Recently, I went over to Gift's house to spend a few hours with Gift and Beatrice. Gift's nephew (his brother's son), a five year old boy named Wayne, was there.
I couldn't help but notice a few things about Wayne and the situation that were so different than other families with children that I have visited and observed.
First, Wayne doesn't have any toys. There was a rubber ball outside that I assume is his but that is all.
Second, Wayne was not the center of attention. The adults talked and did their thing and Wayne was just....well he was just there. He was not neglected. He was not running out into traffic or putting a plastic bag over his head but no one really talked to him, played with him or was too concerned with him. When Beatrice made him a snack he went a got a small chair (so he may not have toys but he does have his own small chair) and sat quietly at the table and ate. When she walked to the shop he went along with her. When we went outside, he came with us.
Third, Wayne did not whine, complain, cry or fuss. He was perfectly behaved.
Fourth, Wayne was put to work. When the adults drank tea, each of them, one by one as they finished, summoned Wayne to collect the empty mug and put it in the sink. And he did it.
Like so many things that I see in South Africa, I really don't know what to make of this. It was so different than my other experiences of being around people and their children. Usually, children are constantly interrupting adults who are trying to have an adult conversation. Adults will say things to children like, "I am talking to Mrs. Deep right now Myrtle, please wait a moment and then I'll get you a sippy cup of juice." And then the mother will turn back to the other adult and say, "I'm sorry about how Myrtle is acting. She missed her nap today."
Often when you are visiting a home with children in it, a child will come up to you and push a toy into your face in an effort to get you to play. There is also normally some amount of crying, whining or even a full on melt down. And usually when you are in a house where kids live, toys are strewn about everywhere.
On the one hand my reaction to Wayne's situations is this. Oh my God this child has no toys. Isn't play an important part of child development? Won't he be behind with his motor and other skills when he gets to school? Is his childhood completely joyless?
But then there is a part of me that I thinks this. Many kids have tons of toys. They have so many toys that they don't even know what they have. Are kids with toys smarter, happier, better adjusted or on a path to a brighter future? Did Albert Einstein have any toys as a kid? Did Nelson Mandela? I read Long Walk to Freedom and I don't recall toys being mentioned. Most of our grandparents and great grandparents probably had very few if any toys. Many kids today, in my opinion, are spending their childhoods being entertained every minute either by someone or something. Is that really the best way to grow up?
Of course it important for children (and adults) to know that they are loved and it is important that they are cared for properly. But how much attention is the right amount? Is it better to be showered with attention as a young person? Or, do you end up feeling less entitled and less frustrated by what life throws at you if you grow up the way that Wayne is? Isn't one of the hardest parts of being an adult that people rarely fuss over you? Adults don't spend time telling other adults how smart, cute or funny they are. Yes, at work someone may say, "great job in the meeting today." Or one adult may say to another, "have you been working out? Your butt is looking very firm and high." But accolades and adoration are rare once you become an adult.
I don't know the answers to these questions. And I try hard not to judge. I don't judge the parents who smother their children with attention, toys and bounce houses (that's not true I draw the line at bounce houses but only because I am repeatedly traumatized by their very existence.) And I don't judge Wayne's family either. But last week I did take Beatrice and Wayne to to the zoo just in case joy and play are an essential part of childhood.
|Wayne at the zoo. And while he doesn't look particularly thrilled in this photo, trust me, he had fun.|