The Dutch Royal Family
Starting from the 1st of January, the Dutch youth care system has been reformed. Behind what might seem to be a simple organizational change lies the harsh reality of budget cuts. Given the ageing Dutch population, increasing demand for care is to be expected, and the government will have fewer resources to meet such demand. More will be asked of families, with a focus on “youth’s and parents’ own capacities” to decrease use of specialised services. But are families ready for such responsibility?
On New Years’ Eve, an acquaintance working in Dutch youth care told me he was unsure about his future employment, because of the reforms the Dutch government is implementing. The (anonymous) stories he told about couples he was dealing with, especially the rising numbers of “fighting divorces”, and the effects these have on children were quite sobering. Even though there are some people that deal with such difficult circumstances in an admirable way, it is clear that families need support, and there are quite a few that are not getting enough of it.
The official motivation for the reorganization of Dutch government youth care is inefficient organization and bureaucracy at the national level that needs to be cut down. For that reason the municipalities (a decentralised, lower level of government) are being given prime responsibilty for government youth care, the idea being that they are closer to the people, and more able to minister to needs as they arise. But it is no secret that these changes will be accompanied by considerable budget cuts on youth care spending. The municipalities will therefore also be more careful about every euro they spend, and keep their hands tightly on the purse.
Whether welcomed or not, these changes were foreseeable and are likely to increase in future. It is quite likely that aged-care residences will also be reduced in future, and that families will need to take care of their older relations more so than before. But at the same time, having many children nowadays is no longer a guarantee of having someone to take care of you when you grow old, because people are nowadays very mobile and often move away from their place of birth. Are we really ready to start taking care of our own?
Supporting each other
It’s no secret that families, either with young children or with older family members, cannot cope on their own. They need to be supported by society. But society’s support has developed so far in the Dutch welfare-state, that the responsibility of mutual support has been under-emphasized. Now that demographic changes are forcing the welfare state to cut down, a change of mentality is in order, but change will not come easy. It requires not only a shift in our thinking, but a renewed readiness to be there for others.
How can we make sure this change occurs? There are many possible initiatives, which can each contribute in their own way. It’s not a bad idea to start with young families, which are still forming themselves, even though support is needed at all levels.
A concrete example in the young family arena are the “Family Enrichment” courses which have spread worldwide and have helped many parents to streamline their communication and thinking about educational matters. A group of parents come together and discuss real-life cases, first together, then in a small group of couples, and later in a larger group of approximately 12 couples. This case-based methodology, which is often used in business schools, is very well suited to prepare parents in their thinking about educational dilemmas that they may face. They learn to recognize problems, hear different proposed solutions, and above all learn ways of dealing with such problems together. The success of this methodology has led to the establishment of an international federation of Family Enrichment courses (IFFD).
But it is not only through organizing courses that a change in mentality can occur. Perhaps not surprisingly, modern communication technology may be a partner in this process, if it is used well of course. A recent initiative close-to-home has convinced me that this good use is possible. My sister, having studied child psychology and specialising in infant mental health, in particular the bonding between parents and children, has just launched an app that aims to help parents-to-be in preparing for parenthood.
Parenthood preparation often focusses on the biological development of the baby and on labor. Seldom is attention given to the emotional transition that parents-to-be undergo. Her app focusses on the mental preparation of the new parents: How do you communicate with a baby? What will change in your lives? What are relevant issues to talk about together, and with other family members? In her app, Parents2B, weekly messages give useful tips to the expecting parents, with content addressing important themes that help babies arrive into a well-prepared home.
These are only two examples of the kinds of programs and technology that can help to support the family. While not everyone may be a professional in this area, everyone can contribute something. Taking some time for one’s own family and relatives, and being there for them when it is needed, is probably the best start. But then to be on the lookout and support any initiative that supports the family is a good second. Young parents especially, who are going through such a big change in their lives, need and deserve our support. Though they are probably not aware what an important role they are playing in our society; nonetheless their role is becoming more important all the time. It is about time we tell them so.
Daan van Schalkwijk writes from Amsterdam. He teaches statistics and biology at Amsterdam University College, and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence in Amsterdam. Visit his blog at Science and Beyond.