What is the real cost when domestic help raises our children?

While many maids genuinely care for their charges, in too many cases unqualified and overworked foreign women are given almost total responsibility for the development of young minds.

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Few places on the planet have witnessed such dramatic and rapid socio-cultural transition as the UAE. Fuelled by revenues from tourism, commerce and of course petroleum, we have raced forward, embracing modernity and occasionally trading good habits for bad.

One area where this is most evident, and arguably most damaging, is in the increased reliance on domestic staff to raise Emirati children. In the 1980s, large families were the norm with the number of children often ranging from six to eight. Extended families typically lived together and, while child rearing was primarily the role of the mother, the loving help and support of grandmothers and other family members was often available. In such an environment, children naturally absorbed traditional values and, in most cases, received plenty of familial attention and tender care.

However, in recent years, we have seen a slow shift from our traditional extended family structure to a rather alien and individualistic nuclear family structure. This fragmentation of the extended family has gone hand in hand with the dependence, even over-dependence, on housemaids to rear and take care of children. The Emirati grandmother has been displaced by hired hands from around the globe.

There are many problems with this scenario. While many maids genuinely care for their charges, in too many cases unqualified and overworked foreign women are given almost total responsibility for the development of young minds. In addition to housekeeping duties, maids are called upon to attend to children's social, intellectual and emotional needs.

This trend troubles me, and I decided to explore it by conducting a survey of my peers. The first set of concerns focused on potential negative social effects, such as children becoming socially withdrawn and avoiding interaction. This is associated with issues of cultural identity formation, with some respondents fearing that children might lose their own cultural and perhaps even religious identity, acquiring instead that of their caregivers.

The second category of responses related essentially to emotional factors. The chief point was that the unique and treasured bond between a mother and her child is weakened by the intervention of a permanent secondary caregiver. Many feared that children would develop an attachment to the housemaid rather than the mother.

There have been decades of psychological research into the attachment of young infants - the bottom line suggests disrupted early life attachment experiences can result in enduring emotional and relational problems in later life. Imagine the child who forms a strong attachment to a maid who then leaves. In such a case, even children as old as six can develop separation anxiety.

The third category could best be described as behavioural disturbance. Over-reliance on hired caregivers was associated with increased aggression, rebellion and generally disruptive and defiant behaviours. One respondent described a young relative who insisted on performing Buddhist prayers.

Respondents also emphasised children's Arab language abilities. Many reported a clear deterioration in their accent and ability to pronounce Arabic words. One young woman told a story about her seven-year-old cousin who was unable to pronounce his own name correctly, calling himself "Mokhammed".

Sixty-three per cent of respondents disapproved of domestic staff raising Emirati children; however, 96 per cent had maids caring for children in their own homes. This is a classical case of what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance": two things that just do not go together.

So what are the reasons? Tough decisions about jobs and education were mentioned. Many also cited the desire for a "lavish" lifestyle.

This over-reliance on domestic help is particularly problematic as it has implications for the future of our nation, our national identity and even our health. The eminent British psychiatrist John Bowlby, an authority on the consequences of "maternal deprivation", proposed: "Mother love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins are for physical health." Are housemaids an equally adequate supplement?

Meera al Mutawa is a health sciences student at Zayed University