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Social development means what, exactly, for parents?

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A brief bit of background . . . last year the UN set 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030. These follow the eight Millennium Development Goals set in year 2000, targeting 2015.

While parents clearly figure within many of the goals, our role is not mentioned. Even the word 'family' barely appears! I would like to say, as they do in the popular British television series Downton Abbey, "May I have a word?"

We read a lot about economic development. Social development is less often discussed, yet the UN annually devotes ten days to the Commission for Social Development (CSD), most recently February 3-12, 2016. I was there and had the privilege of hearing two top researchers give their perspectives on the role of families in development.

Insights from Dr. Kyle Pruett, Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, and Dr. Bahira Trask, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at University of Delaware, at a February 11 meeting at the CSD, address two questions:

Social development means, what, exactly, for parents? -and- What role do parents play in social development?

Lynn Walsh, co-chair of the NGO Committee on the Family and organizer of the meeting, introduced Dr. Pruett and Professor Trask, with these words: "We want to raise the profile of family issues at the UN and in society at large. Parents, usually too busy to advocate for themselves, nonetheless make essential contributions to social stability and social development, precisely because of their unique responsibility for the well-being of their children."

Dr. Pruett opened and closed his presentation with a little known quote from Margaret Mead, "It is the primary task of every society to teach men how to father." Note the wording . . . 'the' primary task, not just 'a' primary task. Dr. Pruett described how fathers and mothers parent in different ways and stressed how fathers' involvement in children's lives benefits children and fathers themselves in a variety of ways, including economic success and emotional wellbeing.

Pruett's assertions run counter to the present-day fixation in family services on women and girls, explicitly mentioned in Sustainable Development Goal 5: "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." They also run counter to our focus on deficits and challenges. Of course both of these merit attention, but if we can also focus on positive and preventive programming - - inclusion of men in parenting education would be top of my list - - we will be much more likely to minimize deficits and successfully face challenges.

In her presentation, Professor Trask took a global view of social policies affecting the family. Debates about families, she said, are becoming more complex, as global economic forces affect parents' ability to raise their children and care for elderly and disabled family members. Further, she found that the Western model of women's involvement in the paid labor force, often for individual advancement, is not universal. Among the poor in industrialized countries and the developing world, women and children work outside the home simply for survival.

Trask pointed out the stunning mismatch between our rhetoric, which describes families as the foundation of society, worthy of protection and nurture, and our often individualistic social policies, which leave families at every rung of the socio-economic ladder without the resources they need.

She found that some countries with the strongest family rhetoric have the weakest family policies. Mmm, might we look in the mirror here in the US?

Answers, then, to the two questions above are these: social development policies must include broad and consistent support for parents -and- parents play a fundamental role in social development, within the family and in society at large, and need support to fulfill their role effectively.

A more familiar quote from Margaret Mead can serve as closing: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Among the thoughtful and committed participants February 11 was Ms. AlAnoud Al-Temimi, representing the event sponsor, the Qatar Mission to the United Nations. Qatar's participation in the Commission went far beyond what one might expect from the country's small size.

Qatar also hosted a February 9 meeting in collaboration with DIFI, the Doha International Family Institute. The title of that session was "Work-Family Balance, Social Development, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Implementation of Culturally Specific Policies".

As parents, grandparents and others in parenting roles we deserve and must advocate for the social services we need. Among these services, let us make parenting education a top priority. A strong foundation for family life can be created when we join with others in our communities to ask for - and take part in - parenting programs. Come share your strength!