July 8th, 2011
06:33 PM GMT
Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) The business of stimulating economies, creating jobs and mentoring young leaders starts in the cradle.
It is no secret that raising children to become working, responsible members of society is all about the quality of early parenting. However, South Africa, according to some of the country’s most powerful women, is failing to nurture the next generation of workers, leaders and innovators.
This crisis of parenting, which has long-term implications for the country, was highlighted recently at a women’s lunch I attended along with Wendy Luhabe, a prominent businesswomen, and Lulu Xingwana, a cabinet minister. These two ladies and others present expressed concern that South Africa’s children need to be better parented for the challenges that lie ahead.
The real worry for many is the huge number of single-parent families and the lack of male role models in children’s lives. Nine million, or nearly half of the country’s children, are growing up with an absent but living father, according to recent statistics.
With millions of children never knowing their father, Minister Xingwana accused South Africa’s men of avoiding the responsibility of parenting and questioned why so many men “don’t support their children.”
Of course, there are many dedicated fathers, but there is agreement between government and business that the state of the South African family is not healthy. One report stated that there was a “crisis of men” as women struggle to provide and parent for their children alone.
Based on the worrying statistics, there is a growing realization that the nuclear family has broken down and that the burden of child rearing lays solely on a mother or a grandmother.
There are many reasons for this – the impact of HIV/AIDS, cultural traditions, migration from the rural to the urban areas, tough economic realities and many other complicated social and financial explanations.
The inference by worried South Africans is that it has become a rarity, and indeed, even, a luxury, for children to be raised, nurtured and supported through to adulthood by two parents.
Too many children in South Africa are just not getting the deep-seated emotional, psychological and educational benefits that come from living with a mom-and-pop family unit. International and local studies all point to the fact that these children are at a real disadvantage when it comes to their future prospects.
This is not just a problem faced by the poor.
Indeed, mothers in South Africa’s ever-growing middle class were also singled out for skipping on their “responsibilities.” According to Luhabe, too many working women were leaving their children to “be raised by nannies and au pairs.”
The solution, says Luhabe, is that more women needed to stay at home to raise their children. In doing so, she said that men needed to pay stay-at-home mums a “salary.” Fair work for fair pay. A mommy “salary” would help to ensure that women are recognized for the roles they play at home. This idea – it was no joke, believe me – would also help to lift the quality of mothering.
From the rural areas in Transkei to the urban areas of the East Rand, from the wealthy homes in Sandton to the shacks in Diepsloot, the challenge it seems is for parents to raise children who can cope with the implications of the 21st century.
The solutions to unemployment, crime and a growing dissatisfaction by the country’s youth lie in the lost chances of early childhood. Well-meaning legislation to stimulate “job creation” all helps but the real foundations to a vibrant economy and a dynamic workforce are all laid by a loving mom and dad.
As a working mother myself, this issue is fraught with judgment and guilt. Every mom wants the best for their kids. No one likes to be questioned about his or her parenting techniques.
No parent – no matter how poor or disadvantaged they are – wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “I really want to raise illiterate, vulnerable and unemployable children today.” That is just plain wrong. Instead, it seems that too many South African women are struggling desperately to be both a mother and father, a homemaker and a breadwinner. They, and their children, are being failed.
Why, then, do South Africa’s fathers not play a more active role in the lives of their children? Do women let them off the hook too much? Many will point to the legacy of apartheid, which systematically broke up families with a heart-breaking set of laws that forced families to live apart. What impact does ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ have in a country that, despite a liberal constitution, is still deeply patriarchal?
Whatever the reasons, South Africa’s children are not ready for the tough, brutal challenges of adulthood. Blaming is not the answer. Instead, the solution lies in a cuddle, a bedtime story and unconditional love for the country’s important natural assets.
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