The other day at Food for Thought a ten-year-old boy punched a seven-year-old boy in the face. I watched it all play out as I was desperately trying to cover the ground between myself and the altercation. I knew what was coming. I also knew that my role in the affair would be as a spectator because even though I was only ten meters away, it would all be over by the time I made the distance.
The boys were playing soccer and there was a disagreement. ‘Little boy’ who has a very dirty mouth, immediately went for his old favourite “abuse of the other’s mother” which coincidently was a big mistake on his part as ‘Big boy’ is the only male in his household and is very protective of his family members, particularly his mother. Knowing that I wasn’t going to make it, I attempted to dissuade big boy with my sternest of voices saying “don’t you…”, but it was too late.
I saw it all in slow motion. First came the chest clashing as if two silver back gorillas were going at it. Next came the feeble semi punch/push body shots. Both still a little tentative, not knowing whether or not it was going to escalate any further. Then came the blow to end it when both realised that the other wasn’t going to back down. Little boy’s nose was at an all too perfect altitude for big boys fist. It was over, seconds after it began.
As my dad said, this wouldn’t be a unique event to Monte Chingolo. It’s true, young boys all over the world fight on a daily basis. I believe it is part of growing up. Physical aggression is something that many young boys use, and need, as an outlet. Punching someone in the face is not a justifiable outlet, so when it happens, it is a sure sign that we should be thinking of alternative ways that these boys can release pent-up anger or aggression, instead of on each other.
Over the last four years, we have been observing children’s behaviour and modifying our responses to that behaviour in an attempt to support positive changes. Prevention and proactivity are our preferred tools of choice. If we can avoid certain situations then we can avoid particular behavioural responses from kids. A simple example of this: we keep the kids as busy as possible throughout the day as to avoid them getting bored and getting into mischief.
What has also worked well for us, is when an undesirable behaviour takes place, instead of blaming the child for that behaviour, we look to see what we can change within that environment so that the child doesn’t have to respond that way. In the example of the fight on the football pitch, we could look into sorts of activity where the boys can get physical and have an outlet for their pent-up aggression. Maybe a solution could be the setting up of a punching bag where the child can let off steam in a controlled manner, thus avoiding fights.
This brings up an interesting point that is worth noting. We are the aliens in the environment. We brought Food for Thought into this community. Yes, it was with the goal of supporting positive changes for the community, but we are the odd ones out in this equation. The least we can do is modify our behaviour to support positive behaviour changes, instead of us forcing the children to change theirs. If we change our behaviour first, the children have a choice to change theirs. It’s not the same as demanding change. If children consciously make that choice, they feel respected and supported in the process.
It’s not only the boys who respond violently. We have had a few fights between the girls too. But, in my experience, the girls usually use words to attack others and less often does it turn physical. Where as with boys, it seems to be more natural to turn to violence. I believe that is partly to do with a young boys need for rough physical contact, but it also comes from the example that is shown within the home and the community. Both boys and girls are exposed to a lot of violence within this social context. It is a violence that is cultural. A behaviour management strategy that has been passed down through the generations. Within that strategy, there is no room for choice.
Not only is the physical violence prevalent in the home. The constant emotional abuse is something that probably causes greater and longer lasting damage. Once again, this is not unique to Monte Chingolo. There is a saying that I remember as a kid “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me”. So many old sayings just make sense and that’s why they last so long, apart from this one. Names are what hurt the most. I bruise will go away in time. Emotional damage stays around, and the worst part is, you can’t see it. Nobody walks around with a sign around their neck saying “my mother tells me that I am useless”.
The other day the aunty of one of the young girls was walking past Food for Thought with her young children. She shouted out to her niece through the fence. The names that she called her, I wouldn’t want to repeat. She shouted out the abuse in front of her own children. The emotional abuse, that is also just as much cultural as the physical, is having a devastating affect on the self-worth of these children. Their self-esteem and confidence are being shattered by words (names). How can a child ever learn to respect others if the environment within which he/she lives, promotes only self-disrespect?
So there lies another challenge for us. We have five general rules that we live by at a Food for Thought. One of them is “talk nicely to others”. We are repeating it constantly! Yet we are finding the influence of the home environment seems to overpower. The kids can’t help abusing each other with the most horrible names that you can imagine. It truly shocks me to hear how they speak to each other, and with no remorse whatsoever! What makes it even more difficult is that a lot of it comes from the six and seven-year-olds who are at the vital stage of developing and understanding sentence structures, use of language, and ways of speaking to others. Once they get into a habit, it is very hard to change. One of the things that I have found difficult to accept is the fact that there are just some things that we won’t be able to change. I suppose that is why I am still interested in the project. If it was easy, I wouldn’t have to be here.
My theory is that we work with the kids so that they can be the change makers for the next generation. We are seeing positive changes every day in all of the children, but there are also situations where we are seeing certain aspects of a child’s mental state worsening. One child has become extremely paranoid that everyone is against her. We know of her home situation and it isn’t good. Her mother has rejected her and she is scared of her father. In this situation, I feel that despite what we do, her home influence is causing too much damage. So there comes a point where we really need to be working more closely with the caregivers of the children. If they are willing…
This year we have been working more closely with Foundation ARCHE, with whom we share the venue with. They have a team of psychologists who run a mothers group. Some of those mothers have children in Food for Thought. This means that we can support the mother, which in turn supports the child, which in turn helps the whole family. We are also aiming at particular families, where the collaboration between the two organisations is fundamental. In the case I have mentioned above, it has been an uphill battle. The father has arrived for a meeting once, but didn’t seem open to much cooperation. I truly fear for the girls mental state.
We are also working with the family of the older boy who was involved in the fight. His temper has been getting shorter and shorter. We believe we knew why. His mother has been increasingly absent at home because for all good reasons she started to study. She would demand that the children do the chores before she got home. She also couldn’t take her son to football anymore so he had to give up one of the things that he loves most. Her absence had a horrible affect on her two children who are in Food for Thought. We could see them changing day by day. They both started to become unhappier. More outbursts, fewer smiles, and this happened very quickly over an about a two-week period. To make things worse, the mother’s health was suffering greatly because of the stress of study and tiredness. She started taking a lot of medication because of the health problems that she was having caused by her sudden lifestyle change.
Luckily, I think this is where our tag-team of organisations can make a difference. After a meeting with ARCHE, the mother agreed that the studying was having a terrible impact on her family. She also saw a doctor who saw the obvious and told her to change what she was doing and stop taking the medication. (We have to find out who this doctor is. He is the first doctor that we have heard of to give advice of this sort instead of writing a prescription for more medication.) So she is giving up the study and sending her son to football again. We have our fingers crossed that we see a positive change in the kids soon!
Something that we have also taken into consideration is the impact that this project is having on the team. Even though the positive results keep coming, stress, workload and limited resources have played a role in us not being as effective as we can be. For this reason, we have dropped a day, so now we are with the kids Tuesday to Friday.
Our evaluation process enabled us to make this informed decision. There were a few signs that we weren’t performing to our potential, so we had to reduce our hours. For me, it is a really great sign that we are conscious enough to view our performance and make decisions in regards to our effectiveness. Currently, we are more effective in achieving our goals four days per week. When we have the resources, we will be able to go back to five days per week.
Because we are a small organisation, we don’t have the financial resources to employ another person when we need one. We rely heavily on the fundraising events that we facilitate during the year. The only options that we have are, do more fundraising events that take up a lot of time and energy, or reduce our days. We chose the latter for the reason that we actually need more time and energy.
So in essence, I feel that the project is moving in a positive direction. The team is functioning well, the collaboration with Fundacion ARCHE means that we can have a more integral approach to family support, and we are seeing positive changes in the kids. There are things that we will never be able to change, and that is something that we as a team have to get used to. Luckily the positives are out weighing the negatives, and something as simple as a smile on the face of a child can literally change your day/week/year.