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Why kids needs parents and the world needs kids international hot topic at family gathering
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Children and parents need each other and society needs both, according to an international group of speakers at the World Meeting of Families Wednesday. - photo by Lois M. Collins
PHILADELPHIA Kids needs their parents and the world needs kids. But worldwide fertility is down, families are in flux, cultural traditions are changing and generations may be drifting apart when they should be pulling together for the good of their societies, according to international presentations at the World Meeting of Families Wednesday.

The forecast for families is a mixed bag, but family-friendly public policies and decisions by those who will or could be parents could make a difference, participants were told during a keynote address and a breakout session on demography.

The international family-focused conference, held every three years and sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, has attracted 18,000 registrants this year, making it the largest family conference, helped in no small measure by the fact that Pope Francis himself will be in Philadelphia this weekend in a visit timed to coincide with the event.

While couples tend to marry and not cohabitate in most parts of the world, there is a worldwide increase in cohabitation rates and a decline in marriage, said Andres Salazar of The Family Institute at the University of La Sabana in Bogota, Colombia. He said policies have an impact on cohabitation and marriage rates and can be crafted to strengthen families.

"The family is the core institution for child-rearing worldwide," he noted, adding that promoting positive outcomes changes futures. "Children thrive in families that are based on father-mother bonds," he said. Children living with both parents have better health outcomes, less infant mortality and other benefits.

But many couples choose to live together instead while they wait for financial stability. Low-income women put off marriage hoping to find a "suitable" stable spouse. And less stable and low-salary jobs create a "fuzzier base for commitment and stability," he said.

Shifts in cultural norms in different parts of the world also have impact on marriage rates, such as less religion among non-college educated populations, changes in parenthood laws and rights, and some cultural shifts to "independence without responsibility."

Among other trends affecting family formation and the world's population are declining fertility rates, urbanization, international migration, the aging of the population and changes in family size, said Gerard-Francois Dumont, a professor at the Sorbonne and a French population expert who said that each of them matter to family life.

He spoke of countries impacted by "demographic winter" and the impact on families when the lure of city life draws youths away and separates family members, potentially weakening generational bonds.

Faith-based view

Part of the decline in family formation may have a more fundamental root: Fear of beginning families at all. People are "encouraged to close ourselves off to fertility," Helen Alvar, professor of law at George Mason University and a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Roman Catholic Church, said during a keynote address Wednesday that drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.

She presented the challenge as one of doing what is pleasing to God and said that anything that encourages couples not to have children is "ironic" because family is "the exact group of human beings that God chooses for us."

She noted that God could have created new life in many different ways, but chose to use men and women together, "two united to cooperate and care for others."

Family, she said, is the "nest within which a child finds a unique identity," from the shape of her ears to personality traits.

Alvar believes having children while married is best for couples and kids. The problem with cohabitation, she said, is "many people living together without making any promise to each other about the future."

As a secular solution, Salazar emphasized public policy as a way to strengthen marriage and to help children.

He said that stable marriages are vital to children's health and policies and government should protect that. Among his recommendations were increased training for middle-skills jobs; eliminating tax penalties for people who are married compared to those who are single or cohabitate; offer meaningful child credits that help parents raising children; invest in preschool education and reduce the incidence of divorce.

Protecting children and society

Huge differences exist in Asian countries when it comes to the well-being of youths, according to Villamor Vital, a professor and head of the economics section of the Asian Social Institute in Manila, Philippines.

He said chronic poverty, inadequate health care and rapid degradation of the environment harm children, families and the larger society, comparing what happens in well-developed Asian countries like Japan and Hong Kong to those that are not. The better-developed countries tend to score higher on the Human Development Indicators well-being index, or HDI, and have longer life expectancy, Vital said.

He also noted that the amount governments spend on public education tends to be greater in high HDI countries and are tied to better outcomes for children and thus families. Literacy and net school enrollment are also higher in those countries.

Vital said poverty is a threat to life, while family- and community-based programs are the cure. He said policies in parts of Asia that address such challenges as poverty and low education rates have great impact on quality of life and how a population does.

Part of the solution is a change in thinking, said Alvar. Women have been told they're missing out on the good things in life if they're devoted to raising children or caring for disabled parents. "Of course women want to and can contribute to the community," she said. "But they want to do it in a way that allows them to care for people first."

An aspiration for family life should be accommodated, said Alvar.

Quoting scripture that says "Go forth and multiply," she encouraged those in the audience to help banish fear and to adopt an attitude of abundance when it comes to family.
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