The child maintenance law in South Africa misses an opportunity to encourage parents to be more present in their children’s lives. We continue to set the bar too low for fathers in this country.
The department of justice and constitutional development family law states that: “Maintenance is the obligation to provide another person, for example, a minor, with housing, food, clothing, education and medical care, or with the means that are necessary for providing the person with these essentials. This legal obligation is called ‘the duty to maintain’ or ‘the duty to support’.”
While reading the sub-sections of this particular law, I had hoped to come across some sophistication that leads to exploring the concept of maintenance beyond the things money can buy.
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As someone who grew up without a father, I know that my needs from him went above and beyond the things that required money. Sadly, the legislation fails to see that children need to be maintained emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.
In the research 2006 paper titled The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children Jeffrey Rosenberg and W Bradford Wilcox opined that “children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes”.
They further state:
“They are more patient and can handle the stresses and frustrations associated with schooling more readily than children with less involved fathers.
The influence of a father’s involvement on academic achievement extends into adolescence and young adulthood.
Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents.”
The two have highlighted the significant roles fathers play that do not require any money. As I browsed through my Facebook feeds this week on the opening of inland schools, I saw a handful of fathers sharing pictures of the first day of school for their “bundles of joy”.
Pictures of single mothers with their children seemed to outnumber those of children with fathers. The underlying messages and struggles of single mothers is a topic for another day.
It is critical that we encourage parents to be more than ATMs. It is equally pivotal to teach children that their fathers can be there for them in more ways than just financial.
Disappointingly, at no point does the South African family law encourage or oblige the other parent to be physically and emotionally present in their child’s life.
If we are to follow this trend, we should not then get surprised later in life when children resent their parents, mostly their fathers for not being there for them.
In most cases, as one gets older it is the emotional and psychological void that counts the most. It is the lack of their emotional and physical presence that leads to what an adult will deal with later on – childhood trauma.
What it further promotes is the unaccountability culture that fathers develop. They are made to believe that money is everything as they equate this with being a good father. And it is not true.
Stats SA notes that almost 70% of black children live without their fathers. And some of these fathers live a street away from their children. If they are allowed to see their children, then it should not only be on as a result of their financial contributions.
The fathers should help their children with homework, walk them to school, attend parents’ meetings and so on.
It is also about having a conversation about their day and whatever the child would also want to talk about.
We continue to drill in this terrible mentality by not holding them to account for not being there for their children in other ways that do not require money.
This has to stop, and it starts with the amendment of the family laws that govern the maintenance of children.
Chabalala is the founder and chairperson of the Young Men Movement, an organisation that focuses on the reconstruction of the socialisation of boys to create a new cohort of men.