Raising children at a critical time
As Egypt goes through a period of political and social change, what do children need in order to achieve integrated cultural growth, asks Abeya El-Bakry
One of the questions many parents have to address is how to develop their children's self-reliance and independence. In kindergarten classes, teachers often find it easier to do children's minor tasks for them, including opening their bags, taking out their books, and so on, with the result that instead of the children being responsible for their things from an early age, they become dependent on adults to do things for them.
"They lose ownership of their tasks, and they consider their mothers to be responsible for their own work," explains Dina Zaklama, head of the psychology department at Al-Mashfa School. Many mothers are also falling into this trap, she says. They should let their children do small chores themselves and take ownership of what they do. "Independence comes about through building up from small things. It is learning that you are able to do things for yourself. If children are not trained to do this, young men will be unable to take control of their own lives and be independent and support others, because they have not been raised to do so," she adds.
Critical thinking is also something that needs to be developed from an early age, and Zaklama says that in the past this was difficult since society as a whole was not used to speaking out and making its voice heard. People were used to not speaking out, no matter what was being said. "You did not argue, even if what was being said was wrong. You did not enter into disputes. You had to be silent," she says. Today, what is needed is for young people to learn how to express their opinions respectfully and on a scientific basis. Even many adults need to do this, she says.
Over recent months, children have been faced with violent images on the screen on a daily basis as a result of the upheavals in Egypt and elsewhere, and this may have traumatised some of them. Research conducted on the impact of such violence on children has shown that "children feel powerless regarding what they see around them every day, and this can have a negative impact," Zaklama suggests. Children need love and security, and "if a child is deprived of these things, his or her personality may be affected."
The impact of such images on children, she continues, depends on their type of personality. If the child is naturally dependent, he or she may become more insecure, depressed, or de-motivated. "The media is not helping regarding the Revolution," she adds. "The more people talk about their fears, the more they get amplified and the more fearful people may become. This may affect them as people, and hence as voters, affecting what they choose in elections and elsewhere," she says.
Recent social and political events have also been calling into question cultural assumptions concerning family relations and women's rights obtained during the former regime. Zaklama argues that the present child custody law is inappropriate, as it returns the children of divorced parents to their fathers at the age of eight, and this can have a deleterious effect on girls. "At eight years old, girls may be starting to reach puberty. They are going through hormonal changes, so they need to have their mothers with them at this age to learn about themselves," she explains.
Additionally, the marriage law is being reviewed with a view to reducing it from 16, today, to 14. Zaklama says that early marriage would not protect young girls from emotional relationships at an early age. "What is needed is to develop mother-daughter relations from a very early age, not earlier marriages," she argues.
Zaklama says that mothers should aim to build firm relationships with their daughters from an early age. "It is important that mothers do not 'frighten' their children: the mother is an authority figure, and if she punishes her daughter for small mistakes before the age of eight she can become a figure to be feared. Instead, she should learn to accept her daughter's mistakes and gently remonstrate with her. If she does this, her daughter will become her friend and she'll gain her confidence and be able to talk to her. Later, when she reaches dating age, the mother will be able to direct her daughter in the right direction and help her to avoid any emotional pitfalls to which she may be prone."
At some point, mothers should also feel able to give up the role of mother in order to be a "friend" to their children instead, Zaklama says. Children may not understand their parents' generation, so when parents tell their children that they have to abide by certain standards children may not understand. As a result, parents should try to "come down to" their children's generation, stepping down from one generation to the next in order to make themselves understood. They can then use their own language, expressing themselves in such a way that their children will be able to understand them.
Moreover, though this may not yet be culturally acceptable, parents need to listen more to their children, Zaklama argues. "We need better parental education. It's my dream one day to see a proper parenting school in Egypt divided into different educational and intellectual levels."
The role of the father is also usually understated, but it is important nonetheless. Fathers tend to be culturally recognised as the breadwinners of the family, and little notice is taken of their emotional roles in raising children. "Just as girls need their mothers, so boys need their fathers. At the age of 12 in the case of divorced families, a boy should go to live with his father in order to acquire manly behavior, meaning understanding their position as men both personally and socially. Boys need to gain awareness in order to see through certain masculine misconceptions, and in order to do this a father needs to be close to his sons. Mothers should be close to their daughters, and fathers should be close to their sons," Zaklama said.
For her, an appropriate voting age is 21 years old, at the end of a development stage lasting from 19 to 21. These years contrast with the teenage years, which are an age of "grasping information," making young people easily influenced by their peers, enthusiastic but impulsive, and perhaps not yet able to process ideas. By 20 or 21, they have calmed down and are capable of more reasoned decisions.
While religious segregation became an issue during the Revolution, it did not exist only a few generations ago, when Christian neighbourhoods co-existed with Muslim ones. The media has called such co-existence into question, Zaklama says, as a result of new ways of thinking entering society. As a result of a lack of proper religious education, intolerance has intensified, particularly over the last ten years. "People are not paying due attention to what the Quran says regarding religious tolerance," she adds.
On a final note, Zaklama says that today in Egypt there are many young men aged 18 to 30 who are looking to start careers and get married. However, the country seems unable to provide these things for all of them. "They have needs which cannot always be met. As a result, they have to be patient. It is difficult, but I remain hopeful," she says.