Leaping Forward in early child and family support from the Portugal 25 conference. Number 7: Us and Them

I am imagining Portugal 25 as a powerful springboard to a better future for us all


My hopes and wishes for the conference programme so far have included:

  • To treat the Portugal 25 conference as a world summit to reflect on the past 50 years and set an outline agenda for the next 25
  • To fully involve the global south
  • To promote the third phase of the evolution of early child and family support (from (1) supporting children - to (2) supporting children and families - to (3) supporting children, families and their early support workers)
  • To use language and style appropriate for family members and early support workers who are not graduates.

In this series of opinion pieces, I have moved gradually from ‘Wishes for Portugal 25’ to wishes for a great ‘Leap Forward’ in the development of early child and family support systems around the world. In the last piece I pleaded for a fresh look at families on my understanding that a general impoverished attitude to families is a major obstacle to progress. This impoverished attitude can be described as ‘Us and Them’ or ‘Them and Us’. If we can examine this attitude we will come to a fresh look at families and start to dissolve the obstacle.

So, what are these two camps of Us and Them? Where do you fit? One camp is the professional body and the other is the family body. In the latter are families who have or had children of any age with significant challenges to their development and learning (including siblings, grandparents and perhaps other close relatives). Also included can be interested friends and neighbours. Then there might be volunteer workers in community projects who are unpaid but concerned for the wellbeing of local children and families. This is the (unpaid) family body.

In the professional body are people who are paid to support children who have significant challenges to their development and learning (and perhaps their families). There is an army of people here from the worlds of health, education and social care, from the academic world and from the voluntary sector. (Like a minority of people, I belong to both camps as a sibling and teacher.) I have used the phrase ‘Us and Them’ to suggest that in general terms the people in the two camps have very different life opportunities and experiences. 

In 2013 I wrote an opinion piece ‘On the Good Ship Disability: Are you sundeck or steerage?’ suggesting that, if the world of disability is thought of as an ocean liner, then well-paid professionals are on the sundeck sipping cocktails by the pool while very many disabled people are on the lowest decks in windowless cabins near the noisy and smelly engines.

If that piece was about social injustice, this ‘Us and Them’ piece is about power and politics in the world of early child and family support. A historical institutional approach during the last fifty or more years, coming in some countries from a strong medical influence, has disempowered families and prevented them being in control of how local early child and family support systems are built and managed. A bitter lesson we keep learning from social and political history is that power is never give away, it has to be taken. Perhaps in the early support world, we can find gentle ways to achieve this without too much blood on the streets.

Where do we start? Firstly, by acknowledging that the family body is potentially as astute and resourceful as the professional body. They might be more tired, more stressed and poorer but these states are not beyond help. We can insist that any seminar or conference about babies and infants who have significant challenges to their development and learning holds the family body as the major stakeholder. Families should have free access and equal opportunities to speak and lead discussions. The family body must have a place in academic circles to originate and support research.

Portugal 25 could lead the way in addressing this power imbalance as its programme is designed. The organising committee ought to have a majority membership from the world family body. Family members must not be squeezed in between ‘more important’ professional speakers. Scientists who want to speak jargon to other scientists should be in a side event.

I acknowledge that in general terms, people in the professional body are good people often struggling against the odds. Similarly, people in the family body are generally good people struggling to bring up their children in difficult circumstances. But unfortunately early child and family support has been allowed to split into these two separate groups of Them and Us.

I am not suggesting machine guns in violin cases, but the family body will have to develop some very sharp elbows in this struggle. A change in the power structure from ‘Us and Them’ will help local early child and family support systems to be more relevant, more accountable, more ‘owned’ by local families. Perhaps you can see from your experience what a giant leap forward this would be. Yes, it is a political issue.

Peter Limbrick (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


February 2024

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