The recent America’s Next Top Model runner-up Mamé Adjei caused controversy on social media when she spoke out on the show about how she was “raised over the phone”.
By Karabo Disetlhe
This followed her tale about how her Ghanaian parents sent her to the US to stay with her aunt and get a better education.
Adjei said she was emotionally scarred and blamed her parents for abandoning her, something she said she carries with her to this day.
While some people on social media sympathised with Adjei, others lambasted her for throwing her parents under the bus, as they did what they had to do to ensure her a better life.
The reality, though, is that thousands of children in SA are raised over the phone too. This is something that has happened for decades, as many parents often had to leave their homes and look for work in the city, while leaving their children behind to be raised by grandparents or an aunt.
The inevitable result has often been what Adjei said; parenting over the phone.
But what impact does this have on children? Can they be scarred for life like Adjei claims?
And while some parents have no choice but to leave their children in the care of others, are there certain things that can be done to improve the quality of parenting over the phone?
Educational therapist Nombulelo Nzama says the effects of long-distance parenting are similar to that of any long- distance relationship.
“You ever wonder why some long-distance romantic relationships work and some just crumble? The difference is usually the effort put in by both partners. Be it the frequency of visits, calls and nice romantic gestures, if both the parties involved try their utmost, the relationship certainly can work,” she says.
The difference with long-distance parenting is that all the effort falls on the absent parent. It is up to them to make it work, Nzama says.
“If they implement all the tools towards improving the quality of the relationship, although it will never really replace the physical presence of the parent on a daily basis, the long-distance parent-child relationship certainly can work,” she adds.
According to Nzama it is important to understand how, if not handled correctly, the child could be affected.
“Parenting is a full-time job, that requires the parent to be plugged in and monitoring the daily comings and goings of their offspring. Apart from that, a parent physically being there to nurture and guide the child also creates a bond with them.
“Parents are a safe haven for their kids, a comfort zone, someone who they cannot wait to run to after school and tell them how their day was, what silly playground fights they had, and a bruise they want kissed better. When the parent is absent, imagine what a vacuum they are left with,” she says.
The biggest mistake parents often make is not even telling their children of their plans and just simply making a swift exit, Nzama says.
“This is exactly what causes some children to have a sense of abandonment. They would often be whisked away to go and stay with grandma all of a sudden, and have to be content with seeing their parent only at the end of the month. Because most children tend to blame themselves, be it for divorce or certain things they had absolutely no control over, a parent suddenly leaving with only a one-liner as an explanation will certainly lead to a child blaming themselves and wondering what they did wrong. Make sure that your plans are explained as thoroughly as possible.
“Children can also wonder why Thabo lives with his mom and dad and they only get to see mom when she visits. All of this is a sneak peak into the puerile psyche of a child, which can have an overall impact on how they view themself, a sense of their self worth and a sense of belonging in the long run.”
So are there ways to improve a long- distance parenting relationship?
Nzama shares the following ways:
l Make sure you really have NO choice.
“Before you depart, make sure that you have exhausted all avenues in trying to take your kids with you.
l Make sure you leave your kids in a safe environment.
This does not only refer to a roof over their heads. A safe environment consists of a trusted adult, whose parenting skills are proven and whose parenting style you agree with.
l You will need airtime, and lots of it.
Put it in your monthly budget if you have to. But you will need to call your kids at a minimum of once a day, everyday, without fail.
They need to know that you are a phone call away, any time they need you.
l Don’t neglect your parenting duties.
This does not mean you cannot do it over the phone. Find out how they are doing, ask them about their day at school, if they did their homework. Remind them about brushing their teeth before they sleep, stuff like that, no matter how miniscule it seems. Also, keep in touch with their teachers, find out how they are doing in school, if anything is needed.
Once a month is not enough. If this is something else you have to put into your monthly budget, so be it. Make regular visits to check on your kids, they need it.
Listen to their qualms
And listen good. Do not sweep anything under the rug that they are not happy about in terms of their living conditions.