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It takes a whole village to raise a child

17 February 2014

It takes a whole village to raise a child - Professor Trevor Parry

“It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

Although ancient, the wisdom of this well-known proverb is very relevant today says developmental paediatrician Trevor Parry as traditional family and community structures for nurturing young children and families become more fragmented.

Improving the health of wellbeing of WA kids

While the vital importance of setting good developmental foundations in the early years is now widely acknowledged, he says contemporary life pressures can threaten social connections, relationships and parents’ best intentions.

Here, Professor Parry outlines aspects of a 'village-like' approach that creates an optimal environment for the best health and wellbeing of all young children – particularly in their first three years.

His ideal 'village' is an environment where parents are supported to heed their instincts to spend time with their child to develop the secure, strong and loving bonds that provide a solid foundation for healthy development.

“It’s not all dependent on expensive toys, DVDs and electronics but rather on the one-to-one loving relationship.”

Parental leave

A greater variety and support for flexible work and leave patterns for both parents, such as in Scandinavian countries, would help families spend more quality time together, Professor Parry says.

“There needs to be better opportunities for parents to be with their children in the first three years of life – and to be supported in that time, “Professor Parry says.

Current economic realities and working arrangements often required families to spend too much time apart from each other and particularly, from their young children.

“If both parents are working they are sometimes ships passing in the night, not only to themselves as a couple but also to their children,” he says.

“FIFO arrangements are economically helpful but can present difficult challenges for family time.”

Prioritise secure attachment

The importance of developing secure parent-child relationships in the early months and years should be recognised and valued, Professor Parry says.

Particularly, this extends to the early detection and management of post natal depression that is known to affect the mental and social wellbeing of infants as well as parents.

“Post natal depression is a major block that does not allow secure attachments to occur as they ought to,” he says.

“There needs to be strong focus on ensuring there is a secure attachment between child and parent in those early months and years – we know this is the catalyst for healthy neurological development.

“GPs and community nurses are best placed to pick up problems at an early stage and more should be specifically trained and resourced to do so.”

Encourage early literacy

“Singing songs and telling young children stories helps develop early literacy skills and establishes a cultural identity and secure bonds with their community.”

“Early literacy comes from learning the songs of their tribal grouping through lullabies and stories,” he says.

“Done in a loving environment this tells the child they are safe and secure.”

He says most parents intuitively sang and talked to their infants and needed to be encouraged that it was time well spent – particularly with competition from electronic devices.

Provide problem play-based learning

Young children need encouragement to learn through unstructured play in the real world, including outdoors, Professor Parry says.

“Let the child be the explorer, but not a lonely explorer,” he says.

“Play is the child’s work and it is best done in the context of shared relationships with a care giver – not doing it all for them but being a partner and encouraging it.”

Structured activity programs and expensive gadgets are not required and too much time engaged in sedentary, screen-based activities is isolating and increases the risk of obesity.

“Play needs to be predominantly in the real world, rather than in the virtual world,” he says.

“Get outdoors, take some risks, get your knees scraped, go and find some frogs and if you fall in – that’s alright.”

“Build tree-houses and cubbies to share with your parents, friends and cousins.”

Early years centres

Recent moves across many sectors including government, community and business to set up family centres that offer quality play-based programs and parenting support were commendable, Professor Parry says. Such centres need to be collaborative, integrated, universal and inclusive of parents with evidence-based and sustainable policies and programs.

He says it is important that priority is given to training and sustaining a workforce of tertiary-qualified, appropriately remunerated staff to develop and deliver the programs required during these vital early years of development.