Over the past week, I’ve spent time with my cousins and a visiting “sister” from Ghana who recently had a baby girl. The baby is adorably cute, and my would-be “maternal instincts” immediately kicked in. I’ve always found it amazing how a tiny baby can grow up to be an individual with dreams, hopes, fears, opinions and the whole hammock of complexities that form a human being. One thing that sticks out to me about babies is the fact that they want to be treated as anything but what they are. You lay her down, she squeals, you cradle her in your arms, she throws a fit, you put her in her crib; are you seriously asking for a full-fledged tantrum? The trick is to treat them like adults. And by ‘treat them like adults,’ I don’t mean throw a suit on her, throw a briefcase into her hand, and sit her at a desk for hours on end. No, what I mean is talk to her. Yes, the baby, talk to him/her.
Now, that suggestion might sound incredulous, and I can definitely understand why. About a decade ago, when my mum was pregnant with my youngest sister, she would occasional mutter words of concern to her swelling tummy. I didn’t get it. Why would you talk to a baby, who has not even completed her 9-month hibernation period in the womb? As it turns out, talking to a baby in the womb is recommended by doctors and nurses worldwide. So, how is it that once these lil’uns actually have the capacity to talk and ask questions, we do a total 360 and try to silence them? That was the question on board a couple of nights ago. How is it that children in the US and Europe are more outspoken or vocal than their counterparts in African countries? One of my cousins was convinced there had to be something genetic going on; maybe it has to do with their baby formula? I believe it’s deeply rooted in our culture of ‘respect’.
Myjoyonline.com featured this article and audio excerpt involving some children who went on-air on JoyFM’s Super Morning Show to talk about issues of national interest including the recent unrest in Bawku. Coincidence or not, it was a pretty timely piece given the conversation I’d had with my cousins the night before. In our attempt to instill a culture of ‘respect’ among Ghanaian and African children, do we unknowingly rob them of the very tools they need to be leaders and change makers in society? During the radio show, 13-year old Yehoada said, “Politicians should put aside politics and their parochial interests on air and focus more on education, health, security and other issues that can help Ghana to progress.” Whoever said children were clueless? That statement does make me wonder though. Maybe our politicians aren’t to blame. After being denied a platform for expressing their views on issues under the guise of instilling respect in them as kids, it’s no wonder why many Ghanaian politicians engage in a “he said- she said” dance in lieu of dealing with the real issues.
The notion of ‘respect’ today is one that, I believe, is highly overrated and misplaced in many African societies. That’s not to say that children shouldn’t respect their elders. No, I am not advocating an absolute rebellion against elders, because truth be told, elders do have something that children lack to a large extent – experience. At the same time however, I think it is important to differentiate between earning respect and giving respect because it is demanded. While the first is usually borne out of something profound like genuine admiration, the latter is steeped in fear. Many of the rape and child abuse cases in Ghana I have come across seem to have a common thread. The young girl is asked by the older man to go and buy something for him. Once she arrives with his purchase, he directs her to deposit the item in his room. Now, a typical Ghanaian child who is brought up with the ideology of “the adult is always right,” won’t ask any questions and will do as requested. And there lies the trap to which many child rape victims fall prey. I strongly believe that a child who has been brought up to think critically, to ask questions (in a respectful manner of course), and to evaluate situations, would probably hesitate before entering the suspicious depths of any man’s abode.
By asking children to “keep quiet when adults are talking” or “do without asking”, we are not only putting them at risk when they’re in the midst of unscrupulous individuals, we are also hindering their growth potential. A couple of generations ago, the attempt at fostering respect for elders among children most likely did exactly what it was supposed to do. Why? Because the level of social vice back then was lower, for one. And also because elders actually deserved the respect they asked for. These days however, you really have to wonder about some of the actions portrayed by adults and elders in society. Think I’m exaggerating? You only have to look to your T.V. set to see who the role models of today are. Undeserving adults who demand respect, also sow another deadly seed in the lives of children: that of hypocrisy. Sure, I’ll act respectful towards you when you’re around, but once you’re out of sight, I’ll snicker and talk about you behind your back. And trust, it won’t be anywhere near ‘respectful’.
Now, after conditioning a child to ‘do without asking’ and to ‘respect all elders’, we do serious havoc to a child’s ability to discern (between right and wrong, what they have been taught and what is new information etc), even worse is the damage done to a child’s self-esteem and confidence. The current culture of ‘respect’ has done more than rob children of the opportunity to dream, to question, and to simply be who they are. When else are you going to be convinced that you can fly and save the world, than when you haven’t the inkling of what problems abound in the world? Next in line, we rob them of their creativity. Creativity, I believe, is borne out of a desire to do something new, and something different. And in many cases, going against the norm requires some iota of courage (which, remember, we have already robbed them of). So essentially, we’re not only placing the children’s present life in jeopardy, but their future as well. And here’s the twist. Children are the future. It’s no secret. So if we’re robbing the children of their future, we’re essentially robbing ourselves, our societies and our countries of what the future could be. I don’t know about you guys, but I think that’s a pretty heavy responsibility to shoulder, don’t you?
All in all, I think adults in society (whether you’re in your 20s or late 60s), should make sure they’re worthy of the respect they demand. Respect should be mutual. I know many amazing children who are extremely respectful and who are also given the opportunity to voice their opinions on issues. This is not a case of either-or. You can inculcate an attitude of respect in a child without silencing them and ruining them for God-knows what prospective future they could have had. I think it would suffice to say that any self-respecting individual would be willing to grant audience to his or her counterparts. Regardless of how coherent, incoherent, young or old.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.