Supporting families and parents in a rapidly changing world

In China about 100 million children have parents who migrate away from home in search of employment. Some of these children accompany their parents, usually from a rural village to a strange new urban world. Most of these children – about 60 million of them – remain at home, supported and cared for by grandparents, neighbours or friends.

In China, and across the globe, traditional notions of family and parenting are long gone. Family can no longer be defined as the biological nuclear family or even by relation through kinship.

What we can say is that family is one’s most significant intimate group, defined by kinship, marriage, adoption or choice. In a similar way, the term ‘parents’ can no longer refer to biological or legal parents, or, indeed, even to parents, but to the main caregiver of the child. In many rural Chinese villages elder couples can be found “parenting” 8 to 10 neighbourhood children for months or years at a stretch.

Nondumiso (9) reads a school assignment beside her grandmother, in their home in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.
© UNICEF/UNI175476a/NooraniNondumiso (9) reads a school assignment beside her grandmother, in their home in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0594/Pirozzi

However they are defined, families and parents play the most significant role in all aspects of child wellbeing. They are increasingly becoming a focus for innovation and policy development within and across countries. How are policies and services targeting the support of families and parents adapting? What are the most urgent gaps in evidence about family and parenting realities?

In order to coordinate global efforts among leading researchers and institutions addressing these issues, the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, has recently launched: Family and Parenting Support: Policy and Provision in a Global Context. The publication contains a systematic analysis of evidence generated in 33 countries and detailed case studies of family and parenting support in nine countries: Belarus, Chile, China, Croatia, Jamaica, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. The goal is to identify global trends and develop a framework for future research and policy analysis.

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Full report

Some of the key challenges to effective parenting support interventions highlighted in the report are:

  • Mothers and female caregivers are the main recipients of both family and parenting support, implying the ‘feminisation’ of parenting programmes, which may reinforce traditional gender roles.
  • Some efforts are being made to engage fathers through various programmes, but the concept of shared parenting seems to be under-developed.
  • Programmes for the parents of adolescents are under-developed, despite evidence that they can play a key role in improving school performance, reducing risky behavior and more.
  • Interventions for parents of adolescents seem to be especially rare in low and middle-income countries.
  • Across the board, there is a major lack of evidence on the impact of services oriented towards family and parenting, especially in lower and middle-income countries.

Major takeaways from the study: public support for families and parenting is an increasingly complex business, should be more context sensitive and better linked to other policies and programmes which concern child wellbeing. We need to move beyond approaches to family and parenting that identify a single outcome at one point in time, in favour of approaches taking into account different moments in children’s growth and development in dynamic family contexts.

The new study helps identify key gaps which will be the focus of research in the next few years, such as understanding what factors promote positive parenting of adolescents and measuring impact of programmes that seek to help parents of adolescent children reduce risky behavior and prevent violence.

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