Children ‘on Loan’—How Wise Is the Practice?
“AS YOU know, Daniel, I have many children,” said Daniel’s cousin. “So I have decided to distribute some of them among the relatives.” Pointing to a young girl he had brought with him, the cousin said: “This one is yours.”
“Thank you,” said Daniel. Yet, inwardly, he sighed. He had enough children of his own and did not want or need any more. But according to local custom, to refuse the offer would have been considered a serious offense—unthinkable! Daniel now had another daughter to care for.
In many developing lands, particularly in Africa, it is not uncommon for parents to lend their children to relatives or friends for months, years—and sometimes indefinitely. The custom may sound strange to Western ears, but in principle it is similar to the practice of sending children off to boarding schools or long-term summer camps. What, though, is behind the custom of children on loan? Is it a wise practice?
Why They Lend Their Children
Although traditional values are changing, to the African, children are not the exclusive property of parents. Rather, they belong to the extended family. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others are all thought to have rights and authority over youngsters. As one West African proverb states: “One person gives birth, but many mind the child.”
As a result, when emergency situations arise, such as the death of a child’s parents, relatives are ready and willing to take in the orphaned youngster. The primary reason for lending children to relatives, however, is usually financial. When a family is poor and the children are many, the parents may feel that one or more of the youngsters will benefit by living with relatives who are better off. They reason that the relative will find it easier to afford school fees, clothing, medicine, and food. So it is not a lack of parental love but, rather, a desire to provide the best for their children that moves some parents to entrust them to others.
Another reason is a desire for children to get a good education. Perhaps the nearest school is far away from the family home. Since it may be difficult or impossible for the entire family to move, the parents may reason it would be best to send their child to relatives who live close to a school.
Relatives are generally happy to accept these children. Among other things, another mouth to feed also means another pair of hands to do domestic work around the house. And parents sometimes help with expenses by sending money or food.
Factors to Consider
While it is true that there may be certain educational and material advantages in lending a child to others, there are other factors that merit careful consideration. For one thing, how will the child adjust to his new guardians, and how will they adjust to the child? Sometimes such arrangements work well, and the new parents forge strong, loving relationships with their foster children. For example, one Christian elder in Sierra Leone took in his orphaned nephew. When asked years later about his foster son, he replied: “I don’t consider Desmond to be a foster child—he is my son. He is my flesh and blood.”
Not all, however, view their foster children in this way. To illustrate, in one West African city there was rioting. Bullets were flying. “Quick!” yelled one housewife to her two youngsters: “Arthur, take cover under the bed! You, Sorie, look out the window and tell us what’s happening!” Arthur was her natural child, but Sorie, a foster child, or ward.
It is common for preferential treatment to be given the natural children in the family. As a result, the much desired material benefits often fail to materialize. All too frequently wards are overworked, denied education, and are the last in line to receive clothing as well as medical and dental care. Said a missionary who has worked in Africa for over 23 years: “Wards are almost always second-class children.”
Another point to consider: When a child leaves home, there are usually emotional costs. Children’s minds and hearts are sensitive and impressionable. From infancy they crave the comfort and security of a close relationship with their parents. For children to be uprooted from their home to go and live with virtual strangers can be extremely difficult.
In Sierra Leone a woman named Comfort was sent away to live with her aunt at the age of nine. She recalls: “The years I spent away from home were very difficult. I missed my family terribly—especially my brothers and sisters. It was as if they tore me away from where I was supposed to be and put me where I was not supposed to be. Although my aunt treated me very well, I could never talk to her as freely as I could to my own mother. . . . No matter how difficult our situation becomes, I will never send my children to live with someone else.”
Francis, a West African who also grew up in foster care, had this to say: “I regret never having been able to develop a close relationship with my real mother. Somehow, I feel we both missed out on something valuable.”
Those Vital Spiritual Needs
The most crucial factor of all, however, is the child’s spiritual welfare. And God in his wisdom directs that parents themselves care for the spiritual needs of their children. Addressing Israelite parents, God’s counsel was: “These words that I am commanding you today must prove to be on your heart; and you must inculcate them in your son and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) The apostle Paul similarly instructed Christian fathers: “Do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”—Ephesians 6:4.
But how can a child be raised “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah” if he has been sent to live with unbelieving relatives? How shortsighted it is, then, to sacrifice a child’s spiritual interests for material or educational benefits!
What about sending a child to live with fellow believers? While preferable to lending them to unbelievers, in many ways this too is undesirable. The child may still have to cope with major social, emotional, and psychological adjustments. Some children have become despondent or have fallen prey to delinquency and bad association. Some have lost all appreciation for spiritual things.
As parents well know, it requires skill, patience, and much time to instill in a child a love for Jehovah. If such a task is difficult for a child’s natural parents, who intimately know him or her from birth, how difficult it must be for a couple to rear a child that is not their own! Since the everlasting life of a child may be at stake, parents must seriously and prayerfully consider whether lending a child to someone else is worth the risks.
Nevertheless, Christian parents must decide for themselves how they will carry out the counsel of 1 Timothy 5:8: “Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” If they personally are not able to provide the child’s material needs, they should see to it that their child’s spiritual needs are met in the best way possible under the circumstances.
The psalmist wrote: “Children are a gift from God; they are his reward.” (Psalm 127:3, The Living Bible) So cherish your young ones, and keep them close to you. Love them, and let them love you. Help them to become spiritual men and women, for doing so will result in their everlasting blessing. Perhaps you will be able to say, as did John of his spiritual children: “No greater cause for thankfulness do I have than these things, that I should be hearing that my children go on walking in the truth.”—3 John 4.