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.