The first time I heard the term sparent was eight years ago. It was around the same time as my first nephew was born. My brother thought that the idea of sparents was brilliant, especially when there was a particularly hideous nappy to change. In reality it is only the term ‘sparent’ that is new, the concept of caring adults outside of the home has always existed. Unfortunately there are less and less of these people being utilised, despite abundant research showing the significant role that they can play in the life of a child.

A lot has changed in family structures over the past 50 years. There has been:

  • An increase in the number of single parent and separated families
  • Families have become smaller
  • It is now uncommon for extended family to live together
  • Greater migration means that families are often a long way from their extended family
  • Parenting has become very private; it is no longer the case that ‘the village’ is always involved in the bringing up of a child.

What this means for parents and their children is that they are often quite isolated. Young people of all ages, toddlers through to late adolescents, have fewer mentors, less role models, less adult points of view and less allies.

In the past we had a lot of caring adults outside of the home. We had ‘aunties and uncles’ who weren’t actually related to us. They were the close friends of our parents who would drop by uninvited, but always welcome. There were neighbours whom we knew well and spent time with regularly. Neighbourhoods were close communities before we shut our front doors and kept the world out. We also had lots of extended family who lived nearby and whose opinions mattered.

These adults were close enough that we would tell them things we might not tell our parents. They passed on a lot of generational knowledge. They were also able to pull us into line when we needed it. It is rare these days that anyone would discipline or provide ‘tough love’ to a child who isn’t theirs. I think we are worse off for it.  These days there is so much pressure on parents to parent in particular ways and ‘get it right’. Sparents use to take away some of that pressure by pitching in and they helped to ‘keep it real’.

What are the effects of sparents?

The American research organisation, Child Trends says that caring adults outside of the home have an awful lot to offer children of all ages. Their developmental psychologists examined the relationship between children and adolescents who had caring adults outside the home and the impact it had on their wellbeing.  They found that these children are less likely to be involved in bullying and less likely to suffer depression.

These same children are more likely to:

  • Remain calm in the face of challenges
  • Show interest in learning new things
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Be engaged in school
  • Participate in physical activities
  • Complete tasks they start

They are also more likely to have meaningful discussions with their parents about issues that matter to them. The outside relationship enhances the family relationship.

This study involved children from 6 to 17 years of age. It showed that the impact of sparents does not lessen as the child grows older and that boys and girls benefit equally from having a mentor.

Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Girls and Raising Boys, is a big advocate of cultivating caring adult relationships. He recently wrote that, one of the major causes of the deterioration in girls’ mental health is “the disappearance of adult women from girls’ lives. (Compared with earlier generations) they have about 80% less contact with older women like aunties, who were once a significant bastion of girls’ development – the cool or feisty older women who are more plain spoken, challenging, and less embarrassing than mum.”

He asks that women foster relationships with the girls and young women in their lives. He recommends that from about age 8 and on, women need to have sleepovers and lunches with their special girls. These mentors need to keep up with what is happening in their lives. He says, “Ask them big questions – what do you stand for? What do you want for your life?”

With regards to boys Biddulph says that parents should, “organise some good mentors in their son’s life or he will have to rely on an ill-equipped peer group for his sense of self. The aim is for your son to learn skills, responsibility, and self-respect by joining more and more with the adult community”.

So who are these sparents?

There are natural and formal mentors who can emerge in a child’s life. Interestingly, whether the relationship emerges naturally or is arranged, they have similar outcomes. Natural mentors include:

  • Aunties and uncles
  • Godparents.
  • Parents’ friends
  • Neighbours
  • Teachers
  • Coaches

I haven’t included grandparents on purpose. Grandparents have a separate and very special relationship with their grandchildren. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Some organisations offer more formal mentors. Schools in particular recognise the need for these significant adults. Some have mentor programs that employ older people in the community who volunteer their time. Organisations like Volunteer Australia and Big Brother, Big Sister Australia also offer formal mentoring programs.

Every child should have a number of caring adults on hand. Quality time with these people is priceless. Children need more than just their parents to talk to in times of strife. There need to be others they trust and will confide in. Those people create a sense of safety. Just knowing they exist gives children a sense of connectivity, belonging and confidence.

 

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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.