The Malta Independent 2 April 2020, Thursday

A child called Willa

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 8 June 2016, 08:38 Last update: about 5 years ago

It is useless to say how admirable and resilient Willa is. This 8 year old has shown character that most of us won’t manage to garner over a lifetime.  Let’s face it, the buoyancy and spirit of children is immense.  They have it in their nature to survive.  You only need to watch the footage of children in refugee camps on the news and see how they manage to remain creative, positive and fully engaged in life whilst the adults around them look helpless and feeble. 

Sometimes I wonder if overprotection might actually dampen and remove that shine, strength of character and personality that children have embedded in them. As the renowned educationalist Freire would say, children are not empty vessels needing ‘filling up’.  I think we are terribly wrong if we think kids are designed that way.  Children are full and complete humans in their own right.  Their feelings, emotions and intellect are developed respectfully to the age they carry. 

Whilst Willa’s optimism and outlook to life is commendable we would be making a disservice to children if we think that this is unique and singular.  Indeed, my experience working in the social sector has given me this privilege to touch base with children whose life hasn’t been a bed of roses.  I’ve worked and come in touch with children with a disability who were enduring so much pain physically and emotionally, children who were being fostered because their natural parents had relinquished responsibility, children who were sick and in excruciating pain because of cancer, others who were experiencing poverty and deprivation and in most situations I’ve seen a twinkle in the child’s eye, a determination not to let go. 

So Willa in this sense is not unique.  True, she represents so many children that have been knocked down in life because of choices that they did not make for themselves or circumstances that have conditioned their comfort.

The beauty of children is that it lies in their nature to survive, kick up and when the going gets rough they seem to pick on an extra dose of energy stocked up for these moments. The passion and desire of children to live and have fun, to achieve and to work towards their aspirations is unparalleled.  Naturally Willa’s pluck and valour is commendable.  To be able to share such a delicate story is a tough job to do especially when the issue is continuallyevolving.  It was even more challenging as she and her family decided to face the media a number of times these last years.  I’m sure the media was briefed and alerted about the sensitivity of the issue and from what I gather all-in-all they did a good job.  Yet, Willa and her parents still had to facethe cameras, mikes and subject themselves to scrutiny. 

One could say that Willa all along was well protected with a conscious calculated decision taken byher parents. 

As a matter of fact the difficulty doesn’t lie with the media reporting this case, which was generally veryeven-handed.  My biggest fear in such situations is the consumers of media which is something we can never have control over.  A media house might be able to manage what content gets placed in its portals and newspapers and what gets broadcastbut once it is out there, there isn’t anything that can be done to stop the maliciousness of people who use the comment boards of news portals and the social media to cough up all the venom that resides in them.  Some people arebrutal - they hide behind a nom de plume andfake identities.  These trolls are simply despicable. 

Having said that I still believe that it is the role of the media to bring home these important accounts that shroud our communities.  The truth is that many of us might not have had the opportunity to connect through work, family ties or voluntary work with such complex life stories.  That is why the media has aduty to help ‘us’link up with these realities. 

However this is very delicate ground to walk on especially when children are at a certain age.  In fact over-exposure might be traumatic to children even if the stories are affirmative.  This also applies when we are parading children during TV marathons and political activities. 

As far as I’m concernedit is unjustified to position children on the media when they are being used to champion a cause.  I am totally against children having to carry responsibilities they shouldn’t be carrying in the first place and to take such far-reaching positions – it is too big a risk.

People who like me have close friends who had to experience ‘coming out’ and ‘transitioning’ know that this is a very subjective affair and immenselytricky, let alone for a kid.

In Willa’s situation I would go a step further.

In Willa’s case one can’t brush aside the strength and positive energy that the parents transmit.  They are intelligent and smart parents whose generosity is inestimable.Having said that even Willa’sdad in an interview on tvm.com.mt (2/6/2016) admitted that he ‘needed to protect her’ and his face illustrated a tint ofnervousness.  This position was sharedby the civil society entities as well, amongst other Drachma, the Commissioner for Children and MGRM. 

But I think Willa’s situation goes a step further. 

I do subscribe to the Commissioner of Children’s position that we must be careful that children do not become symbols of our struggles.  Children have a right to be sheltered and being the age that Willa is I think that her exposure was uncalled for. At eight years children might understand what is happening to them but will most likely be unaware of the long term consequences.  This has got nothing to do with being embarrassed or shy to share your identity but simply a question of safeguarding children.

The book that Willa wrote with the support of her parents is commendable. Her enthusiasm to help other children is praiseworthy, because children are intrinsically generous, inclusive and good.  But whilst literature is important and helpful for children to come to terms with this issue and whilst Willa’s enthusiasm is contagious I think we would do better to focus on improved training for educators, school counsellors, PSD teachers and other professionals who  need to deal with these situations day-in day-out. 

What we really needis more services to respond to children who are facing so many challenges where schools need to keep digging-in to try and resolve the matters that they are being faced with all the time; from children who are experiencing separation from their parents to children experiencing gender discomfort; ;from children experiencing social exclusion and poverty to children being discriminated against because of their impairments. 

Yet still, no child should be given theresponsibility to solve the gaps we have in the system.  The best interest of Willa in my eyes isparamount, nothing comes before that.

 

 

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