Why parenting should be seen as a policy issue

Lim Su Lin


IS parenting a proper issue for public policy or should it be kept a strictly personal matter?

The question is not an easy one, given that parenting is such a subjective exercise. The way families raise their children varies greatly, depending on social class, family unit structure, not to mention parents’ personal values and judgments. Moreover, especially in Malaysia, cultural nuances also come into play.

Most would agree that raising a child is the family’s responsibility, not the state’s. Yet there are exceptions to this rule. For example, our country upholds the 2001 Child Act, where government can intervene in extreme cases of parental dysfunction, such as child abuse.

Last year, reports of a mother chaining her child to a lamp post as punishment for playing truant from school prompted the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development Rohani Abdul Karim to issue a public statement promising that the government would take steps to curb similar incidents.

Last month, when a video clip of an elderly woman repeatedly beating a six-year-old child went viral on social media, the police lost no time in rescuing the victim and arresting the suspect.

Dysfunctional parenting and its impact

The issue of competent parenting in our country stretches back further than one might think.

In 2011, researchers at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the University of Malaya found that in the state of Selangor alone, 22% of surveyed older children were exposed to more than one type of maltreatment, with parents making up 40% of child abusers in Malaysia. These ranged from physical and sexual abuse, to lesser forms like emotional abuse, neglect, and extreme parental rigidity and control.

No matter what its form, parenting is a serious issue that ought to be taken seriously by policymakers, professionals and the public alike.

Child rearing by the family bears a significant influence on most child development outcomes. From birth, and all through their development years, children depend completely on their parents for their basic needs. Aside from food and water, this includes emotional nurturing, begotten through parental love, affection and care.

Parenting behaviours can indeed have a significant impact on the child’s development. Research shows that parents who forge strong and secure relationships with their children create better outcomes for them, by laying down a solid foundation to cultivate positive traits such as good mental health, resilience, social skills and learning abilities.

On the other hand, negative parenting often leads to harmful outcomes and serious developmental issues that manifest during the child’s adolescence: school truancy, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, juvenile crime and teenage pregnancies, just to name a few.

The root causes of parenting issues

Good parenting is crucial as a buffer against social ills, and to forestall problems from arising in the next generation. The absence of good parenting harms the quality of citizens, society and the future of our country.

The question that we should ask ourselves is this: can government policies promote good parenting?

Yes, and no. On one hand, public policies can play a strong role in creating the right conditions for parents to do their best.

The current troubled state of the economy is an important piece in the jigsaw. We now live in an unprecedented time of financial stress and strain and under these conditions, poorer families raising children undeniably face greater challenges than those who are well off.

Last year, for example, the government’s Family Well-being Index Report found that as many as 65.1% of families in this country faced financial difficulties.

Out of eight measures that were used to interpret family well-being standards, “family economy”, a domain made up of key indicators such as money management and financial security, was ranked third lowest, scoring 7.05 out of 10.

Parenting is certainly harder today than it used to be. On top of navigating work demands, the soaring costs of child-raising does not make matters easier. Just last year, a reputable insurance company estimated the total cost of raising a child in Malaysia to be anywhere between RM 400,000 to RM 1.1 million, depending on parental hopes and aspirations. In 2014, the Malaysian Population and Family Survey (MPFS) found that children’s education expenses were top among pressing family problems faced by men and women alike.

In the face of mounting economic pressures, family structures and parenting styles are rapidly changing. Society is witnessing an increasing number of dual-income families, where both husband and wife are breadwinners. In 2014, 46.5% of Malaysian women were found to be actively participating in the workforce and out of this, approximately one-fifth reported facing problems in balancing their roles between work and the family.

Significantly, it was found that limited family interaction led to most parents focussing on their child’s material needs, at the expense of their personal and emotional well-being.

According to the survey, just 36.5% of mothers and 22.5% of fathers regularly engaged with their children on personal problems.

How can the government help?

It is one thing to want to improve parenting in Malaysia, and quite another to enact this in policies. It would be very difficult, for example, to mandate parents to spend more time with their children, or to legislate for cultural changes that “force” parents to properly raise and care for their children.

Nevertheless, there are certain policy options that the government could consider as a means of creating conditions under which parents can do their best.

One is to create community-based family support and parent education programmes to provide parents with the knowledge, skills and support needed to create a good and nurturing home environment for their children.

This should be prefaced by developing proper diagnostic tools to evaluate parenting needs, and carrying out evaluations at convenient entry points within the community, be that in schools, at the home or at the workplace.

Having identified the gaps, these lessons may then be distributed through teams making regular home visitations to homes in local communities. These could be divided into basic education programmes and secondary “prevention” programmes, the latter for families identified as being at risk of parenting difficulties.

Secondly, prevention is better than cure, but there also needs for treatment and aid given to families that have shown serious difficulties.

Tackling poverty is of paramount importance, since a bulk of dysfunctional parenting rests on this social issue. The government must channel more resources into lifting poor and destitute families out of poverty, through programmes that target low-income families and help them increase their earnings through pathways such as small trade, house ownership and lifetime education.

Finally, from the point of the law, the Employment Act could be updated to include provision of paid childcare leave. We should take a leaf out of the Singapore’s book; under the government’s Pro-Family Leave Scheme, working parents with children below 7 years old are allowed up to 6 days’ of paid leave per year per parent, regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector. But since the Employment Act only covers certain categories of workers, employers themselves will have to be proactive in implementing similar policies.

Other forms of support could come in the form of regulated and high quality childcare services at the workplace. Last year, the government had already introduced tax exemption for employers who provided child daycare centres at the workplace for the benefit of their employees, yet only a handful of organisations have come on board. Efforts must be made to increase the number of such facilities, and these should be well-regulated to ensure quality and safety standards are consistently upheld.

At the end of the day, while parents must play their role, the government too can take steps by helping families build a strong and secure home environment, and thereby create the right conditions for parents to do their best.

The buck does not stop there. Society as a whole must work towards building constructive dialogue about to promote the type of parenting that produces responsible citizens and productive workers, for the betterment of our nation. – July 30, 2017.

* Lim Su Lin is a Policy Analyst with Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. She graduated in 2013 with a degree in History from Cambridge University. Her research interests lie primarily in psychosocial health and wellbeing. She explores these in the context of making recommendations to improve social and development policies. The long-term goals of her work are to advocate for more equitable outcomes and reduced inequalities in society.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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