In many ways I have had a fortunate life. One of the particular good fortunes I have experienced is to to have belonged to a loving and supportive family.
My maternal grandmother had eleven children. She lived in a modest two-bedroom cottage. The kitchen/dining room was in a lean-to at the rear of the house with a tamped earthen floor. Her husband was blind from his forties which added to the demands of her duties as a parent. And yet this was a loving family which seemed to nurture us all. My grandmother was greatly loved and held in the highest regard by all her knew her. Despite popular myths about Mothers-in Law my father adored her as I did also.
When Christmas came, even as a small child, I always tried to scrape together a few shillings to buy her something – however small. It would be only a cake of fragrant soap, a pretty handkerchief or perhaps an ornate tea cup..
As for her multitudinous progeny they were fed and clothed and sent off to school. They grew up to be productive citizens, had families of their own and to my knowledge were all law-abiding. Now to my mind that is a significant achievement.
So in many respects this matriarch made a huge difference in many lives because of her parenting skills.
But it seems to me that her unique skills are no longer appropriately valued.
Most children’s mothers bond naturally with their offspring. It is a biological miracle. Wonderfully, at the very beginning of life a baby is accepted unconditionally. No matter that it is crumpled, red, vociferous, and incontinent, most mothers will conclude that their own offspring are unique and special and deserving of maternal affection.
Like other animals, humans are biologically wired to care for their children. Indeed for most of us our empathy is triggered by young children whether they are our offspring or not. The problem with human children is that they are dependent on others for so long. This greatly increases the burden of proper childcare.
If, for example, you are calf of a wildebeest living on the Serengeti, unless you are up and active a few hours after birth, you are likely to be a lion’s dinner. Within a matter of months, you will have become largely independent of your mother.
A human child will most likely be dependent for the best part of two decades. During this time the child will need to be acculturated, educated and prepared for its role in society. This requires far more skills than just providing the basics of the child’s physical needs. It undoubtedly requires more than what the basic maternal and paternal biological instincts deliver.
These parenting skills must therefore be learnt. Such skills are largely learnt from our own parents and from those around us that have influenced us.
And although there has been some debate about this, the majority of psychologists and social workers who work in this field, attest that children develop best when the family unit, however comprised, includes both an adult female and an adult male providing appropriate parental role models.
Of course early in a child’s life, the child’s focus will be principally on its mother. Once the child has integrated into its personality the lessons of maternal love, the complementary aspects of paternal love start to come into play.
In my own case I had a very loving mother and my father was an exemplary man. As I grew older my father taught me and my brothers much by example. He taught us to be respectful to women and girls. He taught us the value of hard work. He was involved in the Labor movement and a councillor in local government. He thus encouraged us to contribute to our local community and to value freedom and egalitarianism. He encouraged us to appreciate our natural environment and to enjoy the outdoors.
Erich Fromm, the German Psychologist and Philosopher wrote:
In this development from mother centred to father centred attachment and their eventual synthesis, lies the basis for mental health and the achievement of maturity. In the failure of this development lies the basic cause of neurosis.
In my own case and that of my siblings, we were very fortunate. We knew as children we were loved unconditionally by both parents. But they also had high expectations of us. To them, apart from their unflinching love for each other, family mattered more than anything else.
But of course, children are often very successfully reared in households apart from their biological parents provided they are loved and the surrogate parents have capable parenting skills.
Unfortunately, rather respect these basics, the law has been modified and sometimes interpreted by racist and sexist influences to pay scant regard to them.
For example a recent news story told of a pair of siblings who have been cared for by devoted foster parents since 2015. They have been seeking to adopt these children.
In January 2020, a Department of Communities and Justice researcher discovered that the children’s maternal grandmother identified as indigenous. The children’s biological mother then decided that the children should not be placed with a non-aboriginal family that she asserted wouldn’t be able to steep the children in Aboriginal culture.
Now the Supreme Court must decide whether the children can be adopted by their foster parents or be subject to the whims of the biological mother.
If the children had been born to a mother whose ethnicity was perhaps Chinese or Greek the question wouldn’t have even been asked. If the adoptive parents were respectable citizens with a realistic capacity to care for and nurture the children then I am sure the Court wouldn’t stand in the way irrespective of the ethnicity of the proposed adoptive parents.
But in the case of indigenous children, the courts (under the guidance of the law) seem determined to direct them into the care of kinship groups. Quite often, as a result, the children are placed with people who are just as deficient in parenting skills as their own biological parents. Under these unfortunate circumstances we have several generations of indigenous people who have never been exposed to role models with appropriate parenting skills. And so the problems of these dysfunctional families are perpetuated.
Yet many indigenous groups strongly support this approach. For example a spokesman for AbSec, the NSW Child, Family and Community Peak Aboriginal Corporation, recently stated that “adoption is never an answer for Indigenous children”. Such a partisan approach will have dire outcomes for many such children.
There are other emerging concerns in family law. Press reports suggest that the government is seeking to modify the law to ensure that fathers in disputed relationships have a more passive role in parenting. This move has been criticised by Professor Richard Chisholm a former judge in the Family Court of Australia. He writes:
….it is in the child’s best interests that both parents continue to have parental responsibility unless (the court) considers that this would not be in the child’s best interests considering the circumstances of the case.
No doubt there will be some who will criticise my conservative point of view and point to examples where children in dysfunctional households have prospered and children brought up in single parent households have gone on to become exemplary citizens.
I will make two comments with respect to this.
Firstly a lot of those who have prospered despite their difficult backgrounds have often had other role models that they aspired to emulate. They might have been aunts, uncles, grandmothers or even teachers.
Secondly, I believe it is our duty as parents and citizens to maximise the chance of success of our children. That is why I advocate that we try to ensure that children are bought up in a stable family environment where they are exposed to adequate parenting skills with both competent female and male role models.
As a father and a grandfather I only write from my own lived experience and plead that we should do more to take care of our children. And in this respect we would hope the law is formulated to do the same.