Empowering Families: Parenting Education Is Essential

Our goals are the same: we seek to take the best of both tradition and innovation while avoiding the worst of either. This is quite a juggling act, to be sure. I believe parents in the Arab world and the West, indeed parents around the world, can more effectively help each other if we see our common concerns.
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Here I am, recovering from jetlag after a nearly 14-hour flight back to the U.S. from Doha, Qatar where I attended a fascinating international conference on family policy. At the same time I feel exhausted and proud from cheering on my youngest son as he ran the Boston Marathon. Oh my, one thing at a time! Let me start with the conference.

The headline in The Peninsula, 17 April 2014, read "Arab families hit by 'cultural invasion,'" yet the fine print gave an altogether different picture. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, opening the conference "Empowering Families: A Pathway to Development" spoke of the need to "harmonize our [Arab] values with the cultural and social conditions of the age we live in."

As I see it, American families -- including those of two of my grown sons who are raising children -- and others throughout the Western world face struggles similar to the one H.H. Sheikha Moza describes, but from a different point of view.

Many parents in Western societies seek to reclaim or maintain traditions -- and teach their children manners and respect -- while the world outside their doors is awash in commercialism and consumerism. Arab families, I believe, rightfully see their family traditions as strong and vibrant and want to find appropriate ways to bring the benefits of technological and social advances into their lives without sacrificing those traditions.

Our goals are the same: we seek to take the best of both tradition and innovation while avoiding the worst of either. This is quite a juggling act, to be sure. I believe parents in the Arab world and the West, indeed parents around the world, can more effectively help each other if we see our common concerns.

The April 16+17 conference, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation's Doha International Family Institute (DIFI), brought together researchers, policymakers, civil society leaders and practitioners to discuss efforts to empower families and foster individual, social and economic development. I was privileged to attend, in the last category, as a parenting educator.

So, how do communities -- and entities in communities, especially businesses -- support families. In many cases, not that well! How can a company assess its practices in this area? As Nuria Chinchilla, Professor at IESE Business School, Barcelona, explained, corporate * family * responsibility needs to be considered an essential component of corporate * social * responsibility.

"Our research center within IESE," Dr. Chinchilla said, "offers the International Family Responsible Employer Index (IFREI), a research tool now used in more than 23 countries to track data on formal policies, leadership styles and culture of a company's working environment." These can be, she said, "enriching, favorable, difficult or polluting" for families of companies' employees. Companies' practices either help or hinder employees in achieving work-family balance.

Moving from negative to positive on the IFRE Index involves corporate leaders seeing the family as a support beam, not a stumbling block, for women's -- and men's - advancement in the workplace. Just as important, the change in mindset involves seeing family as a support also for business success. I noted few business leaders in attendance, however, and they are the ones who need to hear this message.

Considering families where parents are under- and un-employed, Catherine Bernard, of the Service and Research Institute on Family and Children (SERFAC), like other speakers, urged policymakers and practitioners to take an intergenerational approach.

What does intergenerational solidarity look like? The Doha Call to Action outlines how youth, adults and older persons can support each other, and how each of us can and should be supported, in our family roles and thereby contribute to advancement of all.

A particular note on this effort, well worth making, concerns men in families. In the panel on this theme, Adrienne Burgess, Joint Chief Executive and Head of Research at the Fatherhood Institute UK, stressed that "families flourish when fathers play a substantial role in caregiving." Men are, Ms. Burgess asserts, as sensitive to babies as are women and, given the same opportunities and support, as capable as women in caregiving. Let's arrange parental leave policies as well as parenting education programs to reflect these realities.

The take-away from Doha for me is a shift in perspective. The first aspect of this shift is to see families not only as beneficiaries but as agents of development. The second aspect is to recognize that the work of raising children is not a burden that saps resources from other, supposedly more 'real' or important work. Rather, family life, including raising children, is the bedrock of our experience, the basis of both our material success and our emotional and spiritual well-being. Family policy should reflect these realities.

Before closing, let me report, with a huge sigh of relief, that my son finished the Boston Marathon in under four and a half hours! His was a charity run for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he works as a sign-language interpreter for the Deaf. His team's motto 'Tread Strong!' carried the day as he finished the race and, thanks to many friends around the globe, met his fundraising goal.

So, as we continue our celebration of the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family (IYF) let's take more, and better organized, steps to support individuals' development within families.

For society, this means supporting parents in good parenting and, for parents, it means advocating for the economic and social supports we need. To meet the challenges of both program provision and individual participation, we must make universal parenting education -- and the social-emotional learning at its core -- standard policy, supported throughout all sectors of society: public, private and civic.

Please do let me know about the next conference where business leaders consider the essential elements of economic development. I would like to say a few words.

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