Tag Archives: South African parents

Parents make the difference

I wrote this column at the start of 2012. Matric results for the previous year had just been released and it made me think about what contributes to academic success – is it all a matter of the school your child goes to, or the amount of extra resources (and money) you devote to your child? And what about those parents who are not equipped themselves to make up for the distressing deficiencies in many parts of the State school system? How can all parents make a difference?

Parents often believe that they need a lot from experts to help make their children successful. That good school with its waiting list. That brilliant maths teacher whose students all seem to get distinctions. The occupational therapist who improves your son’s poor fine-motor coordination. The educational psychologist who recommends that your child get a scribe for exams.

As useful as any one of these experts is, think of him or her as only one runner in a relay race waiting for you, the parent, to pass on the baton. Unfortunately, some parents hand over the baton well after the others. These are parents who are less aware of or interested in the requirements of their children’s education, and the result is their children may forever struggle to catch up.

It’s a common sense belief that some parents or communities are better at preparing their children for school and careers than others, but how do we know this to be actually true? Various studies have confirmed this, one of which was published recently.

Every three years an international development agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tests 15-year olds from various developed countries, focusing on numeracy and literacy. Past studies have shown that the most skilled and well trained teachers have a significant impact on children’s school results and future success.

But the OECD recently undertook to investigate the role of parents. By 2009 the parents of 5000 students in 18 countries had been interviewed and the test results of their children correlated with the parents’ practices in the home.

One of the findings from the OECD research, as reported in The New York Times is:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during the first year of primary school show markedly higher scores … than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.”

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD, also said, “Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.”

Another interesting conclusion from the study was that even in poorer and less educated communities, where individual parents frequently read books to their children in grade one, the children of those more involved parents scored about 14 points higher than other children from the same background.

This finding has potentially huge implications for our country where, clearly, far too many children every year grow up in communities where parents, because of a history of educational disadvantage and deprivation, don’t really understand what schools require and are poorly equipped to prepare their children for school.

What I like most about these findings is how they point to very simple actions that any parent or caregiver can take immediately that will have long term benefits for their children.

Outside of the expensive, well resourced world of private schools and some of the better state schools, education is in a dire situation in South Africa. It’s something that we should be righteously angry about. The best minds in our government should be specifically tasked with saving our country from the future nightmare of masses of uneducated, illiterate and unemployable 18-year olds.

There are many reasons why the government’s responses to poor education results have been polite, beaurocratic and policy-focused rather than tackling real obstacles on the ground. There are powerful constitutiencies that would need to be taken on and, to be fair, the government already spends a huge proportion of its money on education.

However, the OECD report suggests there are steps we, as parents, can take now to help our children that don’t require challenging obstructive constituencies or spending lots of money.

In the meantime the best we can do for our children is to take action ourselves. Spread the word in your community about the importance of parental involvement in all aspects of education. At the very least, keep books, magazines and newspapers in your house. Read and tell stories to your pre-school children. Read and talk about what you’ve read in front of your children. Turn off the TV sometimes.

And when your children start school, ask them questions about their school day, about what they’ve learnt, what projects and group work they are doing. Attend school functions and parent-teacher meetings. Monitor your child’s progress, not in order to make sure they are coming first in class, but to show them that you care about how they are learning and are interested in what they are thinking.  

You can’t wait for the government to fix the schools or rely only on the experts to help your children. You can make the difference. 

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How To Save Our Future

I hold onto my faith in South Africa and South Africans even when, every now and then, someone powerful waves a flag, identifies the “enemy” in our midst and urges us to march obediently forward to deal with this problem. Sometimes blood is drawn, and if it’s your blood it can be very nasty indeed. This is where my faith comes in. There is something in our collective memory, together with our institutions and laws, that repeatedly pulls us back at the last moment from throwing it all away.

Nevertheless, South Africa clearly hasn’t properly dealt with the past, instead building a superstructure of laws, policies and explanations on a

very shaky foundation. Recent events have shown once again what a damaged society we are. It seems a word here, a splash of paint there, can turn the national thermostat up to irrational rage. On the surface the anger seems to be out of all proportion to the events that trigger it. Below the surface, however, it all makes sense because that’s where the pain still lives.

Even so, I’m not too concerned about people occasionally getting heated and emotional if they are able to operate within the bounds of our Bill of Rights and our laws, go about their lives as normal, raise their children and work to meet their basic needs.

The people I’m worried about are the ones so damaged by their childhood that they are incapable of bonding with other human beings. They might look like you and me but under the skin they have a dangerous lack of empathy.

To switch on empathy in infancy, the single most i

mportant thing a parent or caregiver can do is form a meaningful attachment with their baby, and be a loving protector. Even in a crazy world of conflict and poverty, it just takes one present, compassionate adult to give a child a fighting chance of becoming a psychologically healthy adult who can connect with others.

A consistent, caring and thoughtful early attachment between caregiver and child is, I believe, a primary source of psychological resilience, a shield against adversity and a template for empathy.

Unfortunately, South Africa currently experiences a serious lack of empathic parenting. In a recent column I quoted two statistics from a report by the Institute Of Race Relations: one held that at least 50% of South African fathers have no regu

lar contact with their children; the other stated that this number is growing.

I see evidence of compromised attachment every day in my practice. I work with people who have suffered because of the belief that infants and children are not really affected by how they are brought up. Their caregivers did not understand or care that children suffer if they are ignored or raised by somebody (or more worryingly a series of somebodies) who is not emotionally invested in a child’s well-being. There are too many absent or unavailable parents, drunk parents, angry, immature and psychologically disturbed parents, for example, who fail to connect in a loving, protective way with their children.

We all know that something is wrong in our coun

try. The proximate causes might be guns, drugs or unemployment, but one of the ultimate causes is the disturbance of secure attachment, in infancy and childhood, to a good enough primary caregiver. The fractured relationships between parents (particularly fathers) and their children is one of South Africa’s greatest challenges.

This is a plea, then, to parents, caregivers and teachers. Each one of you is able to have a key influence on the future of South Africa by connecting empathically with a child and thus building that child’s capacity for connectedness with others. Here are the sorts of behaviours that work across various developmental stages:

  • Thinking about your baby and older child, holding them in mind, wondering how they are experiencing the world, what they need and how the world is impacting on them;
  • Holding and cuddling your babies, talking and singing to them, making lots of eye contact, touching and hugging;
  • Soothing babies (their brains are immature and they learn to self-soothe by your act of connection) and not treating their distressed cries as manipulative attention-seeking;
  • Responding to acts of distress in older children and adolescents by listening, talking and offering to be their advocate; 
  • Showing interest in a growing child’s activities, experiences and stories; and
  • Getting help for yourself if you feel damaged by your childhood, or bringing other caregivers such as helpers or relatives into your life 
    who can be there consistently for your child.

Being truly present in our children’s lives as much as possible, is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, our children and our country.