New Vision (Kampala)

9 January 2013

Uganda: Should Children Be Flagged Down By Curfews?

When asked what she thinks when she sees a group of teenagers hanging out in a nightclub, 17-year-old Christine says, "I assume they are likely to drink themselves silly and later fornicate." She quickly adds, "Hooliganism is also likely to rule that night."

So, are teenagers more likely to get into trouble when the sun goes down? The answer is yes, according to Christine. "They are more prone to rape, crime, keeping bad company and getting involved in accidents," she says.

Christine could be right as her arguments are corroborated by statistics. A 2011 Uganda Police report shows that in 2010, there were 3,329 child-related cases, where juveniles were direct targets or victims of crime.

To prevent their children from becoming part of these statistics, many parents and guardians are setting curfews for their children. A curfew, which is a deadline on how late a child can stay out, is one of the most important instructional tools and a great way for teenagers to learn societal norms.

Helping children understand their limits is an important lesson of childhood, according to psychologists. Despite the reasons for curfews, they still remain a controversial issue among parents and children.

Parents' take on curfews Some parents keep tabs on their children during holidays with the assumption that regulating the time they spend away from home is the best way of keeping them out of trouble.

"I never let my daughter go out on her own because I do not trust the choices she might make," says Julius Mutwamu, a father of two. He thinks his daughter can only be safe unless she is accompanied by her brother.

Mutwamu speaks from experience, having had to pick his daughter from Police stations a number of times. Alphose Shaka, a father of four, is more concerned about the company his children might keep.

"When your children's social circles begin to widen, they go to places of people you do not know or may never meet," he says. Often, he adds, such groups are more destructive than constructive.

"I always urge my children to bring their friends home so that I get to know who they are. I recommend those that appear responsible to hang out with my children. I also insist that they move with a phone to call for help in case of trouble," Shaka adds.

Some parents argue that unsupervised outings can lead to immoral behaviour, especially among teenagers.

"I pity parents whose children I see roaming the streets and in nightclubs doing things unsuitable for their age," says Sheila Kente, a mother. She wonders whether such children are governed by any regulations at home.

"By the time it is dark, my daughter knows she should be back home. She knows better than to disobey me," Kente adds.

Abraham Tusubira, another parent, calls for a balance between the traditional African ways of child upbringing and the modern ones, which has become more westernised.

In the former, children were raised by the community. "It was everyone's business to raise children, making it easier to prevent a child from becoming way ward.

"Since some of our norms have been lost over the years, imposing a curfew on a child could be misinterpreted as a violation of their rights. So both views have to be integrated," Tusubira says.

He leaves it to the parents to figure out how they can restrict outings their children can go for.Like many other parents, Tusubira also argues that it would help for parents to go out with their children, once in a while.

However, Martin Ssonko, a Senior Three student at Lubiri Secondary School, disagrees with the idea of parents setting curfews for their children. "The more they lock us up during holidays, the more I attempt to escape from home," he says.

Experts' advice

"Curfews are important because they set up reasonable boundaries to protect your family culture," says Susan Kuczmarski, in her book The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent's Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go.

"Reach an agreement together about the curfew that is appropriate for each child. Compromise where necessary. You do not always have to be the winner."

As a trained social scientist, Kuczmarski has done extensive research on how children learn social skills. She advises that parents need to communicate to their children both in writing and verbally.

"Post the note on the refrigerator and reinforce with a verbal reminder such as 'Looking forward to seeing you around 11:00pm tonight'". Kuczmarski advises that parents need to be careful on how hard they make curfews.

"Allow space for a small buffer, perhaps 15 minutes, so that your child does not rush to be home to avoid punishment." When the child is late, Kuczmarski advises that they should be given the opportunity to explain.

"If a child still breaks the curfew rules, let the agreed upon consequences come into play. Since you and your children have already discussed these consequences together, you are not forced into the position of playing the 'bad guy'."

Ruth Ssenkumba, a psychology lecturer at Makerere University, also argues that it is important to set boundaries for youngsters. "This can be done by setting the time they should return home from their adventures.

The time can be revised as they grow older." She says a parent could drop the children to see who they are hanging out with. "It is also important to know the parents of your children's friends so as to coordinate their visits," Ssenkumba says.

She, however, notes that when children object to their parents' monitoring, chances are high they are up to some mischief. "It is helpful for parents to be vigilant and make it clear that if rules are broken, freedom will be restricted. Once in a while, go along and see what it is that children indulge in," she adds.

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