The fact is that although parents may know where their children are, many have no idea how they spend their time. PHOTO | FILE
It is a Saturday evening at about 8pm at a popular mall outside Nairobi’s central business district.
Jennifer Onyango is heading home after doing some quick shopping at the supermarket. On her way out, she decides to use the washroom.
Most of the shops on this level are closed for the day and, save for a group of teenagers huddled in a dark corner near one of the shops, it is all quiet.
As Jennifer approaches, she realises that the group is smoking shisha, the in-thing among Kenya’s urban young right now.
She takes the four stairs that lead to the washroom and gets in. There are suppressed giggles and whispers coming from three of the four stalls.
They stop at the sound of her footsteps. She is puzzled, but she goes ahead and uses the washroom. As she gets out, the giggling resumes.
As she walks down the stairs, the teens huddled around the shisha avoid eye contact with her. The security guard she had spotted as she got into the washroom is still there, though this time round, he gives her a guarded look.
She ignores him and walks away, but not before seeing the look of relief on his face.
Putting two and two together, Jennifer realises that locked up in those stalls were teenagers, probably doing what their parents hope or assume they are staying away from, at least for the next couple of years.
A mall is probably the last place you would expect your child to engage in underage sex — it is crowded, after all, and enclosed, exuding a sense of security.
PUNCTUAL AND HAPPY
If your 16-year-old daughter or son came to you and said, “Mum, can I hang out at the mall with my friends?” You are likely to say yes; after all, what is the worst thing that could happen there?
However, if she asked whether she could accompany her friends to an overnight party, your antenna would go up immediately at all the perceived things that could go wrong and you are likely to say no.
The fact is that although parents may know where their children are, many have no idea how they spend their time — this is especially the case for today’s busy parent.
With rising career demands, busy parents have little or no time to spend with their children.
“Our society has changed a lot over the years — careers are more demanding, life has become more expensive, and many parents are working long hours, sometimes even over weekends, to make enough to look after their families,” Monica Oyaro, a counsellor, points out.
This means that they delegate the care of their children to others, such as the househelp, relatives, or leave them to their own devices, she adds.
Those who can afford it find it easier to give their children money to hang out at shopping malls and other social places they think are safe. Often, they are left under the “watchful” eye of the family driver.
Ms Oyaro points out that in such cases, the driver is under strict instructions to drop them off at a certain location and take them back home at an agreed on time.
However, since the driver is left in the parking lot, there is no telling what his young charges will do once they get there, or who they plan to meet, or even whether they will not sneak off and go elsewhere, only to return at the appointed hour.
As long as their children come back home smiling and seemingly happy and content, their parents score highly in the parenting department. Should they get pregnant, get a sexually transmitted disease, or suffer other repercussions that come with irresponsible behaviour, such parents wonder where they went wrong.
There are also parents who allow their children to spend time at their friends’ homes or even go for sleepovers, yet they barely know the parents of the other child.
NO QUESTIONS ASKED
Peninah Gachara once saw a friend drop her 14-year-old at a friend’s house, where there was a birthday celebration going on.
Peninah says that her friend did not go into the house. She simply dropped the child in the parking lot and drove off, promising to pick her up in the evening.
“She did not bother to find out whether there was actually a birthday party, whether there was adult supervision, or better still, which home her daughter was visiting since there were many flats.”
When Peninah pointed this out to her friend, she shrugged her shoulders and replied that her daughter would never lie to her.
Does parenting not demand that you get to know the people your children spend their time with before entrusting them to their care?
“Quite a number of parents are too indulgent in the name of being modern — parent-child relationships are no longer sacred. There are rising cases of parents and other close relatives sexually abusing their own children — why then wouldn’t you make an effort to get to know the person to whom you’re entrusting your child?” asks Ms Oyaro.
Should anything happen to your children while in a stranger’s home, who would you blame?
So, what is a parent to do? We spoke to Lydia Ngwiri, a guidance and counselling teacher, as well as a psychologist, and author of Wonderful Parenting. Lydia is also the mother of three young adults.
“Due to my counselling background, I was somewhat prepared for the changes that sometimes come with teenage and how to handle them, therefore this stage was not very challenging for me,” she begins.
The common challenge she had to grapple with was how to balance the freedom that her teenage children asked for.
“I had to learn when to say ‘no’ and when to give them free rein.”
She also made a point of getting to know their friends.
“Your children’s friends have great influence on them; that is why it is important to get to know them. This way, you have the authority to tell them to stop spending time with a friend who is likely to be a bad influence.”
We asked Lydia a couple of questions that might help you to understand what is going around your teenage child, and how you can help him or her make the right choices.
How is today’s teenager spending his free time?
Partying and on Facebook. These parties are often convened on Facebook and usually take place during the day. They are either held in homes or shopping malls.
What are some of the activities that take place at these parties?
Drawing from my many years of guiding and counselling teenagers in schools, some of these parties are an avenue to try out drugs and engage in sexual activity, which can take place just about anywhere, including in parking lots, parked vehicles, unused staircases especially at night, and in washrooms.
Some even hire spacious cars. Then there are the unsupervised overnight sleepovers where sex, drugs, and alcohol are common, fuelling the risk of STDs and early pregnancy.
I have dealt with a case where two siblings drugged their watchman to ensure that he did not interrupt an unauthorised party. Their parents had travelled upcountry.
Are parents to blame?
Today’s parent is too permissive and detached from their child’s life.
There is also the fact that most parents are blind to the lengths their children can go to do what they want to do.
Many are also hoodwinked easily and part too easily with money, which their underage children use to buy alcoholic drinks — we all know the dangers that accompany intoxication, such as irresponsible sexual behaviour.
We also cannot forget the influence that television has on our children. Television is bringing up children, especially in urban areas.
Too much TV is addictive. Besides, children are picking up unpleasant values, such as violence, profanity, and indecent sexual behaviour.
Unsupervised television watching means that children could be exposed to adult content their young minds are not ready for, which may lead to deviant sexual behaviour.
What are some of the repercussions of such behaviour?
Such teenagers are likely to become irresponsible and dependent adults who are unable to take care of themselves.
Instead, they continue to rely on their parents to support their ingrained habits. In the long run, if they stop getting money from their parents, they will begin to steal, especially if they have an addiction.
I have seen such cases of dependence on alcohol and other drugs end up in rehabilitation.
If such young people happen to get married, it goes without saying that they will not be in a position to take care of their families, leaving the burden to their parents.
I am privy to a case that was so bad, the parents of a teenager who was addicted to alcohol would ask their visitors to carry their shoes into the house because their son had begun stealing just about anything to fund his habit.
It is a fact that young people engage in dangerous and irresponsible behaviour at some point in their life.
It is also a fact that their lives are not necessary doomed due to this, that many will grow up to become responsible and successful adults.
However, not all will have success stories to tell. Should this be the case, this child’s parent should be able to stand up and confidently say that he or she played their role of parenting to the letter.
What can be done?
Parents should take charge of raising their children instead of delegating their duty in the name of being busy.
If you are not available for your child, you will lose him. If your child is close to certain relatives, for instance grandparents, encourage them to spend time with them.
Your children should be able to tell you everything, but if they do not, then there should be an adult who shares your values whom they should feel comfortable opening up too.
The school and the church can also play an active role in the bringing up children.
For instance, schools can organise talks for parents while churches can introduce parenting classes for their congregation