Thursday, October 22, 2015

Is it Exploitation or Responsibility?

by Nicholas Bull, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Image Credit: Nicholas Bull

During one of my trips to Liberia, a country in West Africa, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of children, some as young as seven years old, engaging in activities that were meant for adults.  They were going to the market places to purchase food for the household, taking care of other children, fetching water in very big buckets, cooking, cleaning, etc.  I was amazed to see how gracefully they went about their daily activities.  The attitude of the adults was the most shocking to me.  They seemed to not care about children performing or engaging in activities and roles, which are meant for adults.  I found myself wondering what was running through the minds of these children, "Am I growing up too fast?" "Is this what life intended for me?" "Am I going to enjoy my childhood?"

In today's society, children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood -- you only get one. Children shouldn’t be expected to function as adults at young such ages. While working with the children of Liberia through SHED (Support Humanity and Educational Development), I was able to help create opportunities for kids to be kids. SHED provided toys, games, books and resources for other activities that encourage greater recreational time for children.  I fondly remember a day a child took a break from playing to run over and tell me that,  “[she] wished this day would never end and this is the best day of my life. I am able to play today without doing any work.” Some parents were not supportive of SHED's initiatives and really wanted  the children to be at home doing chores. However, I saw the relief and joy in the faces of the children as they engaged in different activities.  I couldn’t understand why parents were allowing their children to take on the responsibilities of adults, instead of allowing them to enjoy their youth.

In most cases, people become a products of their environment.   As I continued my work with these children, it became very clear that most of these children will benefit from having organizations like SHED help to shift the narrative around childhood. They were being exploited by their parents and by society.  Liberian parents believed that, in order for their children to mature, they needed to take on the responsibilities of being the “man” or the “woman” of the house.  I had a difficult time explaining to parents it was unfair to approach development in such a manner.  I was appalled by how commonplace this view was among parents. As a society, we should be asking ourselves: are we doing enough to stop the exploitation of children?

Communities like the ones in which I worked while in Liberia can benefit from community psychology practice, particularly through those that support empowerment. SHED is changing the lives of these young children by offering resources and mentoring to support the development developmentally appropriate education and programming in their communities.  Every child should be allowed to experience a healthy and wonderful childhood.



Nicholas Bull is a graduate student in the Family Studies certificate program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is currently enrolled in Dr. Christopher Allen's Introduction to Community Social Psychology course.

1 comment:

  1. Niambi Hall-Campbell, PhDOctober 23, 2015 at 10:54 AM

    Nicholas, I have no doubt that you went to Liberia with the best of intentions and I would even garner that you along with SHED did some beneficial work but there are a few things that seem problematic in your account of this humanitarian experience.

    As you know, or are learning one of community psychology's core principles is a "value for diversity". This appears to be missing in your assessment of the experience, especially as you claim that the "children were being exploited by their parents and by society". Through our Western lens work/chores and children are deemed to be mutually exclusive but I am not convinced that the Liberians you worked with share the same perspective. How did the children in this environment play before the SHED program? Did the parents reject the children playing entirely or did their children have to work before they were able to engage in "child-like" behaviors? Also by whose standards are you defining "work"?

    You stated that you "couldn’t understand why parents were allowing their children to take on the responsibilities of adults, instead of allowing them to enjoy their youth" but were conversations with parents had before SHED implemented their program to determine what these parents consider a "happy" childhood? What is the context that these parents are located in that cause them to encourage their children to work? In this environment is it more irresponsible for a parent not to teach their children how to work at what we deem to be too early of an age?

    As I stated in the beginning, I admit to not knowing the details of your experience and am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I am not certain however, that you were willing to give these parents the same.