I don't have kids. I am the proud aunt to a quirky eight year old niece, her Dad sees her twice a year, at most. She attends one of those private schools that have popped up in response to middle class South Africa's fear of public education. You know the kind; with a school crest (est 2010) and compulsory branded lunch tins and swimming caps.
She attended a Valentine's Ball for dads and daughters, and mums and sons a month ago. She was sent home with the invite and the messaging was clear – bring your dad: you're supposed to have one. The school, to their credit, was quite accommodating when my sister asked whether she or someone else could attend with her. My brother stepped in. It is also custom to make Fathers Day cards and dads are invited for a special celebration. My father usually steps in.
Let's consider what these occasions are and what they reinforce. The unspoken ideal being driven home is that having a dad or mum present in your life is the norm. These aren't national or religious holidays which teach us something about our history or about cultural pluralism, they simply reinforce an outmoded way of being a family and make children aware that they are missing something which they might not otherwise have been aware of. Schools are a space for learning, but if we are honest, they are a space to learn cultural norming – what's okay and what isn't.
I know a number of single parents that have tried approaching schools to remove these practises but this is usually met with a seemingly innocuous attitude of "well, lets not spoil the other kids fun". The insidious message is that this is the norm and little thought it given to the emotional and psychological impact on the children placed in their care.
Lets consider if it is the norm. Here are the latest stats from the Institute of Race Relations Demographics report for 2017, based on Statistics South Africa's 2014 data:
Divorce statistics from Stats SA's latest report in 2014 shows that divorce is at an all time high and that for the first time a larger percentage of black marriages are ending in divorce. As middle class South Africans the breakdown of the nuclear family through divorce or children out of wedlock is a relatively new thing, let's say a phenomenon of the last 30 years. But the vast majority of black working class parents and migrant labourers have long known of the multiplicity of ways one can be a family – out of circumstance and not choice.
Same sex unions have been legal in South Africa since 2006 and yet teachers continue reinforcing the idea that one should have one mum and one dad. In a country with astounding child headed household figures and grandmothers who take care of children does it not seem completely outmoded?
Research abounds about the effects of absentee fathers on children's development, much of this related to the financial impact of a single income household with a female breadwinner. However, there is a psychological impact due to not having a father, particularly if this is reinforced as the expected "normal". Single women in countries like Denmark on the other hand are taking advantage of government sponsored IVF to fall pregnant. The cited reason: there is no stigma to being a single mother.
A cursory look at the statistics show that these "harmless" and "folksy" practices have the unintended effects of militating disproportionately against children of single mothers and black women in particular – the most vulnerable segments of society. Schools need to realise that they have a duty to help raise psychologically healthy children by not reinforcing cultural ideas which have no place in reality or our cultural rubric.