Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Family Affairs -
Council of Europe, 16 and 17 May, 2006 in Lisbon

“Changes in Parenting: Children Today, Parents Tomorrow”

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Mary Daly: “Public policy across Europe needs to be more supportive of parenting”

Interview with Professor Mary Daly, Queen’s University Belfast and for this year on sabbatical at Harvard University in Boston.

The Irish expert will present her latest findings on positive parenting at the Council of Europe Conference on 16 and 17 May in Lisbon, bringing together 46 European Ministers responsible for Family Affairs.

Photo: Council of Europe (copyright-free)

Lisbon, 10 May 2006

Question: Demographic changes in Europe, higher numbers of working women, unemployment and different juridical forms of partnership result in new patterns of family life. Would you please describe these “new patterns”?

Professor Mary Daly :

These new patterns take a number of forms. There is, for example, a move towards the two-income earner family where both parents are employed. This has many implications for the quality and nature of family life, especially in terms of how children and older people are cared for. A second dimension of change is in what we might call the structure or composition of families. Families are now much more diverse in terms of the number of parents, the marital status of the parents, the sexual identity of the parents and significant others and indeed how children are related to the adults with whom they live. Thirdly, the way people relate to each other in families is different. It used to be the case that the family operated on the basis of paternal authority – this has now changed and we have a situation where the relationships between adult partners and those between the generations are much less based on authority and the exercise of power and control.

Question: Are there differences between East and West, North and South Europe?

Professor Mary Daly

Most definitely yes. Europe has always been characterised by differences in terms of how family life is organized. This diversity is not always patterned on a geographical basis, however. But there is an identifiable North/South gradient. In the northern countries for example, marriage is less popular and one finds a greater diversity of family types than is true for the Mediterranean countries. But everywhere family life is changing in terms of women being increasingly involved in the labour market, a diversity of family patterns and new gender roles evolving. One of the insights of the process that is being launched at Lisbon is that States Parties need to recognize this and be pre-active about making policies that serve to significantly improve those aspects of family life that are affected by parenting, for example by providing the necessary legal framework in order to safeguard children’s rights regardless of the kinds of families they live in, as well as offering services to families.

Question: How do these new patterns affect the role and responsibility of the mother, father and grandparents?

Professor Mary Daly

Everybody’s life is affected. Mothers, for example, now have to manage the dual role of being workers as well as parents. This often involves huge compromises for women. Society also expects something different of men today as compared with the past: men are expected to be far more involved in their family’s emotional life. The relatively rapid growth of paternal leave policies in Europe is testimony of this. Grandparents have always been involved with their grandchildren and this continues although it could be argued that today grandparents are called on to provide more material support (money, providing assistance for children and grandchildren) than was the case in the past.

Question: What do the children say? Are they consulted?

Professor Mary Daly

I think children are being increasingly consulted – that is the thrust of policy over the last ten years. Certainly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has played a large role in changing the view of children from one of ‘minors’ who should be seen and not heard to individuals with rights, competent actors in their own world . In that spirit, children were consulted as part of this project. . The children were concerned about breaking the cycle of violence. They felt that they needed more information about their rights and also access to confidential services, where they could turn to get help.

Question: What does “positive parenting” mean under these new circumstances?

Professor Mary Daly

We have developed the idea of positive parenting which we see as updating the thinking about best practice in parenting, especially in the light of changes in the legal and policy context as influenced by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the UNCRC, the child is entitled to care, security and an upbringing that is respectful of his or her person and individuality. This has huge implications for parenting. Our concept of positive parenting departs from an understanding of parenting in which the rights of the child are to the fore. Parenting is positive when it has the following four characteristics: it is nurturing of the child, it provides the child with structure, it recognises the child as a person with needs and abilities, it empowers the child in that it enhances his or her strengths and contributes to the development of individual control. It is important to point out that we are not advocating permissive parenting; rather what we are seeking is a balanced form of parenting which recognises the need to give structure to the child’s life but to do so in a way that allows the child some control over his or her behaviour.

Question: How does this view of parenting affect the society as a whole?

Professor Mary Daly

Positive parenting has major implications for all levels of society. For parents it means that they must be prepared to recognize that the child has rights and put the child’s needs before their own. It also means that they must move away from disciplinary methods that are designed to hurt the child and replace them with non-violent communication with children. This is a lesson that society as a whole has to learn also. For governments one of the main implications of positive parenting is that public policy needs to be more supportive of parenting, putting in place measures (educational and support programmes, appropriate financial support, etc), that help parents and children to get the best out of family life. Many countries already have some measures in place but it can be argued that all States Parties need to do more.