Leave the children alone
Upon reading the news about the the Bautista couple I tweeted: “May I remind everyone, especially the media, that the Bautista children are not news targets. Especially as they are minors. #MediaEthics”.
I kept my comment to a tweet because my counseling experience tells me that to protect the well-being of these children, we should not talk about them at all.
Unfortunately, I am in a quandary. Because we need to talk about what the Bautista children are going through in order to educate ourselves about how to uphold their best interest and the best interest of children in general. So with apologies to this family, I write this article.
Before I begin discussing the issues, I cannot overemphasize that this is not about ascribing blame. It is not about taking the side of any parent or any political group. It is purely an attempt at constructive discussion about a topic that is vital to our society’s development.
Also before I begin, let me point out that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as being 18 years or below. But parents of older children might still want to consider applying these standards to them.
I wish that I had been able to counsel Ms Patricia Bautista prior to her decision to go to the media. I wish I had been able to counsel Chairperson Andres Bautista prior to his decision to go public with his answers, too.
In my experience, even the most caring parents, even the most media savvy ones cannot anticipate what happens once the frenzy begins.
This is what I would have advised: say nothing about the children.
Even if it is true that parents risk exposing their families only after considering what their children will suffer, even if they do it to protect their children – it is better they say this only in private to the kids and not in public.
Because, once the children are invoked, then they become part of the political battle.
Often in situations where a spouse is seeking separation because of abuse, the abuser makes the children testify against the abused to friends, in court, and in the media. Often the children are motivated to do this because the abuser cajoles or frightens them. Often the abuser convinces the children that it is the abused who is tearing the family apart and their defense of him or her will cause a reconciliation.
It also happens that neither parent is abusive but they end up making political footballs of their children anyway.
But even if it were true that one parent is immoral and the children know that the other parent is the moral one, I would urge the moral parent not to invoke the children.
Even if the issue is not a matter of media and national interest, I urge parents not to make their children take sides and especially not to make their opinions about their parents public. The children can and will make decisions about their parent’s character in line with their emerging capacities. Even at very young ages their judgment is intimate, nuanced, emotional and yet, very often, fair. It is not compatible with the black and white of “this parent good and that parent bad”. This is why it is not good for their psychological well-being to place them in a position where they have to choose between one or the other parent.
The UN Convention gurarantees the right of the child to form their own opinions and express these. But this must be weighed against the over-arching principle also guaranteed in the CRC of doing what is best in the interest of the child. In cases like this, the children’s best interest is served if they do not appear in the public debate.
To help the situation, the public needs to be more discerning. The parent who remains silent about the children is often disadvantaged because we misinterpret that silence. When we make our judgments, consider that the silent one may actually be the more caring one.
Mainstream media has come a long way in the last few decades. Article 3 of the 2007 Broadcast Code of the Philippines places the protection of the child’s privacy as paramount and prohibits the hurtful intrusions (such as ambush interviews) that we used to see in the past.
Of course social media has no code of ethics. My advice to parents who have decided to go to media is to ask their kids to deactivate their social media accounts and to limit social media engagement while the controvery lasts. This is my advice to the adults too. When one is in a crisis, it is all the more important to listen only to one’s conscience and to the counsel of those who you can trust and whose values you share.
But I would refine media practice and ethics further. Don’t even ask about the children. And if the parent/s were the first to mention their children, that does not give media (or anyone) the right to talk about them.
I will make a debatable suggestion. Do not even quote the parents when they talk about their children. Legally they have given media the right to do so. Morally, I urge media not to exercise that legal right.
I also urge public relations practitioners who may be hired by any party to look at their own practices and values. Help your client craft the proper messages. A good practice would be having your principal say, “It is a very difficult time for us now and I urge all parties to respect our privacy” in response to questions about their children.
The general public
Lastly, I urge the public not to comment (whether positive or negative) about the children. In the current situation you hear things like, “she/he should have considered the children”. But there are worse comments like “how could he/she feed her children on dirty money!”
Many of those who say these things mean it to bolster their judgment of the character of one or the other party. Indeed, judging the character of the parties concerned will help us form our opinions on a matter of national interest. The way people treat their children is a major indicator of their character. Thus, the tendency to look at their relationship to their children is quite understandable.
But we haven’t really heard the children, have we? And we cannot speak to their welfare if we do not know what they are feeling or thinking. On the contrary, as I keep pointing out, expressing our opinions is likely to do them harm.
Many do not realize that a child’s human rights includes the right to participate in any action done in their behalf. Again the CRC is quite clear on this. And this includes any verbal statement that anyone makes about them. We cannot speak for them. Not in their name.
Exception and appeal
I will make one final appeal for all children undergoing this situation and for those who will face the same in the future.
The only reason we should speak to anyone about these kids is to tell our own not to judge on the basis of the newspaper reports. We must strongly urge our children not to bully them and instead to reach out to them and support them. Such an action is to the benefit of our children as well. They can use these as opportunities to learn empathy for the suffering other. It will begin their own understanding of how to be critical of media. It will teach them about respecting another’s human rights.
I also urge all schools to upgrade their guidance counseling programs to support children in these types of crisis. I suggest that the school administrations issue clear guidelines to teachers and staff on how to handle the situation. This includes looking out for these kids, creating a sense that they can open up to teachers who will respect their confidence, be neutral and non-judgmental. It includes ensuring that they are not bullied.
These efforts will help prevent tragic outcomes. Most of these children do end up being bullied by their schoolmates and sometimes even their teachers. The learning environment is no longer conducive when it should be a respite from strife. At worst, they stop schooling.
We need to create zones of peace around children in any conflict – whether this be armed, parental, or political. In peace zones the general public does not allow the conflict to occur nor will it participate in the conflict even if provoked. If a combatant tries to enter a peace zone they must do so by dropping their weapons and only to visit in peace. If a combatant enters with partisan or hostile intentions, that is no reason to allow the other faction to enter. Combatants should be escorted out and made to conduct their fight elsewhere. Keep the children away from the fight and keep them safe. – Rappler.com
Sylvia Estrada Claudio, MD, PhD, teaches Women and Development Studies at the College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines.