Growing up down the road from my grandparents’ house in Limpopo was a girl who knew how to upkeep a household by the time she was 10years old. She knew how to clean, cook, do the family’s laundry by hand, go to school and look after her siblings while she was trying to hold on to a childhood that was quickly slipping away. Her father lived and worked in another province and honestly, throughout my childhood, he remained some sort of mysterious legend because he rarely came home to visit. Her mother, on the other hand, worked as a casual laborer where she was required to get up at the crack of dawn and returned home after dark, and I am sure she was unfortunately too tired to parent even on the days that she was home. So although my childhood friend’s parents lived, they had to be physically and emotionally absent to put food on the table. This sacrifice is itself very common in the black community, were black parents have had to priorities feeding their families at the expense of being and parenting their kids because of our history of homelands and migrant labor.
By the time my friend was a 10 years old child, she was tasked with holding down the fort by looking after her 3 younger siblings even though she had two older brothers and two parents who were still alive. She carried the burden of being the oldest girl in her family, and in reality, she was just another young black girl who was forced by the social and economic circumstances of her birth to take on adult responsibilities that were never hers, to begin with. Her experience busted the myth that child-headed households occur when kids are orphaned because she had two living parents, but she had to take on the role of a single parent in her family. A 2018 study published by the Children Institute at the University of Cape Town found that “95% of children living in child-only households do have a living parent but the parent isn’t able to take care of them on a daily basis, with poverty being the main reason”. Many of these children are also said to be exposed to violent and exploitative conditions that affect their education. The research has found that 58000 children in South Africa are currently living in child-headed homes in which everyone is under the age of 18, and almost half of such households are led by young boys who live alone in poverty (2018; Children Institute at the University of Cape Town). Thus the adultification of black children is not an anomaly in our culture, it has formed part of the lived experience of many black children who had to raise themselves and others over the generations.
Thus “adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence. Adultification contributes to a false narrative that black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision making — a key characteristic of childhood” Rebecca Epstein. “Childhood adultification involves children being exposed to adult knowledge and engaging in behaviours understood as ‘adult-like’ (such as taking on caregiving or provider roles in the family)” Rebecca Epstein. This violent exploitation of childhood innocence happens to neglected children under the age of 18 who in reality are supposed to be living in the safety and care of a home and or society where they are treated as children, instead of being burdened with the decisions that are traditionally reserved for grown people. Its children who find themselves being expected to play roles that ought to be fulfilled by grown people with life-experience and knowledge that would help them make healthy and informed choices for their lives. Adultification often affects children who are already socially and economically marginalized, therefore easily prone to further exploitation.
This manifests in different ways in our society, resulting in a position where black children are perceived and treated as though they are adults, with early loss of innocence. We see it in how they are treated by the criminal justice system were they are trialled as adults for offences their white counterparts would be led off or rehabilitated for. We see this in cases where they are exposed and or fall prey to sexual violations in the hands of adult men who sexualize their child bodies, with black children being held responsible for their own sexual abuse and being accused of ‘seducing’ their abusers. We’ve seen this in the R.kelly case (not an exception), with claims being made that the minor girls he assaulted looked ‘grownup’ to justify such behaviour. I saw this practice growing-up when the mother-in-law of one of the women in my family blamed us as children for ‘dressing’ and ‘acting inappropriately’ when she was told her 30something year’s old son offered to pay one of the kids’ money to sleep with him. This is a man we saw as an uncle because he watched us grow-up, but he didn’t think twice about taking advantage of and betraying that trust. The scary thing is that he also worked in the company of minors at the time. His mother claimed that this adult man with his own kids did nothing wrong when she was told to ‘speak to him about his behavior’, to her he could do no wrong and ‘he was but a weak man’ who was being tempted by our ‘inappropriateness’. His actions were horrifying, but at the end of the day, nothing became of it. His mother believed that it was our responsibility to make sure that we were not sexualized by adult men, as children we were socialized to take measures to conceal the edges of our bodies in an effort to preserve whatever is left of our innocence. To her, the only reason her son behaved as he did, was because we were being sexually ‘suggestive’ around him with our clothing, dancing and breathing, therefore ‘asking for it’. In her eyes, we were ‘tempting’ her son with our presence, so he never had to account for anything. We see this in a society where our bodies as black women have long been subject to hyper-sexualization and fetishization while historically condemning us to being promiscuous by nature, even long before our bodies are modified by puberty. We see it in our homes where parents expect their daughters to cover up in the presence of men who visit their households, with the knowing eye of an adult who believes that ‘men have prying eyes’ as though to excuse and normalize the predatory behaviour. The same way we all joke about having ‘that uncle’ that nobody calls out for preying on the little kids around him. For us Black South Africans, this happens on a daily basis in taxi ranks were fully bearded grown men assault school kids in uniform because their ‘dungarees or skirts are too short’, with onlookers who are quick to say the kids ‘should know better’. The protection of Black children is never prioritized because they are expected to be self-sufficient and presumed to be less innocent, with childhoods that are eroded and erased before it’s time.
This is not a new phenomenon nor is it unique to South Africa’s black community, hence there is a history of the practice in the US. We’ve also seen it continue to seep into the present through widely documented cases of child murders and incarcerations of black boys in the hands of the criminal justice system. Thus according to Professors Michael J. Dumas and Joseph Derrick Nelson, the interruption of black childhoods in the US can be traced back to the days of slavery. “Black boys and girls were imagined as chattel and were often put to work as young as two and three years old. Subjected to much of the same dehumanization suffered by Black adults, Black children were rarely perceived as being worthy of playtime and were severely punished for exhibiting normal child-like behaviours.” Although the context around how black kids are adultified has changed due to modernization and democratic laws, neglecting and devaluing black childhoods remains normalized.
Adultification happens to both young girls and boys, with young boys often being expected to symbolically and materially play the role of a father figure in the absence of an older male or a father in a black household. This expectation has often seen young boys abandoning school and turning to criminality in order to help financially contribute to the household. With cultural beliefs that often encourage and pressure young boys to embrace the role of being the head of the family, and take on the responsibility of providing the security a father is often expected to fill. We see it with initiation practices that serve as a rite of passage to transition young boys into ‘manhood’, even though they are still children. It’s romanticizing ‘sexual relationships’ (legally statutory rape) between adult women and under-age boys instead of treating it as rape. It’s centering young girls who are disempowered in conversations about ‘sugar daddies,’ instead of holding the older men responsible for taking advantage of their situations.
Adultification happens to black kids just for being born black, and we are all implicated in the perpetuation of this violation through either our silence or actively enforcing such beliefs. Thus I remember being in awe and glorifying my childhood friend when I watched her do all the things she was expected to do at her age because to me she seemed so independent to my child-like eyes. I didn’t stop to think that she was being robbed of her childhood, that she shouldn’t have to live a life as a child with adult-like responsibilities. Being adultified meant that she often had to priorities adulting at the expense of her childhood, she often had to abandon playing early to go home and cook dinner for her family to avoid getting into trouble. Even back then, she was not an exception, I knew other kids in the neighbourhood whose lives mirrored hers. Many of these kids eventually had kids very young, and quit school to get jobs to care for their babies. They had no one to speak out for them, nor shelter and protect their innocence. Their lived experience was just what it was, it was not a shock to anyone. In fact, it was expected that their lives’ trajectory would result as it did because they replicated the lives of other women and men who came before them.