Kinfe Gebeyehu MD, MPH, FAAP
Recently, Dr. Fekadu asked me to write an article along the line of children’s health and wellbeing for the quarterly p2p’s e-Health Newsletter. As a pediatrician and someone who has spent a good number of years with families of children of all ages, I thought we have not said enough about the influence families, neighbors, relatives and society in general can have on all parameters of development of children, especially in the sphere of social, psychological and emotional maturation not only that would to a great degree ensure a child’s progress as an adult in later life as well as in the child’s contribution as a patriot. I wanted to look at societal influence on preteens and adolescents in helping them to grow to be patriotic as they sprint into youthful and fully responsible adults.
Before going further, let me say a few words in relation to the definition of patriotism in the context I would like my piece to largely relate to. If we go out to stand on corners of streets in Addis Ababa, like many liberated television journalists nowadays do, and stick out a microphone to ask a passerby “what does patriotism mean?” the first words we hear will be: “patriotism is the love and strong, determined will to stand and defend one’s country to a point of dying for It”. It is a correct answer, and the freedom we Ethiopians enjoyed in being uncolonized, unlike many of our brothers and sisters in many of African states, is through patriotic sacrifices our forefathers paid. The climax of patriotic act therefore can be dying to defend one’s country. Much of the struggle our youth went through and their families either supported or joined in recent years to create a space for democratic leadership for unity, equality, rights and freedom for all Ethiopians is patriotic and at the apex with dying for a country.
Looking at the large body of the triangle of patriotism, however, it will be essential to define patriotism much more broadly as it more often also means: day to day acts of humanity, respect towards others, empathic feelings towards the disadvantaged, regardless of ethnicity, background, language spoken, religion and locality lived in. It also means to have a strong will to educate ourselves for a healthy competition, not only for our own sake and the family we raise, but also for the many in desperate need of livelihood. Compassion, the attitude of sharing and sensitivity towards human discomfort and the desire to help can be planted in children early in their lives. We just need to prepare ourselves for the task early enough. How early is early? Must start at the first two to three months of infancy when social development, through smiles, coos and eye contact, are starting to amuse and delight the parents and the infant in turn learning to enjoy their response.
Parents who strive at seeing their offspring succeed in life and accomplish the demands of humanity, more often themselves have been raised with social and emotional sensitivity exercised by their own parents towards them and or the community they grew up including the school, their peers, their churches and their mosques filling in the gaps. Addressing social, psychological and emotional development in a healthy normally delivered infant by parents is as crucial as tending to their normal growth, nutritional needs, immunizations and concerns for infections or other illnesses. An infant’s cry is a social communication, either attention to needs, expression of discomfort or loneliness. The hugging, cuddling, comforting and singing for the child are means of continuing to strengthen the bonding that started conceptually while in the uterus and using all other senses after birth. Such immeasurable and extremely important acts of expression of love by parents build strong trust and affection in growing children. In the toddler and preschooler continuum of close attachments, expressions of reassurances and frequent contact have helped parents pick certain developmental abnormalities by the parents themselves, such as hearing and visual concerns that they might have worried about, child not performing physically and mentally for age, consistently lacking eye contact, this last considered to be a good early observation by parents for assessment by the child’s doctor for autism. A child growing trusting his/her immediate care givers and continues to get strong messages and exposure to fairness in life will often progress to be a concerned adolescent and young adult who will be motivated to join those standing to defend everyone whose God given rights are violated and humanity is at stake. Even though disciplining without physical harm by temporarily withholding privileges in some persistently offending children may have some impact, repeated loud and threatening voices, anger and abusive gestures by care givers give wrong messages to the child in learning to resolve mistakes made. Parents should always try also to refrain from disrespecting each other and using abusive words or actions towards each other that a growing preschooler or school age child may be tempted to use as a socially accepted means of resolving differences or disputes.
Parents must also make it a rule to maintain a healthy connection with their school age as well as their preteens and adolescents. Understandably, as kids grow and head towards strengthening their independent thinking they may somehow show tendencies to limit their time with families and spend more of it with peers and the opposite gender. This is a time also for a few kids to want to slide into experimental and daring temptations such as smoking, using drugs and risky driving. Though the negative influence peers may exert on them may be there, parents must not always have undue worries because kids can also do a lot good with peers at school, organizing for a welfare activity for their community sporting, musicals and the likes. The continuum of love respect and family ties have no alternatives in helping preteens and adolescents assume a lifelong and nationalistic and humanistic character.
In summary, I would truly encourage parents, parents to be, primary care givers and teachers of preschool and school age teachers, preadolescent and adolescent counselors to invest in character building of the youth starting early on in life, as character unlike intelligence, which to the most is genetically determined, can as in the elaborate quote below, define the youth and young adults as patriotic members of a nation. Because:
“Character is a set of qualities, or values, that shape our thoughts, actions, reactions and feelings. People with strong character ★ show compassion, ★ are honest and fair, ★ display self-discipline in setting and meeting goals, ★ make good judgments, ★ show respect to others, ★ show courage in standing up for beliefs, ★ have a strong sense of responsibility, ★ are good citizens who are concerned for their nation and community, and ★ maintain self-respect.” (Excerpted from U.S. Department of Education Office of Communications and Outreach Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen Washington, D.C., 2005.)