I find myself working on the outskirts of the city of Lima. No matter where I look, all I see is a sea of fragile little houses covering the dry hills. In the distance, I hear dogs barking, and I watch a group of children kicking around a ball, enveloped in a cloud of dust. From inside of one of these tiny houses, I hear the voice of a mother as she scolds her son and, a moment later, the child begins to wail. She probably just gave him a spanking.
The work that has brought me to this place involves visiting families with children under two and talking with mothers about child rearing and the development of their children. I’m struck by the age of these mothers we’re visiting; a large number of them are teenagers. During the interview, we reconstruct the story of these mothers and their families: young women who didn’t finish high school and who neither work nor engage in any activity outside the home. Many of them live with their in-laws in dark, airless, cramped houses. As I watch these young women, I can’t help but wonder if the path to teen motherhood was one that they chose for themselves or if it was just the result of a series of disadvantaged circumstances that have surrounded them since childhood.
I’m shocked at the precarious living conditions found in these shantytowns on the outskirts of Lima. The slum where I am presently is one of hundreds of occupied areas, where new urban residents have made a home for themselves in a country whose economic growth has attracted so many to the capital.
Even in the midst of poverty, while visiting homes, we witness moments of joy in the everyday lives of these families. I see a lot of tenderness between mothers and their babies and a huge willingness to breastfeed on demand (it’s so difficult to convince other mothers of this good breastfeeding practice!). I see lots of kisses, caresses and smiles during breastfeeding. When these moms tell us about their children, they speak of them with pride and love.
Nevertheless, during my time there I also sensed that the warmth in these relationships doesn’t last very long. As soon as the children begin to move around independently, many mothers discipline their kids by yelling and threatening them, and they even resort to hitting and spanking. I couldn’t help but ask myself: at what point did that tender, affectionate relationship vanish? Could it be that upon seeing their children moving more independently, the mothers feel that it’s time to “start teaching them how to behave?” Or is it that brothers and sisters arrive, the housework begins to pile up, and these young mothers take their sadness and frustration out on their little ones? Or is this behavior a reflection of how these mothers were raised?
With an eye toward the work we do at the IDB on social policy and early childhood development, I brought back two conclusions from my visit to Peru. The first was the urgent need to invest a considerable effort in reducing teen pregnancy rates in the region. A quick review of World Bank figures (available from 2005 to 2012 for just 12 countries in the region) reveals that between 12 and 26 percent of women aged 15 to 19 have had a child or are pregnant (an unweighted average of 20%). Coincidentally, Peru stands at the top of the list of this group of countries. And so we see the importance of starting a family as the result of a voluntary, responsible decision, as a fundamental condition to ensure that mothers and fathers are committed to raising their children. A recent IDB publication addresses precisely this topic. In that same vein, the IDB, through its Mesoamerican Health Initiative 2015, is implementing an innovative intervention in Costa Rica, which will strengthen child care and food services for the children of teenage mothers who remain in school, and it will work on subsequent pregnancy prevention.
The second idea I brought back from this trip relates to how important it is for the curricula of child development programs that work with parents to improve their child rearing skills, to arm these adults with effective tools that enable them to apply positive approaches to discipline. Not long ago, Berna talked about this topic on our blog. Child rearing that isn’t based on relationships of respect between adults and children, with the goal of encouraging social behaviors that promote empathy, cooperation, responsibility and problem-solving, will probably do little to change the future paths of Latin American children born into disadvantaged circumstances.