Yours, mine and ours
Children’s needs remain unchanged in the changing family dynamics.
ACCORDING to the National Population and Family Development Board of Malaysia, the average household size has decreased and there is an alarming increase in the number of divorces. Whether the family has one or two parents, children will still need food, love, security and housing.
In a recent conference organised by Asia Pacific Forum on Families on divorce, remarriage, step-families and blended families, I was reminded of the children in my nursery school that came from families that were different from the norm.
One four-year-old girl who had been looked after by her grandmother recently moved in with her single mother. At this tender age, she had already experienced two changes in her life: first, living with her grandmother and then moving in with her single mother.
When she first came to my school with her mother, she was about to be part of a larger family. Her mother was going to marry a divorced man who has two children from his previous marriage. By age six, this little girl became a step-sister as well as an older sibling to a pair of twins. This is a blended family with “yours, mine and ours”.
Families are important to children. This is where they learn about relationships. They develop their characters and values from the adults with whom they live.
Associate Professor Margarita Frederico from the School of Social Work and Social Policy in La Trobe University, Australia, has written a paper on What Is The Story For The Children? How Children And Young People Fare In Different Structures. In the paper, Frederico confirmed that children placed their families at the top of their social network.
Children in blended families experience more changes and uncertainty in their lives than those who come from intact families (with both parents still married to one another). First, they undergo the challenges of a parental divorce and then they have to adjust to a new family structure. Having to deal with new parents as well as stepsiblings and half-siblings can be quite daunting for young children.
Child psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry and clinical social worker Nancy Boyd Webb discovered that younger children’s optimal brain development needs more repetition and predictability. Some children in step-and blended families may experience a high level of conflict with their natural parents and this experience will impact them.
For children who grew up in step-and blended families and who went on to do well later in life, it was thanks to the parenting styles in their families. President Obama, who as a child grew up in different family structures, once said that he would not have become the person he is, if he had remained cut off from half his roots ( Dreams From My Father, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2004).
Children in step-and blended families do best when parental issues do not affect the child’s relationships with loved ones – grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, family friends. Psychologist Meridith Kiraly of University of Melbourne said that children should be allowed to stay in touch with all the family members whom they love.
Sadly, when family structures break down, children are separated from those who cared for them in their early years. Children need to develop their sense of identity. Keeping in touch with grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles and aunts can greatly help them in their time of need.
Frederico’s paper also highlighted the risk factors that can affect the child’s life negatively. These include stress of separation, disability and mental illness, parental unemployment and poverty.
The protective factors include culture, education and having a significant adult in the child’s life who encourages their positive development.
How the community views the children from blended or step-families makes a difference in their lives. Children can manage their behaviour and do better in school when they feel supported and do not face prejudice.
When I was managing the nursery school mentioned earlier, I used to advise my staff members to treat every child with respect and without prejudice.
During Father’s or Mother’s Day, we must accept children’s requests to make presents for both their biological parents as well as their step-parents. Some children who live with their grandparents may also want to make them presents on those special occasions.
Acceptance and a positive attitude towards children who come from step-, blended or single-parent families can help them feel good about themselves. Children who have a high self-esteem will be able to manage the challenges that come their way and take things in their stride.