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Parenting in refugee camps; parenting alone


I was very touched by an article I read in The Guardian last week. It concerned a British woman of Syrian extraction whose PhD thesis explored ways to support families living in war zones and refugee camps. In conversation with many refugee parents, she became aware that most, if not all, were very concerned about negative emotional and behavioural changes in their children. They wanted advice and support. The researcher worked with psychologists at the University of Manchester to produce a leaflet explaining the normal responses of children to trauma, and making suggestions about how parents could look after themselves and their children. The suggestions were elementary – talk to your children, read to them, cuddle them, praise them - but not so elementary when parents’ principal concern is day to day survival. The leaflet was distributed inside the wrappers of 3,000 flatbreads delivered to families and caregivers in northern Syria. It is now available online in various languages and is about to be distributed with newspapers in Pakistan.

There cannot be many PhD theses that have achieved as much in safeguarding the emotional wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of children who will themselves become parents perhaps far away from the country and culture which were their birthright.

Contrast this with a very different situation closer to home. I recently had a long conversation with a highly educated woman in her 30s who had decided to ‘go it alone’ as far as motherhood was concerned. Her experiences with men had not been positive but she desperately wanted a baby and felt that her biological clock was ticking. She became pregnant and continued to work at her well-paid job while she prepared the house she owned for the arrival of her baby. Around 36 weeks of pregnancy, like a bolt from the blue, she suddenly realised what she was taking on. She had basked in her pregnancy, but now her due date was approaching. The father of the child did not want to be present at the birth and she had no other labour companion in mind. She had booked no antenatal classes, and had read no books about labour. She told me that she did not know how labour began and she had not even decided where her baby would be born as her midwife had told her that this was a decision that could be left until the end of pregnancy. She had no idea what she should take into hospital for herself and the baby, and no idea about how to feed a baby. Her goal eight months ago had been to get pregnant and once that had been achieved, she had opted not to know about what would happen at the end of the pregnancy.

Now she really wanted information – masses of it. She wanted to learn how to cope with contractions and to practise breathing techniques; she wanted to know about yoga positions for an easy birth and to find out why everyone considers breastfeeding so good for babies. All of this along with a million other things….

Shortly after this conversation, I was leading a workshop with health professionals on early parent education and a discussion started about the difficulties of reaching ‘the people who really need to come to classes’. But who are these people? I’m currently researching the history of parent education from the nineteenth century onwards and it is apparent to me that for at least the last 200 years (and presumably much longer than that) women and men have sought advice, information and skills to help them be good parents. Those who are in circumstances that we would all immediately recognise as desperate certainly need guidance and support but so do those whose circumstances might not – outwardly at least – appear at all desperate. I don’t think there should be any argument as to who ‘deserves’ or ‘is most in need of ‘ early parent education. Why wouldn’t every mother, father and co-parent want to access as much information as possible, and share as many ideas as possible, to help them be not just ‘good-enough’ parents but GOOD parents?

From childhood onwards, we learn informally from our own parents and caregivers about parenting, and we should be learning formally in nursery school, at primary and secondary school, and then in the workplace, about babies and small children and how best to meet their physical, social and emotional needs.

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The article by Juliet Rix to which I refer can be found in The Guardian, Saturday 7 January 2017, pages 1-2 in the Family section - https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/07/bread-bombs-advice-syria-parenting-children-refugee-camps

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