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Baby Steps

<p>Angela Thomas</p>

Angela Thomas

Families in America have changed. Gone are the days of the “Leave it to Beaver” family model where the father went to work while the mother stayed at home. Then, the family knew their neighbors, sat down to dinner each night, and talked with each other. Now, families usually have two working parents, with some parents actually working more than one job.

Our neighborhoods are a collection of houses rather than a community – most people don’t know the people living next door. These new communities are not reciprocal neighborhoods. We may know that a “movie star” has passed away, but we may have no idea the man down the street has died. Further isolation occurs in the home as most children have their own rooms with their own televisions and computers. The new family structure allows us to live physically together, but maintain “worlds” independent from one another.

The extended family, a predominant part of our island culture, is also becoming a thing of the past. Either the family has relocated away from the family home, or grandma and grandpa are still working. Evening family meals are a rarity and have been replaced by take-out fast foods and frozen dinners. Regular bedtimes don’t exist anymore, so even the grown-ups in a household have no time to reconnect with each other on a daily basis after the children have gone to bed.

“Our culture is at war with families. Families in America have been invaded by technology, mocked by the media, isolated by demographic changes, pounded by economic forces and hurt by corporate values. They have been frightened by crime in their neighborhoods. Parents worry about their children’s physical safety and children are afraid of strangers.” (Mary Pipher, 1996) And, if children are afraid of adults (strangers), adults are equally afraid to talk to or touch a child they don’t know well. This is not a healthy situation, nor was it the same one some of us grew up in. In our childhood, how many of us arrived home to find out that news of our activities that day, good or bad, had already arrived to our parents via some well-meaning neighbor?

Today, children are left unsupervised, family routines are not established or implemented, and parental values are not clear. No wonder we are having problems with tobacco, alcohol and drugs. We wonder whether a child may be neglected or abused and yet we’re afraid to call the authorities. We wonder if a house on our street may be involved in illegal activities, yet we’re afraid to call the police.

Many organizations are working to turn this problem around – beginning with the family. The strength of our community and ultimately our society lies in the strength of its families. New programs and services are being developed to encourage us to re-look at our families, especially in light of the Big Island’s issues. The work is being done in communities, where it can make a difference – starting small. We are all affected and we all need to help.

Let’s begin with our own families. Look at your daily routines. Is there time each day when you are able to check-in with your spouse, partner, and children? Do you share a common mealtime when you can reconnect as a family, have children listen to you talk about what you do and what’s important to you? Do you have opportunities to listen to your children so they can share their activities, their thoughts and their concerns? Even the youngest of children can learn that he is a special member of the family by being part of these conversations even if he cannot yet talk.

Rethink your priorities. Children would rather have time with their parents than that expensive toy or name brand pair of jeans. Are we as Americans spending money on material things and forgetting what matters the most – relationships? Give up another piece of jewelry or that flat screen TV for a trip with your child to the Honolulu Zoo for a day of memories that could last a lifetime.

Then there’s the bigger picture. How do we turn this problem around? What can those outside the family do to help – businesses, schools and other programs for children, parents, teachers, social service agencies?

Hawaii Business Magazine’s April 2005 issue featured an editorial by Kelli Abe Trifinovitch about the 25 Best Places to Work in Hawaii. Of those 25 businesses, 13 offered lactation rooms – yes, rooms where breastfeeding Moms can go during the workday to pump their breast milk for their babies. While that may be an extravagant measure for most small businesses to think about, there are other family friendly benefits an employer can give to employees – like personal leave to care for a sick child, flexible hours so both parents can coordinate the picking up and care of the children, or a flexible spending plan program to help with child care costs. At one time, Mauna Lani Resort went so far as to open a child care center on the resort’s property for the benefit of their employees.

Employees whose children are well cared for are more productive and “employees at great places to work feel valued by their employers and believe that what they say and do matters”(Kelli Abe Trifonovitch, 2005). It’s time for all of us to prioritize families.

Thomas is program leader of Baby Steps to Stronger Big Island Families in Waimea, with Play and Learn groups in Waimea at Waimea Elementary School, and in Honokaa at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center. For more information on the organization, or for a schedule of their activities and events, call 887-1228, or visit