ARACY Forum Canberra, 20 May, 2009
Community attitudes to children, young people and families
Last week's federal budget was quite revealing about the Government's priorities for children and families.
There was no mention of the importance of the early years of childhood, of improving access to quality child care and maternal health services. Fathers were, yet again, relegated to second place as nurturers of their children with means-tested maternity leave masquerading as a parental leave scheme. Single parents were denied any increase in their living wage and the unemployed were dismissed with assertions that their entitlements have already been boosted, even though one in every eight children already live in jobless families. The environmental measures being proposed were not framed in terms of ensuring a better future for our children, nor was discussion about the budget deficit (other than by the Opposition). It seems children were not even on the agenda.
Small wonder that the recent State of the World's Mothers report claims an alarming number of children are at risk of failure in school because they are not getting the care and support they need in their early years.
The question is, does the community value families and children?
There are websites titled 'Hating children'; recent research suggests parents living with children have very high depression rates compared with the childless; and there are sober calls by population experts for us to limit the world's population to ensure a better quality of life for those who already exist. Stay-at-home mothers have lower status than employed mothers and are exhorted to work, yet our child care systems and work-family practices remain in the dark ages.
I think there is a real state of confusion over the value of children because the place of children in society has shifted under our feet.
What are the dominant values of Australian society?
And how do such values affect childhood and the task of raising children?
Parents are a shrinking minority in the developed world and they feel under attack. They are in general older, locked into privatized households in uncaring communities and workplaces indifferent to their family responsibilities. They have chosen to have fewer children, value them highly and lavish them with every possible advantage, but they are confused about the impact children have on their careers and lifestyles and about power and control in relation to their children, desperately trying to be the ideal friendly parent raising perfect children on their own.
Their privatized family world is circumscribed by two other forces affecting our values.
First, the world of economic rationalism with its values of commercial greed and consumerism puts company profits and the individual first rather than communal belonging and well-being. Self-gratification and sleaze dominate advertising and children have become a huge and lucrative market.
Second, such media-driven values set norms of behavior for a growing group of young adults living a life of self-exploration and excitement that makes them indifferent, even hostile, to the needs of children and their parents but makes them a model for the life to which younger children aspire.
This group of Solos does not identify with the mantra 'Children are our future' and often resent what they see as the favoritism of family-friendly workplace programs or family-oriented tax breaks. For them the present is what matters and gloomy predictions of environmental or economic catastrophe simply confirm their view that children have no future anyway, so enjoy life while you can.
Children are thus sexualized earlier, ape the clothing and manners of the Solos, and resent being held back by parents fearful for their wellbeing. Grown-ups are, in turn, frightened by this new breed and moral panics about drinking, drugs and sex produce knee-jerk policy responses.
The result is ironic – a growing age gap between older parents and their offspring, but a narrowing of behavioral norms, with 'youth' extending into the thirties and some parents desperate to act as young as their children.
Fortunately there is a groundswell of opinion that aims to redress these trends. Children's hubs, integration of services around schools, the UNICEF-inspired Child-Friendly City movement, the constant reminders from Richard Eckersley, the Australia Institute and others that wellbeing and happiness do not stem from money alone, and the current attempts to have Australia emulate the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, all point in a more positive direction. ARACY of course consistently raises issues about the needs of children and child wellbeing as a central goal of policy, but it has its task cut out because an ageing population with a minority who have been parents is likely to dominate the political scene, and families with children are increasingly wedged between the Solos and the old.
My fear is that the power of the consumer market, plus the increasingly minority status of children and parents, will overwhelm initiatives such as the Australian National Development Index unless there is a clearer political stance on the value of childhood.
Think for a moment about the language many of us still use and the dominant images - the Jungian archetypes if you like – that influence the way childhood is seen today:
We have effectively privatized the family and the task of parenting, despite the fact that modern society out-sources many of the tasks of raising children.
Childhood has been psychologised and the sociology of childhood has been lost, a trend which de-contextualises and de-politicises the process and makes the privatized family the cause of failure instead of a community which should share responsibility for the raising of future generations.
The key to ensuring the wellbeing of all children is to reduce inequality and prevent family poverty; all else is window-dressing. As documented in the recent book The Spirit Level, more equal societies almost always do better on every outcome that matters to child wellbeing. We need not just more equitable incomes, but also policies that foster people's 'capabilities to live meaningful lives'. That means universal provision of parental leave, quality child care, quality children's media programs, the best schools we can provide and, of course, access to health services aimed at children and their families. Given that from birth to age five, 85% of the brain's core is shaped, the conditions for healthy development have to be in place.
The problem is, our service systems are rarely aimed at providing those conditions, or at reducing inequality, just separate categorical services aimed at patching up the damage caused by it.
We focus on changing faulty or unsafe parenting behavior rather than creating a context in which doing better as a parent is easier. A child-friendly community should be the goal, not just kind and helpful parents.
We pour millions of dollars into one-on-one professional interventions and unevaluated 'child protection' services when we know it's impossible to have enough dollars to cover every problem. Even the language of prevention diverts us from the real aim of providing the best possible conditions for positive child development.
Child protection, not family support, dominates public spending, yet we fail to intervene early enough or mount a concerted public campaign about sexuality or violence in the community. The Rugby League group sex scandal may do that for us. Doubtless we are preoccupied with sexual abuse because the concept of innocence denies childhood sexuality and abuse is a judgment on the adult world. Yet guilt seems not to extend to the world of advertising and child sexploitation.
The dividing line between childhood and adulthood is now blurred and the initiation rites come earlier, in more dangerous ways.
Perhaps we should drop the myth of innocence and teach children resilience, because the world they face will demand it. We should allow them to be the decision-makers they are capable of being in their own right. As my 5 year old grandson put it, after I'd been busily explaining some topic to him, “Yes, Don, I know that. You're not the only one that knows something.” Moreover, if children have rights, then they have responsibilities too, just as have adults. But talk of children's rights is seen as another threat to adult power.
If we insist too much that the goal of parenting and teaching is to produce competent adults, the implication is that children are incompetent. We devalue their skills and competencies as they are now with a future 'productivity' goal in mind. And we devalue the experience of childhood itself, falling into the language of investment, future productivity and preparation for adulthood rather than meeting children's needs as they are in the present.
The new archetype has to be along the lines of children as a new but special minority, as real people, with real brains, real emotions, real human needs that should be given room for expression; of young people as competent, powerful, determined, even nasty and in need of firm guidelines for conduct as citizens of the world. We must stop treating children as precious little playthings, innocently frolicking in the Froebelian garden, and stop treating youth as naïve pre-adults, not capable of exercising responsibility. Yes, they need to be children first, but they do need to be prepared for life situations in ways we adults never had to contemplate.
We have to ask how best to address the new media now so pervasive in their lives, and think about how our wasteful legacy of a damaged physical environment will shape their lives, what forms of education and new ways of thinking, changed values will need to be inculcated in our schools, our media, our communities if they are to survive and thrive.
Our approach must be tougher, more realistic, more forward-looking, and more demanding of proper political and social responses to the real and changing needs of children. And those working for children have to come together with agreed values, within a coherent, co-ordinated framework, not in an ineffective, fragmented way as at present. A whole-of-government children's policy is needed, not piecemeal actions by separate departments. Child policy as an afterthought is no longer acceptable.
Sharon Bessell (2007), Adult Attitudes towards Children's Participation in the Phillipines, Australian National University, Crawford School of Economics and Government
Canadian Index of Wellbeing, Foundational Document (2007), Canada
Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (2009), An Australian National Development Index, Canberra
Richard Eckersley (2008), Young people's health and wellbeing: 20 years of policy failure? , ABC News Online, 26 September 2008
Don & Patricia Edgar (2008), The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne
Patricia & Don Edgar (2009), Young children and new media technology, Discussion Paper for Victorian Curriculum Authority
Patricia Edgar (2009), 'From children to profit centres', paper for ShowCommotion Conference, UK, July
Rebecca Shaw & M. R. Kilburn (eds.) (2008), Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States, Working Paper, Rand Corporation
Amartya Sen (1999), 'Democracy as a universal value', in Journal of Democracy, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 3-17
UNESCO (2009), Measuring the Progress of Societies, Bangkok
Trond Waage (2005), Modern Childhood – the Image of the Child in our Society: The Seventh Kilbrandon Lecture, www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications
Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane/Penguin, London
Wendy Zukerman (13 May, 2009), 'Blessed are the childless', The Australian, Higher Education, p. 47
What if we said:
Kids don't need protecting, they need exposure to the realities of the world and education in how to cope with those realities.
Kids don't need just love and nurturing, they need guidance and limit-setting.
Kids don't need time to just be themselves, they need experiences that teach them who and what they might become.
Kids don't need praise for being 'smart', they need encouragement to further effort and how to achieve more.
Nor do kids need 'self-esteem', they need a sense of competence based on actual achievement.
Kids don't need just literacy and numeracy, they need the skills required to make the world an ecologically sustainable place in which equality is the goal of every policy and program.
Kids need the chance to develop every aspect of their potential intelligence to discover their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Kids don't need to be valued simply in their own right, but valued as future citizens who will have to make tricky decisions affecting everyone.