Parents are urged to be just that

Too many children in UAE are brought up by housekeepers who know nothing about the nation's culture or values, a family expert says.

Dubai Ð 10/10/2009 - Abdullah Mousa with his two children at his home in Al Waraaq, Dubai. Abdulla is an advisor and expert in Islamic Family Science at the Dubai Center for Women's Renaissance, Dubai. (Callaghan Walsh / For The National) *** Local Caption ***  Portrait_003.jpg
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ABU DHABI // Emirati parents, particularly mothers, have been urged to take a more active role in bringing up their children, rather than relying on domestic helpers who may dilute thee youngsters' sense of national identity.

Children brought up by nannies and au pairs can be influenced by outside values and morals, depriving them of their heritage and culture, according to Sheikh Abdullah Mousa, an adviser and expert in Islamic family science at the Dubai-based Centre for Women's Renaissance, which offers family services including counselling and courses for married couples on the challenges of marriage. "Some mothers have thrown their children into the laps of foreign housekeepers," he said.

"The housekeepers have no idea about our culture and traditions and values. Her environment is totally different from ours, whether by religion or tradition. Sometimes she doesn't even have any moral sense at all, and her lack of virtue influences the make-up of the child." Motherhood is revered in the Islamic tradition, and many Muslim scholars agree that the main priority for a woman is to be a good mother. They also say investing in girls' education is important because the girls will become mothers, and mothers have the responsibility to educate the new generations of a nation.

Statistics on the number of families with live-in domestic helpers in the UAE are difficult to establish, but it is rare to find an Emirati family without housekeepers. It is also rare for the hired help to be from an Arab country, creating situations where a child speaks little or no Arabic and prefers to communicate using the housekeeper's language. When the child finally learns Arabic, it can be muddled and sound wrong.

Sheikh Abdullah's views are shared by many officials and scholars in the UAE who worry about a generation of Emiratis growing up without proper grounding in their language, religion and culture. The Government started last year to fund programmes that teach Arabic to young Emiratis who may have been raised primarily by live-in domestic help. Often, a child might be raised by both the mother and the hired help, or even the parents and a number of extended family members. This too can be a problem, said Sheikh Abdullah. "Problems arise when different people raise the child, because each person instils different things."

Najibah al Rifaee, an author and educator on social issues, said the first five years of a child's life were crucial to development and behaviour. "From the minute a child is born, the first three to five years are essential," she said. "The trouble is that some parents think this stage is not important because they think the child only needs food, sleep and cleaning, so they give their child to the nanny. But this age is extremely important, the child is absorbing every body move and every word.

"When you give the child to a foreign nanny and the child is with her eight hours or more, the child takes and absorbs everything from the nanny who may not even be Muslim. The baby grows up without a strong foundation in language and has no grounding in other values we hold high in our culture. It's a very big problem here in the UAE. People can afford hiring a lot of domestic help." She stressed the need for parents to build a strong bond with their children. "The family is the corner stone in society, and the strength of society is from its young men and women. It's very important for the child to develop an attachment to his or her mother and father."

Maitha al Khayat, a young Emirati mother of four, said she refused to get a nanny for as long as possible - until she had her fourth child. "I needed someone to help me so that I can help my children," said Mrs al Khayat, who added that her friends had advised her to get a nanny as soon as her first child was born. Mrs al Khayat was working at the time and she quit her job to become a full-time mother, instead of resorting to a nanny.

"Unfortunately, it has become common to see Emirati women delegating childcare to their nanny, where some of them even refuse to pick up the child if it cries out of fear the child might ruin their abaya," she said. Mrs al Khayat was not brought up by a nanny, and remembers how important it was for her mother to be there for her to bring her up according to their traditions and values. "The nanny helps me with cleaning and in the background. I would never leave my children alone with her unless my mother was also there," she said.

"A nanny should not be replacing the role of a mother," she added. "I don't respect a mother who allows that to happen."