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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Australian families: an Indonesian perspective

Iwu Utomo

Abstract

The author, an Indonesian psychologist now studying in Canberra, presents her views on Australian families. She asserts that contrary to Indonesian beliefs about western families, Australians put a high value on children. Furthermore, the family, the community and the government are very supportive of child development and make children's matters a special issue.

I was born and raised in Jakarta in a family of five children of whom I was the only girl. In my early teens, I spent four years in the United States where my father was assigned to a post in Washington D.C. This was my first exposure to a western life style , an exposure limited by my parents' desire to protect me from non-Indonesian influences. Nevertheless, I had American friends at school. Later, I spent two and a half years in Hawaii while my husband completed his Master's degree and, after this, I completed my Master's degree at Florida State University. All in all, I have spent a total of almost nine years in the United States.

During these periods in the United States, I gained the impression, an impression conventionally held by Indonesians, that western families do not have very close relationships and that western parents do not have their children's needs as their first priority. This was different from my own Indonesian view of how families should be. In addition, I obtained a negative view of western families from news stories about matters such as child abuse and incest.

Now I am living in Canberra for a four-year period with my husband and three children, including my daughter who is a similar age to me when I left the United States. Before coming to Australia, I had a full-time job. With Jakarta traffic, I usually arrived home at 7.00 or 8.00 pm and my husband would arrive even later. My younger children by this time were usually in bed. As we had three housekeepers, most of the children's physical needs were met by them. Sunday was the only day we could spend time together as a family. This is the common experience of urban, middle class families in Indonesia.

In the 15 months I have been living in Canberra, I have developed a very different impression of western families. Perhaps I am now a more skilled observer, or perhaps I have been able in Canberra to see western families in operation at a much closer level than was possible in the United States. Whatever the reason, I have a new image of the Australian family, one which gives a very high value to children and their needs. Without household help, I am learning to be an Australian parent as well.

I would like to promote in Indonesia an understanding of how relationships in an Australian family work as I believe that it provides a model from which the middle class urban family in Indonesia could perhaps find much to learn. My new impression is that Australian parents, mothers and fathers, have very close relationships with their children and make time to do special things with their children. At the same time, Australian children develop independence, mutual respect for other family members and are aware of environmental concerns.

In contrast to Australian children, Indonesian middle class children are very dependent and cannot do any activities related to household chores or taking care of themselves. Australian children are taught to be independent, they understand for themselves what is dangerous and what is not. Middle class children in Jakarta are followed by their 'minder' everywhere they go. They cannot go anywhere or do anything alone. If they want to ride their bicycle, their minder cycles behind them constantly instructing them to slow down.

The role of fathers is different in Australia. I see Australian fathers taking their children to swimming lessons and combing their hair afterwards. I see them in the supermarket and minding the children. They change nappies, make formula and carry the children around - not like Indonesian fathers who would see this kind of activity as counter to their role as 'king' of the family.

The most unbelievable reality from an Indonesian perspective is that many divorced parents have their children as their first priority. Many Australian parents living separately are able to arrange child care and discuss the needs of their children with each other.

In my view, Australians put a high value on children. The family, the community and the government are very supportive of child development and make children's matters a special issue.