new internationalist
issue 164 - October 1986

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Useful work or useless toil

Instead of focusing on the rights of children, we should first look after their parents. Anuradha Vittachi reports.

A small girl is seated beside her mother in the jumbo jet. The plane judders, the 'fasten seat belt' light flashes up, and the pilot's voice is heard calming the passengers but advising them to put on their oxygen masks.

Two masks unfurl and fall beside the mother. In the panic of the moment, she hesitates: which should she fasten first - her child's, or her own? Generations of training tell her that a mother always puts others first, and she reaches for her child's mask. But then she hears the steward s voice - 'Put on your own mask first.'

The instruction is part of the standard emergency instructions: parents should ensure their oxygen supply, so they are in a fit state to put on their child's mask properly. A woozy parent, a dying parent, is no help to a frightened child.

It makes good sense, but it contradicts long-established conditioning, which says that a 'good' mother's first duty is to be responsible for her children - and 'being responsible' means being 'unselfish'.

The instruction in the aeroplane challenges this. It suggests instead that being responsible means being 'response-able': able to respond. A mother in a position of strength is better able to respond to her daughter's needs.

And children do need better protection. A quarter of the deaths in the world today will be of children, not yet five years old. Two thirds of them will still be infants.

Virtually all of these dying children - 97 per cent - will have lived their brief lives in the poor world.1

An emotionally undernourished parent finds it hard to respond to his children.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

The UN's Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts that children should have the right to food, medical care, education, time to play, freedom from exploitation - the opportunity to grow up into a physically and emotionally healthy human being. These are the ideals. For most children, the reality is that even the first, unwritten right to stay alive - is no more than a possibility. And for many who do survive, life is a long way from the cheerful ideal of childhood visualised by the composers of the UN Declaration.

Despite the theoretical right to be free of exploitation, and to have time to study and to play, a UN report puts the number of working children at 145 million - and that's just the 10 - 14 year-olds.2 The Anti-Slavery Society estimates that India alone employs 44 million children.

And although international law prohibits child soldiers under 15, the Minority Rights Group reports that their use is widespread - in Ulster and Beirut, for example. Defence for Children International goes further it claims that the Iranian government officially recruits children on a large scale, openly enlisting at the schools.3

Just as hair-raising are the facts now seeping out about the international trafficking of children. According to a UN Economic and Social Council document, 'Hundreds of thousands of children are disappearing without trace. The networks of child traffickers still have enormous amounts of money at their disposal (in one country alone, child trafficking is worth approximately $7,000 million per annum) and this renders them immune from investigation and prosecution ... Large scale criminal organisations ... all too often enjoy the tolerance of the authorities.'4 These children end up in baby cribs of childless couples, on the streets as thieves, or in brothels as child prostitutes. They have been ripped from their family roots, often dumped in a foreign country and given new names. Any sense of security, or even identity, is stripped away.

So bizarre and unpalatable are these realities that they are hard to take in - especially when it is obvious that the majority of these children could not end up in such horrific circumstances without the knowledge and consent of their parents. How could a parent choose - or be driven - to treat their child like this?

The circumstances of the parents are inextricably tangled with the circumstances of their children. So it is tempting, when faced with the evidence of irresponsible parenting, to suggest severing the links. But who is to look after these children if they are taken from their family? No-one would suggest that institutionalising children is an answer. As it is, hundreds of thousands of children wander city streets - children who have been abandoned or have run away from unbearable family crises - and society has not found a way to protect them. Instead, these children drift into increasingly dangerous waters, unprotected by family or by society at large. In Canada, as in Kenya, they hire themselves out as child labourers or prostitutes to survive.

Parents are society's chief child-care resource. But they often remain so disempowered or damaged that they cannot take proper responsibility.

It is mothers on whom the burden chiefly falls. But mothers are poor. They rarely have property rights - even when a woman tills the land, its ownership remains in male hands. And if women in general are lower-paid than men, mothers (who must also squeeze in child care) are especially low-paid. The assumption is that they are financially protected by husbands. But more and more households are necessarily used for the family's welfare.

Overwhelmingly, it is mothers who provide the food that children eat. And when it becomes hard for them to find food, children go hungry. If we want children to be well fed, we have to help women become financially Independent.

In a less obvious way, too, the disempowerment of a woman results in undernourished children. The process begins even before the child is born. When food is scarce, a mother habitually feeds herself least. But a pregnant mother's body is also a foodstore for her baby: and a hungry mother can mean a hungry foetus. Ten million mothers every year produce tiny, undernourished babies - because they sacrificed themselves for the good of the family.5

An underweight baby's chances of survival are greatly reduced. Dr G J Ebrahim, of London's Tropical Child Health Unit, estimates that a low birth-weight baby is eight to ten times more likely to die than a healthy-sized baby. And even if the underweight baby survives, her susceptibility to physical and mental disability is four to six times greater.6

What can be done to protect a baby from such unnecessary handicaps? Compensating after the baby's birth is a difficult and expensive affair. But prevention, by paying attention to the mother's needs, is cheap. A study of Guatemalan mothers showed that just nine cents' worth of locally grown foodstuffs a day provided them with the extra nutrients they needed during pregnancy.7

Alone and vuinerable on the street. A Peruvian child, separated from her parents in a busy marketplace, falls into an exhausted sleep.
Photo: Peter Stalker

And after the baby is born, the next crucial step in protecting the baby's survival also depends on looking after the mother. Still in Guatemala, health researchers in the village of Santa Maria Cauque found themselves in an environment that seemed lethal to newborn babies: there was rampant infection, overcrowding, no immunisation, little sanitation. And yet, they noted, not a single baby died - as long as the baby was of full birthweight and had been breast-fed.8

But breastmilk is not free: a lactating mother needs an extra 500 calories a day if she is to have the necessary energy stores. The trouble with persuading a mother to eat more, both during pregnancy and during breast-feeding, is that she has to make a large psychological shift she has to shed her deeply-ingrained shame at the idea of looking after herself instead of always looking after others. The identification of motherhood with self-sacrifice stands in her way.

It is, of course, one of the functions of a parent to show children models of unselfish attitudes and behaviour. The trouble is that mothers have been left to carry the weight of this ideal alone; their willingness to give has been exploited - betrayed by the rest of the community.

Men especially, while enjoying their status as head of family or state, note with relief that women take family responsibilities so seriously - and turn away to pursue their own ambitions. Women are then trapped by their love and sense of duty as sole childminders - they must turn for help to other women, whether neighbours or servants, aunts or au-pairs.

If a mother's resources run dry and the child suffers, the state is quick to blame her, rather than to blame itself. When turn-of-the-century Britain woke up to caring about infants, for instance, a new law made mothers prosecutable if a child left unattended came to harm. But mothers frequently had to forage for firewood or bring in washing to make ends meet. The State had made the law for the child without considering the parent and therefore failed to provide the mother with more income or childcare alternatives.

So the busy mothers would leave their older daughters in charge - but the State, now concerned with girls' welfare, again without looking at the consequences for parents, made schooling compulsory. A contemporary observer noted the stream of thin, exhausted mothers hauled up before the School Board by sanctimonious education officers, shocked that mothers could be so unmotherly as to deprive their own daughters of the opportunity provided by a beneficent state.

It is clear from these examples that the state needs to work in partnership with mothers, protecting their rights and their well-being, if children are to be protected. And it is surely no coincidence that the new awareness of children's rights came into being in the wake of the women's movement. As society began to accept women as Individual beings, not just appendages to men, so children began to be perceived in something of the same light.

In radical Western circles, questions about children's autonomy are being posed directly should children have the right to vote? Should they have a guaranteed minimum wage - so they are no longer controlled financially by parents? Should they be able to choose their guardians?'

However sensible or outrageous these questions may sound, it is important that they are being asked, for they show that children are finally being perceived as autonomous human beings. And new research is beginning to suggest that children take an active role in determining their lives from the very start. They give cues to the world around them even before they are born - it's just that adults are not always good at picking up those cues. Dr Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine fame, believes it is the baby that sets the birth process in motion, indicating to the mother's body that he is ready to be born. Yet doctors are increasingly making the decision when a birth should occur - usually to fit in with hospital routine. And Professor Colwyn Trevarthen of the University of Edinburgh says that babies even in the first months of life actually evoke their mothers' responses to them.10

So the relationship between a parent and a baby sounds like it could be a busy nonverbal dialogue, with both partners actively communicating: the parent telling the child about the new world the child has entered, and the child asking the parent for what she needs to cope in this adventure.

It sounds like the baby knows how to play her part. So why, as adults, are we so unsure of ours? We constantly cling to rules - from health visitors, old wives, textbooks - to tell us how to respond to our babies; tell us how to 'be response-able'.

There is a story about a Western health worker who asked a group of African mothers how they coped with their babies being slung diaper-less next to their bodies. The mothers were puzzled by the question: when their babies needed to pee, they unslung them, of course. But, persisted the embarrassed health worker, how did they know when the babies needed to? The mothers were even more puzzled by this question. They asked her: how did she know when she needed to?

This story suggests that parents who are very close to their children (literally so in the case of babies whose skin touches their mothers' all day) can be good at responding to their children in ways that parents find difficult if they tend towards emotional and physical reserve.

There may be no truth in this idea - it may be a piece of Western romanticism about 'natural' Africans. But it does illustrate the longing most parents have to understand their child in some 'natural', unlaborious way - to tune in to their needs, rather than work from a rulebook.

It may be that the best clues to the child's needs are the parents' own inner needs. Dr Nicholas Hedley, Co-director at the London Institute of Psychosynthesis, believes that a parent who is sensitive to his own feelings and takes responsibility for them is in a strong position to take care of the child. Just as a physically dehydrated and undernourished mother finds it harder to breast-feed, so an emotionally dehydrated parent is less able to respond to the child's feelings.

This principle shows up most clearly in families where the relationship between parent and child has seriously broken down - where, for example, parents batter their babies. The public usually assumes that no-one but a psychopath could be so cruel to a defenceless baby. But baby battering is not rare, and though a small percentage of batterers are psychotic, the vast majority are utterly different to the stereotype held by the public. Often they are shy, vulnerable mothers, profoundly unconfident and immature: no more than children themselves.

Far from being callous, such parents are deeply preoccupied with their children. They are their chief concern in life. That, says Dr Robin Skynner, Co-founder of the Institute of Family Therapy, is one reason it took doctors so long to realise that such parents were in fact subjecting the babies to horrific assaults.

A child evokes protectiveness without a word. The question is whether her father will respond to her need.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

The other feature the parents had in common was that they were not good at tuning in to what the child really needed. They heard only their own anxiety to do right - to be ultra-good parents. So they might, for example, fussily overfeed the child and become tense and angry when the child spat the food out - though they won't acknowledge their anger, for a good parent, they believe, shouldn't feel other than loving, giving feelings towards their child.

A healthily 'selfish' parent - one who knows her own rights and needs - finding such a mealtime scene developing might give up the battle, make herself a sandwich, have a cup of tea and rest. She is putting herself back into a position of strength, by looking after her own needs. This in itself may be enough to calm the child down: he will sense that his parent is stable, knows how to look after herself.

But the over-anxious parent baffles on and on, getting more and more tired, and more and more frustrated until finally she snaps. Then all manner of stored-up furies flood out, and the baby becomes the target for years of the mother's unmet needs.

Parents like this are easy to help. Professor Henry Kempe, the leading US authority on child abuse, reckons that four out of five abusive parents can be rescued. 'Battering parents' are among the most responsive patients, for their hunger to be loved is so great but they have to learn to love themselves and free their child from having to give them approval.

Parents need help. They need money and they need to share the child-care load. If the state - or overbearing elders - offer criticism and the threat of removing the child instead of help, even fewer parents will ask for it.

A minority of parents, like sexual abusers, need to be removed at once from a position of control over children - but even their abusing must at some stage be seen as one spin in a long, downward spiral of deprivation and abuse. Seventy per cent of sexual abusers have themselves been abused as children.

As a society, we need to stop insulating ourselves with shock or blame: abusing children, individually or collectively, is not a crime of which only psychopaths are capable. We all allow it on a collective level as long as we expect children to meet the needs we should be taking care of - whether these are child prostitutes supplying our sexual needs or child labourers supplying our material ones.

And on an individual level the more we can take care of our own emotional needs the more we will free our children from needless pain.

1 Women in the World, by Joni Seager and Ann Olson, Pluto/Pan.
A Bouhdiba, UN Human Rights Sub-Commission.
Minority Rights Group report, Children: Rights and Responsibilities
UN ECOSOC, Commission on Human Rights, IADL Statement, Feb 1985
UNICEF, The State of the Worlds Children Report
Journal of Tropical Paediatrics Vol. 28.
Kusum. P. Shah, Assignment Children, Vol. 58/56.
Leonard Mata, Assignment Children, Vol 61/82.
The Rights of Children edited by Bob Franklin, Blackwell, 1986.
Unpublished paper delivered at Media and the World's Children Conference, Oxford 1985.

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