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By Mia Von Scha, Transformational Coach, motivational speaker, children’s author, student to two Zen Masters (aka kids), avid cloud watcher and lover of life

In South Africa, our Constitution allows for the best interests of the child to be taken as the highest priority in all situations concerning a child. This means that if the parents of the child are not acting in the child’s best interests that the courts may make decisions for that child that override those of the parents.

This is a good thing.

It means that children who are being physically, sexually or emotionally abused do not have to rely on the judgment of their parents for their well-being. Particularly when the parents are the abusers.

So how do we interpret this in terms of the new BELA Bill being proposed when this allows for the 6-year incarceration of parents whose sole crime is to homeschool their children? How do we interpret “the best interests of the child” in this situation?

To understand this we must look at two things:

Why do people homeschool and is this in violation of the best interests of the child?

What effect does a 6-year jail sentence have on families and specifically on the children?

There are as many reasons for homeschooling as there are parents doing it, but we can pull out a few stereotypes from the multiple diverse populations of homeschoolers – the religious homeschoolers who would like their children to have an education based on the values of their faith; the academics and who are concerned with the current state of schooling and would like to ensure that their children get a world-class education; the entrepreneurs who see through the current schooling paradigm as being appropriate for the industrial age and not the technological age and would like to prepare their children for a very different future; and the environmentalists and hippies who would like to steer their children away from the consumerist culture of the mainstream and guide their education into not only serving their own needs but also the needs of the planet and society as a whole.

The launch of the PEP Academy at Muzomuhle School in Umlazi.

Should these parents be jailed for interfering with the best interests of their children? Is the state really proposing to be working in the best interests of the children by placing them in government schools, keeping in mind that our education falls second from the bottom in a study of schooling around the world? Are we really going to criminalise loving your children so much that you want the best kind of education for them based on your values?

Yes, somewhere in this mix there is the odd person who is keeping their child out of school because of severe family abuse that they would like to keep hidden from the prying eyes of educators. But we must ask the question – does sending these children to government schools really stop or prevent abuse? With teachers trying to cope with classes of 30-50 children, with mounting paperwork and limited resources, how many of these problems even get picked up?

And is schooling overall really in the best interests of the children? Surely a loving family life is far more important than anything a child can memorise about history, geography or maths?

The benefits of a happy family life have been shown to infiltrate every aspect of a child’s life including their education, intelligence and later success in life.

Is breaking up a family in the best interest of the child?

Aside from the stigma, loss of income, potential halting of a good career and overall impact on the economy at large, there are serious long term consequences to putting someone into the criminal justice system. The stress that this would place on the parent and family is enough to cause both physical and mental breakdown in most people. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which measures your likelihood of experiencing a physical illness due to stress, puts incarceration as one of the number one most stressful life events, at the same level as death of a close family member. For children the incarceration of a parent is a higher stress level than death of a sibling.

And then, in South African jails there is the very real possibility of rape and HIV infection increasing the risk of a child losing their parent entirely.

What happens to child whose parents have entered the system? In the absence of another caregiver, they will face a similar fate – either in foster homes or group homes, where, again, the risks of physical, emotional and sexual abuse increase.

The stress, the loss of family connections, the possibility that siblings will also be separated – these are risks that we would take if a child was being severely abused and a parent needed to be jailed for their protection. These are not risks we take when children are in loving, caring, supportive homes that foster their development on every level.

A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that children with one parent (never mind both) in the prison system experience decreased ability to concentrate and high levels of ADHD, higher levels of obesity, depression, anxiety and asthma. They found that having a parent incarcerated was “one of the key adverse childhood experiences” that led to “significant health, educational and social problems even decades later”.

Children are also more likely than their peers to experience behavioural problems, withdrawal, hyper vigilance, eating disorders, anger, aggression, hostility, shame and guilt.

Compare this to the benefits of something as simple as eating a meal with your family:

“A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.” (Bruce Feiler in The Secrets of Happy Families)

And that’s just eating a regular meal together. Do we want to stop families from eating together, learning together, playing together and supporting each other through the ups and downs of life?

How can we possibly agree that prison terms for homeschooling parents are in any way justified – either in the best interests of the children or even in the educational interests of the children keeping these findings in mind?

We need to bring this issue back to our children’s Constitutional right to have their best interests taken as a matter of utmost importance in all decisions concerning them. Clearly our current government does not have their interests at heart when they are considering criminalising parents for doing just that. We need to be able to trust our leaders to adhere to the Constitution of the country and we need to stop them from pushing through bills that will violate these rights – particularly when the rights being violated most are those of our children.

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