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Fatherly Forum

The 3 Parenting Lessons I’ve Learned Working With Kids From The South African Townships

Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives making a global impact.

In the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa children live less than a mile from the ocean, but many of them never see it. The beach seems meant for people who don’t go to bed hungry every night.

I cofounded Ubuntu Education Fund 16 years ago, inspired by a mission to raise vulnerable children in the townships the way their own parents would if they could. We provide food, clothes, tutoring, counseling, and healthcare. But there are a million things a parent does that aren’t so easily quantified — like show his child the ocean.

When my older son Freedom was two years old, we took a trip to Maine to visit my family. He’d seen the ocean before, but this time, he experienced it. You’ve never seen a 2-year-old sit so still as when he is trying to process the overwhelming power of nature. The expression in his eyes — wide and unblinking — was, “What am I seeing right now?” And then joy dawned across his face.The Lief FamilyThat was a beautiful moment but not a unique one. We’d done the same thing at Ubuntu with the township kids we work with. It only took about 10 minutes to drive there, but when we walked onto the beach, every kid stood stock still in amazement. And then you couldn’t hold them back: running into the surf, feeling the sand between their toes, picking up shells. Every experience at the beach that has become a cliché was fresh and thrilling.

There are innumerable differences between the lives of my sons, Freedom and Madiba, growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the lives of the children Ubuntu works with. But in so many fundamental ways they are the same.

I started Ubuntu when I was 21; my first son was born when I was 34. I knew my life had been profoundly altered when I held Freedom for the first time; I realized I knew nothing about being a father when I changed my first diaper (Meconium, who knew?). Still, I’ve realized that I’m uniquely prepared for fatherhood because of my work. Since Ubuntu takes the commonsense approach that the best way to make a difference in a child’s life is to provide everything that any parent would, I’ve seen firsthand, a thousand times over, what can go right and go wrong.

We might forgo a music class to buy a new jacket, but parents in the townships are deciding between buying books for school or bread for dinner.

Lesson #1: Raising A Kid Is Expensive
There’s no getting around this one: You are going to spend a lot of money on a kid. The average cost of raising a child in the U.S., according to the Department of Agriculture, is $250,000 before college. With two growing, voracious boys, our family’s food budget alone is astronomical. We can spend $300 a week on groceries and still find ourselves having to go out for meals. And every time you think you have a handle on costs, Freedom takes a fall and we have to visit the emergency room, or we discover that Madiba has suddenly outgrown all his pants and we have to get him new clothes. Sometimes I ask my wife, “What did we spend our money on before we had kids?”

This constant calculus — are we spending too much this month? — is familiar to me. I’ve witnessed it in the families Ubuntu works with, but their choices are starker. We might forgo a music class because we had to buy a new jacket, but parents in the townships are deciding between buying books for school or bread for dinner. As an organization, Ubuntu sometimes weathers criticism that our costs are too high: We spend an average of $5,000 on a child and up to $11,000 on our toddlers. But our approach evolved over years of seeing that you need to have flexibility when you think about spending money on a child. If she needs books, that’s what you buy her. If she need glasses to see the chalkboard, you get them. If she needs underwear, you are going to get some underwear.

Lesson #2: Children Are Raised By People, Not Supplies
We need to remember that children are raised by human beings, not the toys and gear that we buy for them. Providing for one child’s needs requires attentive parents to figure out what those needs are. And, of course, every child has different needs. I have to sing to Freedom to get him to sleep, and Madiba falls right asleep when you put him in the crib. The same goes for our kids at Ubuntu; the issues that a young girl who has been abused by her uncle are not the same as the issues faced by an HIV-positive boy.One-size- fits-all parenting just doesn’t work, and despite what marketing departments would have you believe, you can’t buy a happy, well-adjusted kid. No matter how much stuff you acquire, you can never replicate the one-on-one time you spend with your son or daughter, even if you are just gazing at the clouds and making up stories. I love my work, and since I live in New York but Ubuntu is based in South Africa, I travel a lot. But one day, Freedom looked up at a plane flying over head and asked, “Papa, you live up there, right?” I realized I had to make a change, and I’ve figured out how to be at home more.

Providing for each child’s unique needs requires someone there to figure out what those needs are. At Ubuntu, we spend hundreds of hours interacting with a child, and much of that is just sitting and having a conversation with her. What’s going on in her life? From those conversations come action: more tutoring, a visit to the doctor, a dress for graduation.

Lesson #3: Kids Drive You Crazy
We love them, but kids are also incredibly frustrating. Sleep training, potty training — every small step toward independence can feel like a battle. But that’s what we are raising them for: to be their own person, to thrive both with us and without us. When you step away from the short term (why can’t we just take the diapers off?) and think about the long term (one way or another, everyone gets out of diapers eventually) it’s easier to relax.

I’m uniquely prepared for fatherhood because of my work … I’ve seen firsthand, a thousand times over, what can go right and go wrong.

With Ubuntu, we’ve had to learn to accept that not every child we work with is going to succeed in the same way, or succeed at all. Not everyone will end up at university. There are factors you can control, and others you can’t. For example, we’ve worked with the Ngceza family for 12 years. Zethu, the oldest, became her younger siblings’ caregiver at 14, when their parents died of HIV-related illnesses. Despite a few bumps in the road, she has thrived — earning her university degree, finding a career path, settling into her own home. Her younger sister, Lungi, also seemed destined for great things. She was smart, charismatic, and driven. But somewhere in adolescence, her path took a detour. She dropped out of school, and we weren’t sure what might happen to her. But she found her way back, and Ubuntu has continued to support her as she earns her high school diploma.

Their brother, Star, has had a much different path. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent more time on the streets than at home, and ended up in prison. We tried everything to get him on track. We supervised his medication, worked to get him into a home for troubled youth, and did everything we could to keep him in school. But at some point, it was up to him, and he chose another way.

What’s amazed me, though, is that even though I started applying the commonsense approach of parenting to my work long before I actually became a parent, I’ve had to relearn all of it in relation to my own kids. You don’t really know how you are going to react to your son’s epic meltdown in a grocery store until it actually happens. You have to be willing to be human, make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. Patience and a sense of humor helps, whether in the townships of South Africa or the brownstones of Brooklyn. I Am Because You Are, by Jacob Lief

Jacob Lief is Cofounder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund, a nonprofit organization taking vulnerable and orphaned children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa from cradle to career so that they can succeed in the world of higher education and employment. Jacob was selected as an Aspen Institute Global Fellow, was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, and in 2012 joined the Clinton Global Initiative Advisory Committee. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and recently authored I Am Because You Are about his South African journey and the creation of Ubuntu Education Fund.

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