BANGKOK – Dr Somsak Chunharas, deputy minister of public health dropped a bombshell about the state of our youngsters a few days after the whole country celebrated children as the future of the nation.
Dr Somsak Chunharas said more than 30% of Thai children suffer delayed development at an international congress entitled Our Children, Our Future.
That is very bad news for Thailand’s Military leaders who are struggling to pull the country out of economic and political stagnation.
They have pinned their hopes on mammoth infrastructure investment worth trillions of baht. They have also talked about the need to shift away from labour-intensive industries to catch up with the world’s digital economy and get Thailand out of the middle-income trap.
Dr Somsak’s sobering statistic gave them a difficult question: With Thailand soon to become an elderly society, how can the country realise economic health — let alone its ambitions — when 30% of young people do not have the physical, emotional and intellectual capacity that is appropriate for their ages?
The good doctor has prescribed a set of remedies to redress the problems. Since close parental care is crucial for early child development, newborn babies until the age of three should be raised by parents. To help, the government must provide parental training to ensure proper child-rearing.
To ensure proper care during the children’s formative years, children aged three to five must also receive quality preschool education, the Bangkok Post reported.
To rescue teenagers from self-destructive behaviour, Dr Somsak recommended more focus on life skills and self-esteem strengthening so they will not fall victim to drugs, violence and unprotected sex.
No one can argue against his prescriptions. But delayed development is not exclusively a health issue. The lack of proper child care through their teenage years is primarily caused by rapid social changes that prevent parents from continuing traditional child-rearing roles. It is a social problem that cannot be solved by the Public Health Ministry alone.
The problem of underdeveloped children is undeniably tied to the country’s glaring disparity and social injustice.
It is clear that the majority of those 30% of youngsters with delayed development are from poor families. We need the state to intervene and give them an extra push through better support for parents with young kids, better preschool education and better access to higher education that fits their individual needs. Without the government’s commitment to give them a headstart, these children will be forever stuck in the lower strata of society, a fertile breeding ground for social and political alienation, anti-social behaviour and youth violence.
The potential dangers from youth alienation should also make the government include migrant workers and their children as beneficiaries. Without child care and education support, migrant children may grow up to be problematic. But given proper assistance to realise their potential, they can become valuable human resources when the country needs more young people to shoulder an elderly society.
The Public Health Ministry cannot do it alone. The government and business sectors must give longer paid leave or introduce work flexibility so parents can take care of their newborns. Since local communities can better meet the parents and children’s needs, the Education Ministry must stop top-down policies and centralised administration to let schools have room to manoeuvre. More support for migrant children is mandatory.
The children are our future. But the future is grim indeed if delayed child development refuses to go away.