Do children know when they are poor?
I have heard people say this quite often and of course I believe them. “I did not know I was poor when I was a small child’. And why would small children be able to analyse their home and economic level? They would not yet be able to understand the world in that way.
And certainly a child growing up in an RDP home or even a well-cared for shack and certainly a rural homestead with loving caregivers, food to eat, warmth when it is cold, an environment that offered play possibilities and happy social interactions would not be poverty stricken in the emotional or even the physical sense. They may feel that life is rich with possibilities even if their water play is a grey water or water leak stream across a mud road – they would not be missing paddling pools, sandpits or water trays or even well-kept steams and water ways in park... And a leaf has as many possibilities for play as a plastic boat after all. I would not take that richness from a child especially as my favourite pastimes were playing in streams and digging clay out of the ground in a tiny settlement that was my home some 50 years ago...I would also wish each child in the world the good feeling of belonging and being loved to and by their family.
But this does make me think.
My main worry about children growing up in poverty is that children become inured to the poverty they grow up in and as they spend their earliest years in it believe this is what children need when they become adults (‘I survived it – so they will too’ or more worryingly ‘why should they have anything better than I had?’)
Humans are adaptable – we manage in the most terrible situations to survive. Children have grown up – probably rather emotionally stunted and compromised emotionally and physically - in very awful situations. We only need to look at our street corners and prisons to know that it happens in South Africa to a very marked degree.
That child, I believe, does adapt – all children do. They find ways to live as they are expected to live. They are usually unaware of what kinds of life other children might be living. And if their life is both marked by a degree of poverty where their basic physical needs as well as their emotional, social and intellectual needs are also absent we may expect a negative outcome. We may not see it at first. Small children are small and powerless especially when those around them abuse their power. They start showing their emotional damage in their teen years when they are physically stronger and that much less dependent – and now fully practised in treating others as they have been treated.
And I believe that the quality of poverty is becoming more difficult. Overcrowding, filthy environments, teen parents, no parents, exhausted grannies and angry, dissatisfied caregivers have changed the kind of childhoods children were having ‘traditionally’. And with this poverty is also a loss of old wisdom and support that would then have mentored new parents. And of course it is not just poverty stricken parents who create mental illness or emotional difficulties in children - just that certain kinds of poverty seem to make people vulnerable to being less than good parents...
And poverty does effect children’s access to health care, puts them at the mercy of ill run ECD’s and abusive teachers or just substandard education. Which results in people with so little general knowledge that they don’t know that we go around the sun – or even think that they should know this. Their minds have a poverty that they cannot even grasp. And what you know and have to put up with becomes the norm so that the wish to make changes leaves one and neighbours remonstrate with neighbours when they clear the litter in the street saying ‘that is the council’s job – don’t do it.’
And as my friends when I was small were all poorer than I was and most not white – I was the doctor’s child – I was aware of the differences and felt them as my friends became aware of them too. And at one of our centres a child recently arrived with better clothes and an ability to speak English (her mother had just been made redundant and she had to take her from her more expensive school) and was received with envy and anger at first by her 5 year old classmates. So difference comes apparent quite early, as well as envy, anger, disappointment and dissatisfaction and also a giving up of hope or the hope that aids people to keep striving despite their challenges – it can cut away resilience.
I just believe we cannot be too dewy eyed about the statement ‘I didn’t know I was poor’. Or use it to justify allowing children to grow up in grinding and damaging kinds of poverty.