What constitutes a reputable home; the behaviour of the father, the mother, or that of the children?
In African culture, a respectable home is known by the behaviour of the children, and in their visible social, emotional and physical development. Today, although, many parents do not have the time to nurture their children. And, no one can blame them because they must go out every day to make a living.
The results of this arrangement are all too common – negative or harsh parenting, a poor relationship between parents and children, and between couples.
In today’s fast-paced world, do parents need help and advice on how to be better parents to their children? Probably.
Intervention to save families
Last year, John Mayanja, a resident of Bulonde Village in Ssisa Sub-county, Wakiso District, confronted his detached parenting. A typical African father in the old mould, Mayanja rarely interacted with his children.
“The children, and my two wives, knew never to touch my property or sit in my chair. We rarely spoke. Whenever I returned from work or the bar, I went straight to my bedroom. I only came out to eat.”
Then, one day, out of curiosity, Mayanja registered with a community-based parenting programme, Parenting for Respectability (PfR). Some of the sessions had take-home assignments that involved playing with his children.
“I found my children playing with the neighbour’s children. I stood in their midst and declared my interest in joining the game. My children stood still. Then, they run away. They left me with the neighbour’s children,” Mayanja recalls.
Mayanja’s sister, who was in the kitchen, ran out and asked her brother if he had received a premonition and if this was why he wanted to play with his children for the last time before he died.
PfR is a homegrown intervention in parenting that is showing that when parents are equipped with the right skills and attitude, they can bring up happy, healthy and well-behaved children.
In 2016, researchers from Makerere University, working in collaboration with Medical Research Council, Uganda and the University of Glasgow, UK, began implementing the programme in Kakiri, Katabi, and Ssisa sub-counties of Wakiso District.
The programme addressed key factors associated with child maltreatment such as, poor attachment, inequitable gendered socialisation, harsh parenting, and spousal conflict.
Playing with children is important
Child psychologists say playing with children, whether physically or using board games, improves their creativity. However, play should never be considered a duty. Instead, it should be fun.
Richard Sekiwunga, a researcher with PfR programme, says playing with children is a sure way to enhance parent-child bonding.
“Although some parents might not intend to do so, they were maltreating their children in the name of disciplining them. In this programme, we teach positive disciplining to reduce violence against children. That is why we encourage play. When you let your children play with you, it removes the fear they might have of you because you are their first friend.”
Simon Mulimira, a teacher at Ssebulime Memorial Primary School in Nambeta Lubatu Village in Ssisa sub-county, had – because of his profession – an inkling on how to handle children. However, at home, he never took his children seriously.
“I thought that to be a man, I had to be tough. But, over the years, I realised that the tougher I became, the more difficult family life became,” Mulimira says.
Today, though, after attending PfR sessions, Mulimira helps to wash the clothes at home. He even wakes up early to prepare the children for school.
“I began to spare time to be with them at the weekends, and since then, our relationship has improved. When I travel, they miss me and I can see it in their eyes. I learnt that all of us need to have limits; there is now a limit to the time I spend out of home.”
Men must be involved in child rearing
Traditionally, nurturing children has been a woman’s forte because men usually work away from the community. Times are changing, though. Sekiwunga says involving men was the backbone of the programme because they are major decision makers in the family.
“If you teach only the mother, sometimes she might find it difficult to explain to her husband what she has learnt, especially if their communication is poor. Some women told us their husbands mocked them for needing help in parenting.”
A study, ‘Father Involvement in Early Child-Rearing and Behavioural Outcomes in their Pre-Adolescent Children’, by Charles Opondo and others in the UK, suggests that it is the psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in a child’s infancy that are most powerful in influencing later child behaviour. Involved fathers may influence children indirectly by being a source of instrumental and emotional support to mothers who provide more of the direct care for children.
However, as the adage goes, the devil is in the details. Involving fathers is an uphill task because of their working hours, and also because of entrenched beliefs and perceptions relating to gender roles.
Sekiwunga says mobilising men was a challenge.
“Many said they did not have the time, and when they learned that the training was about bringing up responsible children, they lost interest.”
In response, the trainers enlisted the support of the women and local leaders, such as Samwiri Kato Kiggundu, the LCI chairman of Nambeta Lubatu Village.
“I had to explain to them the benefits of the training. I have a 15-year-old son who was running wild. Everyone in the village knew I was regularly beating him. So, I used him as an example, telling them I was going to learn how to handle my son.”
A total of 181 fathers and 219 mothers participated in the 16 sessions, together with 183 children (107 girls and 76 boys) aged between 10 and 14 years. A survey done after the training, showed that harsh parenting reduced by 25 per cent, and an improvement in positive parenting by 21 per cent, with these changes being much higher in female parents.
Treating children well
An involved father leads to the improved wellbeing of the mother and can alleviate the impact of factors such as maternal depression, which are known to increase children’s risk of behavioural problems.
One the day we visited their home in Kaama Kakaze Village in Ssisa Sub-county, we found Edisa Nanteza, a 42-year-old farmer in her kitchen, preparing a late breakfast. Her husband was washing their clothes, while their eldest son was feeding three calves.
This setting is a far cry from what they were living through last year.
“I had spent more than three months without talking to my husband, yet we lived in the same house. While he slept in the bedroom, I slept in the children’s bedroom. Because of our bad relationship, he was harsh to our children. The children would eat their supper hurriedly and rush to bed before he returned,” Nanteza says.
Nanteza’s husband never bought the necessities, such as salt, sugar, soap, Vaseline and cooking oil. So, she had to hire herself out as a labourer to earn money to buy these items for her children. When the programme came to her village, she attended the sessions – if only – to get her mind off her woes.
“The trainer advised me to tell my husband about what I was learning. My husband was not interested, but I continued telling him every week. One day, he found me playing with the children and he insulted me. But, then, I asked my son to read aloud from the notes I had taken in the training. He began paying attention to every word.”
That day marked a change in their relationship. As they rekindled their love and respect for each other, her husband’s attitude towards the children softened.
“Like any couple, we have misunderstandings, but the difference now is that whoever is in the wrong asks for forgiveness,” Nanteza enthuses.
Men and women spoke about their strengths and weaknesses separately, before they were introduced to couple sessions. These sessions were intended to reduce partner violence.
Involving men in the upbringing of their children generally improves the quality of life in a home.
When both parents take the time to nurture their children, it leads to happier children who turn into responsible adults.
Growing case for men in parenting
In Uganda, there are few interventions addressing violence against children and gender-based violence that have been rigorously tested and evaluated. However, there is a growing recognition that interventions with men and boys should explicitly address masculine norms, which perpetuate violence.
The few men who attended the sessions were driven primarily by their limited knowledge of child upbringing, the desire to raise respectable children, and their negative marital experiences, while women primarily sought to improve interpersonal skills and handling problematic children.
However, behavioural change is gradual. For men to be involved in the upbringing of their children, there is a need to work closely with community and faith leaders.
Dr Godfrey Siu,Project Leader, Makerere University Child Health and Development Centre