Editorial : Culture and Child Care

In this issue we report on the United Nations Draft Guidelines for the Promotion of Appropriate Parental Care, the Protection of Children Deprived of Such Care, and the Provision of Alternative Care.

The Guidelines pose a fundamental question. How far can the care of children and young people be seen as a world-wide phenomenon, with similar standards applied in every country and culture, or how far should local, regional and national cultures be respected, leading to variegated ways of bringing up children?

Clearly, humankind forms a single species and we all have an enormous amount in common. The way that children grow and develop physically is very much the same across the world.  Many of the physical risks that children face are the same, though there are genetic illnesses and disabilities to which some groups are more vulnerable than others, and the incidence of diseases varies from one part of the world to another.

On the other hand, the social differences in the way children are brought up are massive. In some countries, education is compulsory, while in some poorer countries children have very limited opportunities for schooling. In some countries, many people are in their twenties before they start work, while in others child labour contributes significantly to their economies. In some, boys and girls have equal opportunities, while in others girls lose out and are expected to stay at home.

There are many factors underlying these differences, including religious beliefs and observances, cultures and education. The United Nations has an exceedingly difficult task on its hands in its attempt to protect and help children in difficulties who require the help of their communities to replace or supplement parental support.

In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child it secured agreement from virtually every country in the world, which was an extraordinary achievement, and it is to the shame of the two countries who failed to sign up to it that they have not protected their children by doing so.

The current document, though, goes a lot further, and it tries to set standards that many countries will struggle to attain. The draft makes a nod in the direction of different cultures, for example by mentioning the importance of the extended family in some parts of the world, but it cannot hope to accommodate all the varied patterns of child rearing which have been established, and there is a real danger in dismissively condemning certain types of childcare simply because they do not fit with the authors’ opinions.

This raises the question how far such guidance should go. There is a danger that well-meaning bureaucrats will attempt to impose the Guidelines as if the document is an enormous rule-book. Is this really the best way to bring up children? As long as there is real concern for the welfare of children and young people on the part of those caring for them, it is likely that quite a number of child care systems could work. There is a risk that carefully defined and detailed guidance, however well-intentioned, could become a straitjacket, preventing innovation and stifling local cultures.

There needs to be room for change, for negotiation, for variety, for individuality, for the daily relationships between adults and children to be seen as the focus. If Guidelines support people bringing up children, they could prove very helpful, but if they limit opportunities they may prove to be negative. If the future morality of the world is to be governed by rule books, humankind will suffer.

Yet there is a need to encourage higher standards, and much of what the Guidelines propose is sound advice in developed countries. In welcoming it, though, we want to give a stern warning about the possibility of unintended consequences, and recommend that the UN reviews the contents at regular intervals, not only checking whether countries have implemented its measures and met the standards laid down, but also whether the Guidelines themselves need to be revised or discarded because of any damage they may have caused.

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