There are few words to describe the joys of family life. In short, it is a haven of endless love, encouragement, and entertainment. Some of our fondest childhood memories retreat us into a warm solace, conjuring countless daily moments where our families shaped us into the humans we are today. I remember how my mother would read stories to me each night, sparking a life-long interest in literature. I also remember my delight whenever we were treated with bunny-shaped vanilla cakes for doing well in school and being encouraged to always aspire for better things in life. And I am ever grateful for all the fun times spent during holidays, picnics, or amusement parks, creating feel-good moments that last well into a lifetime. Truly, belonging to a loving family is the first and best gift for any person.
This March was momentous for families for various reasons. The UAE celebrated the first Emirati Children’s Day on March 15, Mother’s Day on March 21, and the UAE Cabinet approved the National Family Policy as well. The policy is holistic, covering six aspects critical to family well-being and launching 36 initiatives to address common family challenges — marriage (improving services related to marital counselling, financial planning, and family planning), family relations (publishing a guide to educate people on the rights and responsibilities of family members, licensing marriage counselling centres), balance of roles (paternity leaves, single-parent families, adapting to life post-divorce), child welfare (working from home options, less reliance on domestic helpers for child care), family protection (child protection rights, addressing juvenile delinquency), and re-engineering the provision of family services (regular reporting on the well-being status of Emirati families).
Families have changed over a generation. On an average, people are getting married later in life, have fewer kids, and many parents choose to both have a career and an active family life. This poses a challenge for families and so many governments have invested in family policies to allow people to reconcile their work and family commitments. It helps people to continue contributing economically whilst reaping the joys of family life. Good family policies help parents achieve a number of things, such as finding jobs that are suitable for their family circumstances, provide financial assistance, allow flexible working arrangements, offer various family leaves, and give access to quality child care and education.
Take a moment to reflect on this fascinating mind-map to realise how family life and a nation’s competitiveness is interconnected in a logical sequence of life events; from early childhood development, to education and health outcomes, to employment and economic self-sufficiency, and ultimately, country competitiveness. Governments that have adopted family policies have seen remarkable social and economic benefits. These include increased labour force participation rates (particularly among women), higher household incomes, retention of talented employees, reduced workplace stress, enhanced employee satisfaction and productivity, sustainable pension systems, higher fertility rates, improved child education and health outcomes, and improved well-being for the whole family.
One key component of family policy includes family leave systems that are designed to allow parents to remain with and care for their children under different circumstances. In Finland, for example, expectant mothers can go on maternity leave 50 to 30 working days before they are due to give birth. The duration of the maternity leave is 105 working days. The duration of the paternity leave is 54 working days whereas the parental leave is 158 working days, which could be extended to 60 working days for each child in the case of multiple births.
Governments also play a role in fostering good parenting practices by making sound advice and counselling available to the masses. For example, the Australian government manages a website called Raising Children, which provides valuable information for parents during pregnancy and after childbirth, covering popular and important topics related to caring for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, teenagers, children with special needs or caring for children post-divorce. Parents can also contact Parentline, a dedicated telephone counselling service aimed at offering professional guidance to families on how to overcome challenging situations.
Quality child care is a key factor in reconciling work and family life. Parents are more likely to be productive employees if accessible, affordable, and quality child care is available to them. Recent research led by Nobel Prize winner, economist James Heckman and researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Southern California, concluded that “high quality early childhood development programmes can deliver an annual return of 13 per cent per child on upfront costs through better outcomes in education, health, employment and social behaviour in the decades that follow”.
That is why countries, such as Finland, have invested heavily in quality child care and education centres. All children under school age have a right to enrol in municipal daycare, which adopts a combined model of child care, child rearing and education (EduCare model). Also, this service is provided by trained staff. Kindergarten teachers must hold a university degree. All daycare personnel must have at least an upper secondary-level qualification in social welfare and health care. Additionally, older children (first and second year pupils, including special needs) are entitled to before and after-school activities under the Basic Education Act.
Last year, Harvard University published a ground-breaking report based on almost 80 years of studies, revealing that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives”. The UAE National Family Policy will ensure that we can enjoy a full life that balances our many aspirations, including those on a personal and professional dimension.
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.