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The case of Adam and his misbehaving parents

The case of Adam and his misbehaving parents

ADAM REI was always popular among his playmates. They looked up to him and

admired his skills and spirit. Adults in his neighborhood on the outskirts of

Phnom Penh also thought the 12-year old boy was well-mannered and polite. He

would always put down his school books and help out, if somebody needed a


Only Adam Rei's parents seemed oblivious to their son's qualities.

To their despair, he had a tendency to forget time and stay out too


After several unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem with

threats, beatings and house arrest, they decided to shackle Adam Rei to the bed

- like a monkey on a chain. At least that way he would have to stay


The story of Adam Rei is but one example highlighting the tendency

among Cambodian parents to believe that the only way of raising and educating

their children is through beatings and physical punishment.

According to

experts, adults have difficulties communicating with the young and don't

understand the world of their offspring - the consequence of an enormous

generation gap, stemming from kids and parents growing up in radically different


Adolescents especially are often left with nobody to talk to

about their misgivings through a difficult period of their lives. And while it

is not unusual for parents to abandon their young kids completely, many

teenagers turn their backs on traditional family values, as they are lured into

a life of freewheeling and crime.

In the case of Adam Rei, his parents

eventually told him that they would kill him if he stayed out too late once

again. But their son was never good at keeping track of the hours, and the next

time Adam Rei discovered that he had been away too long, he simply didn't dare

to go home.

The youngster slept on the street for two or three days,

before his parents found him. They then erected a tall fence around their house

and kept Adam Rei, his two younger brothers, aged four and six, and their nanny

locked up all day.

Unfortunately, Adam Rei's playmates decided to

liberate him by breaking through the gate. After that incident, the chain came


Not until the situation came to the attention of human rights group

Licadho was the boy freed from his shackles. He had been in chains for almost

one month, but is now living in an orphanage in Phnom Penh.

"Many adults

don't understand the psychology of kids," says Sou Sophorn Nara of the

children's organization Redd Barna.

"They think their children will only

improve if disobedience or misbehavior is punished with beatings. But they don't

explain to the children why they beat them or what they have done wrong, so

instead the kids lose their confidence and are discouraged to


In a survey from 1996, carried out by the organization Project

Against Domestic Violence (PADV), more than two out of three Cambodians believed

it was right to hit their children as a disciplinary measure. The main reasons

for punishing children were if they were noisy, quarrelsome or impolite to


According to PADV, one effect of this culture of physical

punishment is that violence creates violence. A girl who is beaten by her

parents will often later in life beat her own kids, and a boy who is accustomed

to physical punishment is likely to develop violent tendencies towards his

future wife.

Another misunderstanding of children's psychology is

expressed by parents abandoning their kids - mostly in order to go and search

for work in other parts of the country. Very young children are usually left

with a relative, while older ones often become orphans. It is quite normal that

the parents stay away for years.

"I guess when you already have ten

children, number eleven doesn't really matter," muses Eva Galabru of


But worse scenarios unfold when parents deliberately abandon

children who have become lost.

"Every year at Khmer New Year, we worry

about what will happen. Families travel around the country. Kids get lost in the

crowds. But parents nevertheless return home without finding them. They seem to

think that the young ones are able to find their way home themselves," says

Sebastien Marot of the children and community organization Friends/Mith


Meanwhile, the gap between young and old generations is

widening. Cambodian parents of today grew up under and in the aftermath of the

Pol Pot regime, where family patterns and values were crushed by the Khmer

Rouge. They developed their outlook on life during the following years of

hardship and international isolation.

Their offspring, however, are born

into a Cambodia that is increasingly influenced by foreign and particularly

western values. The children's beliefs are formed with input from Thai movies,

karaoke videos, billboards advertising the Marlboro Man and other parts of the

omnipresent Coca-Cola culture.

"Every day we see examples of how parents

don't understand their sons and daughters. Sometimes, they simply watch their

children's world with disbelief. The kids, on the other hand, are torn between

wanting to be good children by respecting their parents' values and wanting to

move on and create their own," says Sebastien Marot.

Instead of trying to

cope with the reality of their youngsters, many better-off parents use money to

justify their lack of attention or understanding.

"Adult Cambodians of

today have a wrong perception of values," says sociologist Bit Seanglim, who

wrote the book The Warrior Heritage.

"They think that just because they

have a good, well-paid job, it also means that they are a good father or mother.

The more money they give their kids, the better parents they think they are. But

at the same time they neglect their sons and daughters - they don't talk with

them, spend quality time with them or try sincerely to understand their


Not that Cambodian adolescents mind the money their

parents give them. On the contrary, they need it and want it badly in a culture

where fancy clothes, fast motorbikes and a smart haircut will buy you prestige

and admiration among those of your age.

"Also, there's not much to do in

Phnom Penh, if you're young. And the few existing activities such as video

games, pool and snooker halls, karaoke bars, brothels and casinos all cost

money," says Valérie Taton, consultant at UNICEF.

Unfortunately, the

youngsters' need for a constant cash flow may at some point push them into

criminal offenses - and often their parents are the first victims. This was the

case for 17-year old Saravuth, who was recently holed up in the government's

Youth Rehabilitation Center outside Phnom Penh. When his pocket money ran out,

he simply stole his family's motorbike and sold it for $1,200.

"I needed

the money to have fun and enjoy life in the city," explains


There is no sign of remorse, either in his voice or in his

eyes, that indicates that he wouldn't do it again.


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