Creative Parenting by Philomène Luyindula

Creative Parenting by Philomène Luyindula

It has been said that it is not what our children see or experience that affects them but how they are helped to process it by the adults around them. (By ‘our children’ read anyone under the age of 18 that you are in some way responsible for. There are so many different ways to ‘birth’ a child and a variety of incredibly kind and meaningful ways to support either the child or his/her caregivers.) Bearing this in mind, I once responded to an article in the Atlantic Sun in which Errol Naidoo from His People Church was pushing for sex workers to be removed from the streets. One of his concerns was that children were being exposed to something immoral. I assumed that he was thinking of nice suburban children who had two caring parents so I was very unimpressed with his views. Furthermore, I was at that stage working at Sea Point Methodist church as a Street Youth Worker: the sex-workers and strippers of Green Point and Sea Point were my friends and my child clients knew much about unsavoury adults who had no sexual boundaries even towards them – hence some of them being on the streets.

So, then, how does one deal with the sex-worker who might be working from the same pavement you use to go back to your flat? At its simplest level, children know that they need to greet their neighbours and the sex-worker happens to be one of them. Kids will model their behaviour on their parents’ compassion when they show concern for someone. They will, of course, wonder why that person spends so much time on the pavement and they will notice if s/he sometimes has a bruise or is not dressed warmly (or decently) enough – that is your cue to explain how tough a job the person has. No matter what one’s stance on prostitution is (to legalise or not), I’m sure that we are concerned that sex-workers are often vulnerable because of their clients, pimps or the police. Some cope with their job while others need to be high to do it; none could get a decent job by including their current occupation on a CV. They often get into prostitution because of complicated life circumstances and these don’t just disappear like magic when the person wants out … all these concerns can be translated to the child through using key words like: ‘strong’ (how strong they are to wake up every morning to do that job), ‘loving’ (they are probably providing for themselves and someone else through their work), ‘brave’ (in facing multiple dangers), ‘neighbourly’ (the warmest hug I’ve had was from an 18-year-old sex-worker who was so grateful that we spent an afternoon in the aquatic slides at Muizenberg – she had giggled the whole day).

You may also need to say how sex-workers make a living. It’s hard to avoid this one! A plain and simple: ‘S/he has sex with people and gets paid for it’. Then maybe a feeling – ‘This is so sad’! And then you wait so that your child can come back to you with questions if s/he has any. There is no way the child is traumatised about the nice neighbour who has such a tough job! In fact, children are probably not going to dwell on the sex aspect of the sex-worker’s job but on whichever you have emphasised. My choice of emphasis to my two foster daughters is that ‘it is so sad to have sex for money because people should only make love with someone that they really love’. What I hope for them is that they will always search for and find a loving environment – loving peers, eventually a loving boyfriend/partner, loving colleagues at university and work.

My 13-year-old doesn’t communicate much but the 9-year-old asks enough questions for two so Ester and I have had conversations about Adult World. I first made the mistake of trying to ignore her question about it. I probably said: ‘It’s a bad place’ so the question returned, of course! I then explained that in my opinion, ‘It is a bad place because it is about sex without love. All people need love and only grown-ups should have sex, and with a person they love’. Ester now uses Adult World as a landmark and she is free to ‘own’ her landmark because she now knows what I think about the place and is satisfied with the information. For now she is not inquisitive about it for now but I know that I’ll have to explain a bit more if she requests it. I have no idea what her questions will be. Maybe she will wonder why the shop is painted that colour and not another! I know that at some stage I will eventually also need to explain that my values are mine – not the same as everyone’s – because there will be a time when she will reject all or some of my values, but thank goodness this will only come later.

Although I know that adding some information about what creates trauma in a child and some basic info on what to do is certainly preaching to the converted, I’m still going to write the information as we cannot neglect the basic things.

1. Let’s not get confused between the issues. Sex isn’t bad and that’s not the message that children should get. It is easier to dismiss children’s questions because we’re embarrassed/haven’t dealt with our issues/didn’t expect the question. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that we protect our children by not telling them about sex. We are not protecting them because they won’t know what to do if someone approaches them sexually.

2. Stranger danger is real, but our best friend or sibling may also be our child’s abuser so although we do not want to create a scary world in the mind of our child we simply need to remind him or her often that s/he cannot be touched inappropriately by anyone and that s/he can tell us if it happens because we will listen and do something about it. Most abusers are a person that the child knows well and it might be difficult for the child to tell on that particular person. The child might not use words to speak but showing reluctance to hug or visit a person/wetting the bed/becoming tearful or moody are ways the child communicates. Also mention the name of the safest person you know so that your child knows that there is someone else who they can talk to.

3. Always acknowledge your child’s feelings about issues and help him or her develop a feeling vocabulary (or link feelings to events/sensations in the body). If your child has a ‘no’ feeling about a person s/he will listen to that feeling because it will be natural.

4. Always know where your child or teenager is with and with whom.

5. Trust your children to find solutions to problems because they sometimes need to get themselves out of sticky situations. Affirm your child whenever s/he has solved a problem with anyone – it is good practice and s/he will then trust him/herself if ever needing to deal with an abuse.

6. Be open but keep boundaries. Children and teenagers can only cope with their own sexuality, not that of adults. The age gap means a power gap – this is dangerous. Anyone who is older and too cool with your child needs to be talked to. This even includes people who are two years older than your child. Kids the same age can explore sexually but it becomes abuse when they do so with a child who is older and who tells them what to do.

7. Share your values often – younger kids just integrate them as part of their values. Whenever they are confronted with the world being different, they tend to think there is something wrong with the rest of the world, not with you.

8. Once abuse happens it can’t be ignored – it is as if there is no going back. In the book ‘The courage to heal – a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse’, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis illustrate this by saying that if a father puts his hand in his daughter’s panty for just one second, her life has changed forever. On the other hand, one can prevent secondary abuse so read up on what to do, know the organisations providing good counselling services and assisting children to testify, and be a safe person for children to be around. One can also find life after abuse so be as fun as possible but also very real when you are with children who have been abused. Really listen to them.