The more time we spend in this community, the more we get to know it. The good and the bad. With Argentina’s current economic situation worsening, the bad seems to be rearing its head more often than the good. The biggest problem is the hyperinflation and it is those at the lower end of the economic scale that feel it most. The cost of travel, food, utilities, medication, and… well, basically everything, has risen and keeps rising, and that makes it very difficult for those who are just managing to make ends meet!
Maybe coincidental, but I feel that it likely isn’t. The police in Lanús (province where we work) have noted a rise in crime. Within the capital city there are also more homeless. It’s hard to walk three blocks without passing someone living on the street. I went for a walk at 6.30 the other morning and was amazed by the quantity of people, even families, sleeping on mattresses, in doorways, or on cardboard nuzzled into shopfronts. The smell of stale urine stings the nose hairs every time you pass a dumpster, which is quite often as there is one or two on every block. It’s the poor who are feeling the pinch.
We have a current register of 25 children. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but considering some of the home environments of these children, 25 kids can be a handful to say the least. We are working on a collaboration with a local primary school which will be providing us with more children, so there should be some interesting times to come. Hopefully the new classrooms and the kitchen will be finished in time to receive the new bunch of kids. We started building the kitchen in March last year. Things move at a different tempo here. Something that at first really got to me, but after you live here for a while it’s something that you get used to.
The children have always had behaviour problems, but lately they seem to be more extreme. I feel that there is possibly a link between the stress that is caused by the current financial situation and the behaviour problems that the children are showing in the project. I don’t even like calling them behaviour problems. We should call them behaviour reactions, because the kids are just a reflection of what is going on at home! If there is something going on at home, the child’s response is to carry that burden with them, and that burden will display itself in the way that the child behaves. Newton’s law “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”.
I’ll give a hypothetical example that is actually quite close to the truth for many children in this community… Jasmine is getting little to no love or attention from her mum. There are four generations living under the same roof. Jasmine lives with her grandma, mother, siblings, and her sibling’s children -her nieces and nephews. Her dad doesn’t live at home, there are only mothers in the house, and maybe the odd boyfriend every now and then. The house is full of children. The children are left to fend for themselves.
Her older sister has to look after her younger siblings and her nieces and nephews. There are three to four to every bed. It is becoming more difficult to feed every member of the household. Her mother is struggling to buy enough food because of continually rising food and living costs. The cheapest food is the most processed and has the lowest nutritional value. Due to this, Jasmine’s nutritional needs are not being met. The little attention that Jasmine does receive from her older siblings, mum and grandmother comes in the form of violence, not only because of the mounting stress caused by the financial situation but also the culture of violence that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Jasmine comes to Food for Thought and seeks attention all day. She doesn’t care how she gets the attention, as long as she gets it. She will interrupt, pester other children, be violent, or pretend that she is sad, so that she is constantly in contact with a staff member, who is either trying to console her, telling her not to interrupt, or breaking up a fight between her and another student. Jasmine is not getting attention at home so she uses every trick in the book to get that attention at Food for Thought. All she is doing is seeking the human contact that is lacking in her life. She is also replicating the violence that she receives at home because it is the form of communication that she knows best.
So, I believe that the parents are stressed due to the economic situation, which compiles on top of every other stress to create a negative atmosphere in the home. The children’s behaviour reflects that environment. As every teacher will know, there is a definite link between what happens at home and how a child behaves. It is common to see brothers and sisters acting up on the same day. Quite often it is Monday morning after the weekend. The consumption of alcohol and drugs rise during the weekend which isn’t happening in bars and clubs, it is happening at home and in close vicinity to children. Within this environment all sorts of abuses occur. It’s not a good mix.
The past couple of weeks have been very difficult for the staff within Food for Thought. The ‘behaviour reactions’ (see what I did there!) of the children have become even more extreme. On Friday, we had a good day, which says something because on that day we had a fight between an eight and a nine year old girl. It didn’t last very long, but during the heat of the fight there was a lot of pushing, punching and hair pulling. The most surprising aspect was the reaction of the two girls afterwards. They were smiling and very proud of their actions. At the end of every day we sit in a circle and every child says something that they liked about the day. One of the girls mentioned that what she liked about the day was punching the other girl. If these girls are replicating their home environment, it’s up to your imagination to guess what is going on within it!
This girl also stated that her father had told her to hit back if she was ever hit. It is hard to say to a child that a certain action is wrong if the person who is closest to that child is constantly saying that it is right! It is also quite a contradiction, because during the period of my lifetime is has been both, wrong and right. I can remember being hit by my teacher at school, and it was perfectly acceptable. (it was because I wrote my name on the blackboard beside the name of the girl that I liked when it was actually time to be cleaning up. Thanks Maree Grubb!) So, if you think about it, at the time when I was hit at school, it was culturally acceptable to hit kids. 95% (I would say 100%, but I am not sure for certain) of the children that come to food for thought come from violent homes. Within the social environment that we are working in, it is also culturally acceptable to hit your kids. How can you debate against that today?
It is an interesting dialogue to have with parents. It is one that I have recently engaged in. I haven’t said that hitting your kids is wrong, but I have said that there are other options. The most difficult decisions that I have had to make have been those which involve talking to parents about their child’s unacceptable behaviour. What this has meant in the past is that the child receives a beating once he or she gets home. In these situations, I have lived with the guilt that I have caused violence towards that child. Our philosophy is that the relationship and communication that we have between the child, the parents and us, is fundamental to the success of the project. So, it has been a trap when we have wanted to discuss problems with parents, because we know of the result!
So, I talked to the father of a child about her behaviour, (the child was present). I said that it wasn’t appropriate, but we are working together (the child and us) on a solution. Let’s see how it goes and we can talk again in a few days time to see how things are going. Afterwards I sent the girl inside and asked the father to please refrain from any violence towards the child because I believe that we are moving in the right direction, and we both obviously want the best for her, so let’s try this method and see what happens. So far, so good. Even though he didn’t arrive in a few days to talk to me, from what I can assume, he hasn’t been violent towards her. We have seen a slight change in her behaviour for the better, so all things being taken into consideration, we are moving in the right direction!
It is not an option for us to report this violence to the authorities because A. if a child is taken out of their home, (which also hardly ever happens) he/she is put into an orphanage, where the conditions are worse than the family home that he/she has been taken out of and B. if we report these cases, then we will lose the confidence of the families that live within this community, and they will stop sending their children to our project. From what we have learnt from working in this community, the best possible positive outcomes for these children will be a result of them being within our project for 15 hours per week. It is horrible to think that there is no safety net for these children and the reality is that we are doing a better job than the government is, whose job it is to protect the rights of these children. I am not trying to blow my own trumpet here. What is sad is that almost anybody who gives a shit about children’s rights could to a better job than those who are currently in power within Argentina…