Finding Connection in Hard Spaces: The boys who refused to listen

Defiance. It’s hard. When a child can look you in the face and stare you down or walk away and slam a door and not listen at all- it pushes all the triggers in any adult. What’s worse is when that defiance is leading them down a road of self-destruction; we end up feeling powerless and hopeless. 

For all the years that I have been working with children and particularly teenagers, the number one problem caregivers highlight is that “the child just won’t listen.” The child is then dropped off at the office in front of the social worker- hoping that counselling will do the trick. But I’ll tell you a secret- it doesn’t. What changes behaviour and long-term behaviour is relationship- healthy relationship. When a child has a permanent caregiver to help regulate their emotions, who is open to talking with them and a caregiver that implements firm healthy boundaries.  That is when children learn and start making different decisions when it comes to behaviour- it is not easy at all but it is so worth it. 

So when I was running one of our groups focused on behavioural management for teenage boys at one of the local high schools in Heideveld. I had a group of ten boys where I was the only facilitator. The first session, those boys tested me in all the ways- using profane language, throwing balls across the room, laughing every time I spoke. In the first 10 minutes, I thought to myself how am I going to get through one session let alone five more? 

Then I just went silent, watching them interact with one another, watching the dynamic between the leaders and the followers, listening to their lingo and getting a small taste of what it might be like with 50 more learners like this in a class. I felt like I was Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds at one point. One of the boys noticed my staring and shushed the other boys down. I smiled and asked them to tell me what it is like to be a boy growing up on the Cape Flats. 

With excited glee that I handed over the mic to them, they took advantage, shouting out various things while laughing- we sexy mam, we dangerous, we are good lovers, we gangsters, there is no hope here, people don’t see us, you won’t understand, it’s hard. 

One of the boys caught my attention, he was the joker of the group but there was something more to his jokes, something behind those eyes. I could never put my finger on it but something about him made me pay a little bit more attention compared to the other boys. 

Over the next few sessions together we connected, I gave them some information and tools and they would tell me if it would work or not. We found our groove and the ‘angry’ ‘naughty’ boys became the boys I knew had the biggest potential if others around them could just see behind their behaviours. 

Then one day, as I entered the school for our third session together, I noticed that the school was rather empty. As I got out of my car, one of the teachers said there were a lot of gang shootings in the area and so they closed the school early to make sure the learners could get home safe. My heart sank because I knew I promised the boys’ chocolates for participating so well the session before, however I wouldn’t see them as holidays were soon approaching. 

I then made a bold move. I decided to go visit each and every boy to drop off their chocolates and make sure they came back to the group after the holidays. I was warned by some of my team not to go because of the gang violence but my heart just kept telling me to go. I took an intern with me and off we went in my car, first to Manenberg. I’ll never forget parking my car and some gangsters rolling dice next to my car whistling and trying to scare me away. I knocked on the door and one of the boys in the group opened the door with an utter shock on his face. He immediately gave me the tightest hugs I ever received from a 16 year old boy. I told him why I was there and proceeded to give him his chocolate. He called his mother and sister to meet me and they smiled with so much pride as I proceeded to tell them how happy I was in that he was in the programme. 

I proceeded to go down the list going from house to house, some of the homes the boys were living in were not homes. They were just structures, one of the homes all the adults were already drunk at it wasn’t even 1pm in the day. These boys came from hard spaces where most of the adults in their lives were not making healthy choices around them either. They were witnessing abuse of all kinds, they were in homes that didn’t know where their next paycheck was coming from- it was unstable and yet, they still were showing up to school, they were still trying to achieve their dreams- and for that despite their deviance, I saw and cheered them on. 

From there, after the holidays, every boy came back to the group and none of them gave me any issues. They opened up deeply with their thoughts, feelings and why they acted in a certain way. And that joker, the boy always with a smile on his face. Why, he came to the group even though his grandmother didn’t want him there. His reasoning; “I want to be different. I don’t want to end up like my dad in jail. I want to make different choices.” I encouraged each and every boy that though their choices were between hard and harder choices- they still could make the right choice for them if it was leading them to their dreams. It’s been 8 years since running that group and I still remember each & every boy. Though their family dynamics might have not changed, I know they all finished school. 

So back to the word defiance. What I have learnt throughout the years is that for many of our children, behavior is a way our children communicate to us of their unmet needs. 

Through connecting with children and/or teenagers through their favourite activities and by validating their experiences and feelings this is where we find the opportunity to help guide them in coaching them to make the right decision for themselves by inserting firm boundaries. Boundaries that have consequences when they are crossed. 

Punitive measures do not work. Particularly for our children and teens who are exposed to multiple traumas throughout their lives. It leads to feelings of more rejection and abandonment in their lives, and for these kids, we need to work even harder to connect more before we correct. 

At Arise, we believe that discipline is teaching. It is teachable moments in all of our children’s lives and so by maintaining a good healthy relationship of mutual respect that is where our children will also start self-discipline- where they will make healthy choices for themselves in their future. 

Written by Danielle Moosajie (Director and senior social worker)