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The power of parenting: how family bonds can prevent violence

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The power of parenting: how family bonds can prevent violence

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Comprising just 800 families, Touwsranten in South Africa’s Western Cape province is the only place in the world in which every programme included in the Parenting for Lifelong Health initiative has been implemented.

Collaboratively developed by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and a number of universities in South Africa and the United Kingdom, the programmes aim to prevent violence by equipping parents with the tools necessary to form close and loving bonds with their children.

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Extensive research has shown that children who grow up in a non-violent environment with positive emotional engagement and cognitive stimulation are more likely to succeed at school, find stable employment and form healthy adult relationships. They’re also less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, abuse alcohol and other substances, engage in risky sexual behaviour or become involved in crime and violence.

Seven Passes’ parenting initiative includes four programmes: one for new parents, from 36 weeks of pregnancy to six months after birth; one for parents and caregivers of two- to nine-year-olds; one for the parents and caregivers of teenagers; and a book-sharing programme. The programmes run once a week for two to three months at a time and are open to any interested parents in and around Touwsranten.

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The parenting initiative was born out of Seven Passes’ after-school programme, which since 2007 has provided the town’s children with a safe and supportive environment in which to complete their homework every day.

‘Over the years, we realised that the behaviour that we were teaching children in the after-school programme wasn’t being reinforced at home,’ says Wilmi Dippenaar, director of Seven Passes. ‘The violent behaviour the children were displaying – the way they screamed and swore at each other – was behaviour they were seeing elsewhere.’

In 2012, the first of several community-wide parenting surveys was conducted by Chandré Gould, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, and Catherine Ward, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town.

The survey found that spanking, slapping, stress, parental mental health and intimate partner violence in Touwsranten affected children’s behaviour. This was evident in their experiences of anxiety and depression, and often manifested as aggression and violence.

As a result, the parenting initiative kicked off, striving to eliminate violence in the home. ‘Most of the people in the community believe in corporal punishment,’ says parenting facilitator Roslynn Wehr-Damons. ‘That’s a big part of what we’re trying to change.’

The programmes encourage parents to spend quality time with their children, to praise them for positive behaviour, to involve them in decision making, to use cool-down strategies when tempers flare, to communicate effectively, and to make sure children feel as though their emotions are valid.

Melissa Fisher had been struggling with her 10-year-old son Cullin when Seven Passes’ parenting facilitators came door to door offering assistance. ‘I was yelling and screaming at him all the time,’ she recalls, ‘and I realised I needed help.’

'It was like having a weapon that I didn't know how to use,' says Melissa. 'And they trained me how to use this weapon that I have. It was amazing. It gave me a sense of purpose. It taught me how to handle things in a positive way.'

Since completing Seven Passes’ adolescent programme, during which she was encouraged to share her feelings with her son, listen attentively to his, spend dedicated time with him and respond to situations calmly, their relationship has vastly improved. ‘Every morning, I hug him and I tell him, “I love you” – and we never part in anger. He can talk to me about anything now – except sex,’ she says with a laugh.

The programmes’ approach to parenting is different to the way many parents in the community were raised. ‘It takes some getting used to,’ says Joshlin Grootboom, who signed up for the book-sharing programme with her little boy Skye, who is just under two years old.

This programme teaches parents how to read picture books to their children, guiding them on how to help their children engage with the stories. Grootboom also learnt the power of affirming and encouraging her son: how to turn his mistakes into positive reassurances.

While the benefits have been tangible, the parenting facilitators conducting the programmes have experienced no shortage of challenges. Their work is time-consuming and emotionally demanding. They are responsible not only for their day-to-day duties, but for ensuring that the educational facilitators who work with the children in the after-school programme are familiar with the positive parenting techniques. ‘We all have to practise what we preach,’ says Wehr-Damons.

Absenteeism is also an ongoing issue. ‘Most of our programmes run for two or three hours once a week in the evenings,’ says facilitator Sharren Buys, ‘but often, the majority don’t show up.’ While this is found in parenting programmes around the world, it is still a source of frustration for the facilitators.

On Mandalay Farm, parenting programmes have been offered during the workday to ensure that parents are able to attend, despite working long hours. Packaging house employee Manica Everson and her fellow employees Elizabeth Jumat and Shane de Swart speak highly of the work of Seven Passes. ‘Our relationships with our children are much better since we did the programmes,’ Everson says.

Although a few men have attended the parenting programmes, this number is small, and its growth is prevented by deeply entrenched gender roles.

‘One of the biggest problems in the community lies in the relationship between men and women,’ explains Gould. ‘It threatens to undo what we’re doing in the parenting programmes.’ ‘A lot of fathers think that parenting is the mother’s job,’ says Fisher. ‘The men work; the rest, they leave up to the women.’

As we continue to do this work, we start seeing what else is necessary,’ says Gould. ‘The after-school programme made us realise that children needed to be emotionally supported at home, and now we’ve realised that we need to address imbalances in gender roles, too.’

In 2018, Seven Passes will be collaborating with Sonke Gender Justice to implement its MenCare+ programme. This initiative aims to educate fathers on their roles in fatherhood and caregiving; engage them in sexual and reproductive health, and maternal and child health services; and provide counselling to those who use violence in their relationships with their partners and children.

Programmes of the kind being offered in Touwsranten – not only the parenting programmes but also the after-school programme – don’t lend themselves naturally to impact assessment. The variables are immense, the content deeply personal and sensitive, and respondents sometimes unreliable. Nevertheless, establishing indicators of success is an important means of demonstrating the programmes’ efficacy in dealing with and preventing violence.

The number of parents participating in the parenting programmes might be one such indicator; the number of children attending the after-school programme could be another; and the number of children equipped with the grades, skills and self-belief to attend university a third. Each of these indicators has seen improvements over the years. Looking back on the past decade of work, Gould says: ‘Something has shifted dramatically here.’

Amelia King first started working at Seven Passes in the after-school programme, an experience that helped her secure a full-time position as a parenting facilitator. King’s assessment of the programmes relies less on tangible data and more on what she is seeing in the town’s homes every day. ‘These programmes,’ she says, ‘teaching parents to have a good relationship with their children – they have the ability to change the whole community.’

Denzel keeps his hair short on the sides, and his ears pierced with gold studs. His arms and shoulders show his age: an imminent shirking of boyishness. As he pulls out a textbook and a notepad, preparing to do his homework, he speaks about his future plans. In his eyes, a flash of excitement. ‘I like to work with people,’ he says, explaining his desire to teach. ‘I believe every child has a dream in life and I want to be a part of helping them achieve it.’

Written by Cassidy Parker, ISS Consultant

The Seven Passes Initiative is funded by the World Childhood Foundation and Edcon.

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