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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Tough Love

A great article by Dekka Aitkenhead in a recent Guardian magazine compared two youth centres in London run in very contrasting styles – one by psychotherapist Camila Batmanghelidjh, who believes in love and patience as the path to redemption, the other by a former prison governor, Ray Lewis, who uses military style zero tolerance discipline in his “academy” for Afro-Caribbean boys “at risk of social exclusion”.

Lewis and his belief in fierce militarism as a disciplinary method seems at first extreme compared to the gentle, motherly approach adopted by Batmanghelidjh. Until the second half, when Aitkenhead hints that behind Lewis’ stern words and stance, there is much tenderness, even love, between him and the kids under his care. The centres are the closest these children ever came to receiving guidance and attention their own families were unable to give. The conclusion left me less convinced that one centre is necessarily better than the other in that they are each doing the best they can to help vulnerable young people re-integrate in society.

Another report I came across this week
about a young lady who grew up in foster care also struck a chord. At 23, she is a mother of one, having had her child at 16 by an HIV-positive father who knowingly infected her. Her child was taken into care at age one, due to the mother’s crack addiction, as she herself was passed on from foster home to foster home since age nine. It is not an unusual scenario in today’s Britain, where stories of children dying from abuse or neglect in the hands of non-competent parents or unsuitable foster family sadly abound.

This young lady talks about not having felt cared about because no one “told her not to go out drinking, not to hang out with boys, to get back to her books” – a role normally fulfilled by a parent. She is saying someone giving her discipline would have made her a happier person.

I grew up under what my mother’s friends called “Spartan discipline”, and had the most number of restrictive rules as a child and teenager of all my school friends. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Brazil, where university age kids normally got their first car from daddy so they can drive to uni, some started smoking, if they hadn’t already earlier, most of them dated and were sexually active, and going-out time used to be, in the late 80s, 9 o’clock.

I was the eldest child in my family and the only female. As I reached puberty, my parents were terrified about what could happen if they gave me too much leeway. My curfew was set for 9pm, which meant I could never go out, I was given limited pocket money as a way of curtailing my freedom of movement, I was prohibited from even getting a driver’s license, and smoking only at my own risk of capital punishment. Even slightly transparent blouses or above-knee high skirts were met with an “Are you a lady or a whore?” type of reproach. Dating was greatly discouraged, but if the prospective boy was a medical, law or engineering student, exceptions were to be made.

I became the laughing stock of my friends. Guys were petrified of even calling my house to ask me out in case my mother shouted (“What time do you think it is?!”) at them and put the phone down on them. Home started to feel like a high-security prison, a Big Brother’s penitentiary, where my every move was monitored. This was before the advent of emails, mobile phones and Twitter. One phone was in my parent’s ensuite, another in the living room. Privacy was nonexistent. My best Brazilian friend and I used to speak on the phone mixing Portuguese with coded pidgin German, a language we had both learned in high school, in case our parents were eavesdropping. I was one miserably unhappy child then. I dreamt of the day I would run away from home.

Around that time I met my first boyfriend, who was a Japanese Brazilian like myself. Unlike me with a stay-at-home mother, his mother was a modern working woman -- a renowned chemistry professor -- and his father a company CEO. Although only a year or two older than me, he already had a hedonistic way of life going out to night clubs with his boss, drinking and smoking heavily, and sleeping with prostitutes whenever he fancied. HIV was as yet unheard of and sex was far more liberal then.

In his household, the entire family could be watching TV, he would suddenly stand up, announce he was going out, be gone till morning, and no one would question where to, who with or when he was going to be back. No one took interest in his life. He once told me: “I wish someone would ask. Sometimes I wish someone would even once stop me from doing the things I do.”

In hindsight, I suspect he became addicted to a playboy’s lifestyle because he felt a void within – it was his way of filling the gap. He believed his parents didn’t care enough to question whether what he was doing would harm him in any way, whereas mine did too much of it. He craved the boundaries that I wanted to be rid of because, to him, freedom limitation was a sign of affection. For me it was a gag, a character killer.

I often think of the way people relate to their kids as being similar to how dog owners’ treat their pets. A dog or a child with too much independence and no set boundaries is not necessarily the happiest one. A child, as with a dog, actually enjoys having some established rules to abide by. For a dog it may be because when the rules are relaxed, it represents a big treat, bringing it joy. For a child, being told to do or not to do this or that can translate into a sense of security, of being looked after, a sense of “someone in the world cares whether I turn out an okay adult or not”.

Even in military environments, as in the
Ray Lewis’ Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, kids who are publicly humiliated by Lewis in class, have been made to march, do drills, community work and after-school classes still think of him fondly as a father figure. They had rather have a surrogate father who truly cares that they don’t mess up their lives than a biological one that does not acknowledge their existence. His educational methods may not meet with general approval – some may think he is doing more harm than good – but I would personally like to believe his love is just…tough love.

As for my own parents, only now, as a mature woman, do I recognise that the Spartan hell I was put through in my late teens and early 20s, was for a good reason. It didn’t protect me from harm as much as they had hoped, as the more something is forbidden, the more you want to do it. I would never do it to my own children. But at least I was loved enough to be warned about the big bad wolves out there. When the wolves eventually bit me, as an adult, I knew there was a rock I could always go back to for love and protection if I ever needed to.

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