.