updated 25 Jan 2013, 15:03
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Wed, Jan 23, 2013
The Star/ANN
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Was your mum a better parent than you?
by Brigitte rozario

The newspapers and news portals these days have stories about parents leaving their children in the car while they run into a shop, or young children who are left alone at home for a few hours, or even parents who forget their child is sleeping in the back seat of the car until it's too late.

While not all of these situations may result in the loss of a child or any untoward incidents, it does raise concerns.

Have parenting standards declined since our parents' time? Are parents today worse at parenting than their parents were? Or are parents today just overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities and tasks in their daily lives?

Dr Abdul Kadir Abu Bakar, president of the Malaysian Psychiatric Association, says that he is not sure if the standards have declined. He thinks that perhaps these "accidents" and incidents are caused by the changing trend where parents are busy in their own worlds of career and personal gains and leave the child to fend for themselves, make adult decisions and take on adult roles very early in life. He cites the example of a five-year-old child asked to shop on the parents' behalf, which is not uncommon today.

"Basically, parenting may be loose and laissez-faire, that is a free-for-all which is a trend we see nowadays. It was perhaps too strict and regimented previously. And, the best model would be a bit of both - some freedom with parental rules. The change is towards allowing children to have lots of freedom and this is the unhealthy trend," he says.

Crime and media role

Zuhairah Ali, executive director of Taman Pendidikan Raihan, a kindergarten and early reading centre, believes that parenting standards have indeed declined over the years. She explains that some parents don't seem to care about their children and are even abusive. In addition, while a lot of parents prioritise their children, not everyone does it in the same manner.

Zuhairah believes that there are parents who feel that children need to be taught how to live and protect themselves rather than protect them too much. This is why some parents might let their children walk unchaperoned on the streets.

She points out that it may be true that most parents are overprotective but it is not a safe world we live in anymore, even if you are at home and just on the computer.

Zuhairah admits that the reason why we hear more about these incidents involving parents in the newspapers could be due to the fact that crime has increased and more cases are being reported today than before.

"Previously, people would be so ashamed of everything and they wouldn't want to report it or tell anyone. Now, things are more out in the open and there's more transparency and openness than before," says Zuhairah.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chaiperson of PAGE (Parent Action Group for Education), agrees, saying that now there are more media reports on such cases (of parents who forget their children, or leave their child alone at home or in the car).

Effects of urbanisation

"Malaysia is becoming more urbanised. We have more PhDs and professionals than we had before but in terms of parenting, we haven't been able to provide that level of education to parents for the challenges they face in this age. In the past, parents didn't have the challenges of computers and the Internet. It's very frustrating," says Zuhairah.

She doesn't believe it is a matter of mothers taking on more than they can chew in trying to juggle work and family that causes the children to suffer. Working mothers aren't necessarily worse mums than stay-at-home mums, she says.

"Perhaps, in the past, mothers stayed home and now both parents go to work. The circumstances are different. Crime is also on the rise. Plus, before, probably parenting wasn't a big thing. The father went to work, the mother stayed home to raise the child. It was safer - kids walked to school, some cycled, there was hardly any traffic on the road. We used to play outdoors. Now, with both parents working and the child having tuition, the child has to do a lot of things on their own," says Azimah.

She points out that now parents have fewer kids as opposed to the past when there were more kids in a family and all the siblings would look out for one another.

"It's tough being a parent now. It's so competitive. Kids in school are competing against each other all the time. It's so competitive to get into university and we can't rely on schools to help them get in. So, kids have to go for extra classes which take time, and requires a lot of effort and money. If both parents are having to pop in and out of the home to send their children for classes, it is difficult," opines Azimah, who admist to forgetting to pick her child up from school on one occasion.

"I think it's a great balancing act. Of course, parents make children their priority but it's a great balancing act and as much as you have your child at the forefront, sometimes you might forget or overlook something. It's not deliberate," she adds.

Great responsibility

However, Azimah admits that some people aren't prepared when they become parents and some don't realise the enormous responsibility involved.

Zuhairah agrees, saying that some parents love their kids but don't know what to do.

"There is a lot of despair sometimes. But of course there are parents who really don't bother or parents who abuse their kids. They would have their own issues to handle before they can cope with their kids.

"I think we have to address it before they have their baby, not when they have a baby. We need to solve the issues before they have the baby which is easier and more humane for the child-to-be.

"But I think the challenges of parenthood are much, much more difficult now as children now have the world at their disposal. In the past, you just had books and they could be put away. Now, there's the TV, computer and handphones," says Zuhairah.

Dr Abdul Kadir believes that despite changing times, being a parent is a great responsibility. "Lack of time is no excuse if you are a responsible person. As an adult, you have decided to have the child and you are responsible to make sure the child turns out to be a responsible adult.

"In most instances, parents, especially mothers, have the instinct on what's good for their child. And, if they can listen to their elders, better still. But, lots of parents have personal and interpersonal conflicts they have yet to resolve. They must get advice on these first from elders, friends and professionals.

"In addition, parenting courses are being taught and offered by many agencies. They should attend these courses, especially first-time parents, as this is a fast-changing world and the support of extended family not always and easily available."

While both Zuhairah and Azimah doubt that parents would attend parenting courses, Zuhairah believes that it is important to empower parents with information to help them tackle the challenges of the modern world.

The missing link

According to Azimah, the extended family is the missing link for urban families today.

"Today, with urban migration, parents have just one or two kids and they live in their little environment, and don't talk to their neighbours. Before, you knew everyone who lived on your street and you could rely on them for help, for example, if you had to go to the shop, you could leave your kids with the neighbour.

"The extended family isn't always around and because parents raise their children without that support, there isn't the family values that come with the old folks. The old folks are always a good reminder of family values," she explains.

Dr Abdul Kadir, Azimah and Zuhairah agree that no one is to blame for this trend that we see happening in Malaysia. It comes with the country's development and the fast-paced world we now live in.

Azimah believes that parents often think that adverse incidents won't happen to their family and the kids will be fine if they leave them at home or in the car alone just for a little while.

Parents often feel they have no choice because they have to go somewhere and they don't have people to rely on to help them and they think nothing will happen. Or, they think if anything happens they will be able to react in time.

"I think a large number of times nothing happens which is why they keep doing things like leaving their kids alone at home while they go to the shop, or leave the child in the car while they pop into the grocery shop.

"Sometimes they think they have no choice and at other times they don't want to impose on others by asking for help," she explains.

Azimah suggests parents work from home to be able to focus on their kids and perhaps give them more flexibility in their schedule.

How can society help?

Zuhairah says it's all about changing society. "Some things can't be helped, but the best is to start with yourself and your family. We can't save the world on our own. If everyone does their bit, things can improve. We can't be pessimistic. We have to be optimistic about it and we have to try because if we give up, then that's the end of it. There are tools like courses for parents to attend. Often parents don't feel the need to go for courses until something has happened. I think the values and support system are very important. If you don't have the support system it's very difficult," she says.

She encourages parents to make the hard decision of going from full-time employment to an option that allows them to work from home.

"If it helps them become better parents and raise happier and healthier children, then why not? The big leap from working in the office to working from home may not even be permanent; it may only be for a few years until the child is bigger," she adds.

Azimah believes that it is important to have the support of neighbours, children's peer groups, the community and the parents of your children's friends. This is important to monitor the child and to ensure the child is safe. A community can also be relied on for help when the parent can't be with the child.

In summing up, Azimah says, "I don't think that parenting standards have declined.

"I think the Government can only do so much; in the end it's really up to you to make a success of parenting. There are people around who can help and want to help. It's just a matter of finding them. Don't think that you are imposing. I think Malaysians generally are helpful people and a caring lot, so if you were to ask for a hand, most people will oblige."

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