By Rae Mok
Remember the good old days when people lived in a kampong with their extended family? Or perhaps your childhood days when there was always someone available to look after the young ones at home? The caregiver, be it your granny, parent, relative or neighbour, would always be around to take good care of you when you came home after school...
Today, times have changed. The modern living and working arrangements of couples have weakened the traditional family support network. The number of dual-income families has increased, with both husband and wife working to make ends meet. Couples are also likely to move out of their parents’ place to set up a family of their own after they tie the knot. With these trends, the issue of childcare has become more challenging and complex. While external caregivers such as childcare centres and domestic helpers are viable options, some couples might still prefer to entrust their children to family members whom they have confidence in. This illustrates the importance of establishing and sustaining a robust family support network, to help you cope with your family needs. A strong family support system would be the best option to placing their children in trusted care.
Ms Joanna Koh-Hoe, President of Focus on the Family Singapore, draws upon her years of experience working with families to share her insights on building a family support network.
1. What are the benefits of having a strong family support system?
A strong family support system is present when the extended family helps out, for example, grandparents who can assist in child-minding or childcare while parents are at work. As the saying goes, “blood is thicker than water” – family members are often your most loyal supporters through good times and bad. Parents who are blessed with extended family help in parenting and child-rearing benefit from the experience and wisdom of those who have been through it before – your child also benefits from the more personalised attention as compared to the caregiving provided by a commercial childcare centre, not to mention the special care and love that grandparents shower on their grandchildren! This is particularly critical for children with special needs.
2. What would you suggest is a good way to go about setting up the family support system?
Relationships go a long way. A major determinant of family support is the strength of your relationships with your immediate family members (eg parents, siblings) and extended family (eg: aunts, uncles, cousins). Clear boundaries and expectations also help set the tone for subsequent communication and coordination of caregiving arrangements.
3. What are some of the factors to consider in selecting appropriate family members to take care of your children?
• Physical health and mobility of caregivers
• Proximity of caregivers’ home to child’s school/home, and/or parents’ workplaces
• Availability and willingness of extended family members – some elderly parents wish to enjoy the freedom that retirement affords, and prefer not to be tied down by daily childcare duties
• Goals and expectations of caregiving – is it just child-minding/baby-sitting or is help also required to educate and impart values to the child?
4. What are some of the challenges to look out for when engaging the help of family members?
Tension tends to arise when expectations are not communicated clearly. Some common scenarios include:
While grandparents want to spend precious time with their grandchildren, they also wish to enjoy their retirement years – this may give an impression to the parents that they are not fully committed. Expectations and views over the disciplining and education of the child might differ. Parents may have different ideas from the grandparents with regard to how they wish to bring up their child. Disputes could emerge over seemingly trivial matters such as the accuracy of Mandarin used by the grandparents with the grandchildren, or the amount and type of TV programmes the child is allowed to watch while in the care of the grandparents. There could also be clashes over parenting styles and values. While the older generation has faith in their traditional methods of bringing up children, the younger generation might subscribe to a different set of parenting principles that is supposedly supported by research.
Ongoing communication, mutual understanding, and keeping an open mind, are the key essentials to sustain good relationships and focus on what really matters: the well-being of the child.
5. How would you advise couples to show gratitude to the caregivers for their help?
• It is a common practice to offer the caregivers regular allowance as a form of appreciation, and to defray the expenses of childcare, even if the caregiver doesn’t need it financially.
• There is no need to wait for a special occasion to take the caregivers out for meals to give them a break, and to spend quality time as a family
• We should teach our children to respect and appreciate their caregivers for their help and support
• It is necessary to give the caregivers a break. Take back the responsibility of childcare during pre-planned periods in the year – even the most doting and committed caregivers can benefit from time away from the kids.
• Go on a family holiday together, to show your appreciation to the caregivers and to acknowledge that they are family and not merely service providers.
6. What are some childcare alternatives that couples can seek should the ideal family support be absent?
• Childcare/student care centres – This is the most common option when family support is absent or insufficient. Although the attention might not be as personalised, the teachers are trained professionals who provide your child with quality care, and there is no lack of opportunities for social interaction and emotional development of your child.
• Domestic help – An option for parents who also need help with housekeeping chores. Domestic helpers can double up as caregivers while parents are away at work.
• Babysitters – Potential babysitters can include your neighbours and nannies. Neighbours whom you know personally and enjoy good relationships with could be a good source of support. However, this might not be a long-term solution because your neighbours have their family commitment. Another caregiving option would be nannies, who typically come to your home in the morning and leave in the evening when you or your spouse is back from work. Unlike domestic helpers, nannies are able to provide undivided attention to the child as they normally do not have many household duties.
• Caregiving by a parent– One parent can stay at home for a period of time to look after the child. It is possible to live on one person’s income Sure, you may have to forego some luxuries, but the satisfaction of taking good care of and bonding with your child make it worthwhile. There is, after all, no substitute for a fully involved mother or father!
7. Can you give us an example of a couple who enjoys a good external family support system, and another who have to depend on themselves?
Lynn* works part-time and mostly from home. Her elder preschooler attends half-day childcare while she takes care of her younger baby. Occasionally, she leaves her baby with her parents when she has to attend work meetings, but she tries to schedule her time away during the baby’s nap times as her parents are not in the pink of health and can tire easily. Sometimes, her parents will also help to ferry her elder child to and from the childcare centre.
Raj* and May* do not have ready support from their extended family. As such, they both decided that with the arrival of their first child, May would stop working and become a stay-at-home mum. This means a lower family income and forgoing some luxuries that they are used to. However, the close bonds they enjoy with their two children make their sacrifices worth their while.
*Names have been changed.
With many thanks to:
Ms Joanna Koh-Hoe, President of Focus on the Family Singapore, www.family.org.sg