Big Fat Porkies
The Fairies of Plant Street
The New Child
War Over Work
The Patchwork Nation
Men Mateship marriage

Advocating for Victoria's children

Don Edgar August, 2012

The Victorian Children's Council has asked me to put together a broad statement on the changing nature of Australian childhood and factors likely to affect future children's and family policy. This should be regarded as a 'Discussion Starter' only, not as a definitive policy document or framework for children's policy. The views expressed are mine and do not reflect any collective view of the Victorian Children's Council.

As the founding Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, I have written extensively on the need for better social policies for children and families, including a recent book co-authored with my wife. (The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, 2010) I must point out also, that Victoria already has a number of excellent policy statements and initiatives aimed at ensuring the optimal development of our children and my central plea is for these extant initiatives to be integrated and properly implemented.

Existing policy documents include the PCAC Report (Premier's Children's Advisory Committee) of 2007 which led to the creation of an Office for Children, a Minister for Children and a new Victorian Children's Council; to the VCAMS framework (Victorian Child and Adolescent Monitoring System) which already produces a range of Child Outcomes Bulletins; to the State of Victoria's Children Annual Reports; to the many reports to Government from the Victorian Children's Council itself (ranging from place-based strategies to school transition for the disabled); to the initiatives already taken by the Department of Early Child Development and Education, particularly the Framework for Early Childhood Development produced for the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Board and DEECD's new 2012-16 Strategy; and to the recent Child Protection Report for the Minister for Human Services.

Victoria also has a range of existing services aimed at optimizing child development and education - Maternal & Child Health, Best Start, increasing access to child care centres and kindergartens, a new Early Childhood Development & Learning Framework 0-8, plus a range of family support services for those in need.

In addition, there are many public advocates for children whose work should not be ignored. These include Children First, Early Childhood Australia, ARACY, AIFS, HREOC, NAPCAN, Australian Community Children's Services, OzChild, Playgroup Victoria and the various State Children's Commissioners. UNICEF's Child-Friendly Cities initiative has made its mark, particularly in the City of Bendigo.

Victoria has a wealth of publicly available data on its children and families; the problem is that it is not used effectively, or it is forgotten when policy decisions are being made. Despite years of rhetoric about 'whole-of-government' approaches and better 'co-ordination' of programs, we still fail to link up what is done by different departmental 'silos' or even to see that what is done in areas such as urban planning, the labor market, public transport or even health have a major impact on the wellbeing and proper development of children. The system is, in my view, too 'top-down', with 'one-size-fits-all' approaches ignoring the very diverse nature of children's lives across what is a very 'patchwork' nation. Childhood needs to be given higher priority at every policy level and public discussion needs to try and regenerate the belief that children's wellbeing is the responsibility of every citizen, not just of parents and professional 'carers'.

It should be obvious that 'children are our future' but many adults seem interested only in their own future and little concerned with what the future holds for today's children. That mantra assumes a common underlying belief in Australia as 'us', 'our country', 'our legacy', ignoring the primacy for most people of living in the now, pursuing their own life satisfaction and letting the future take care of itself. It is a platitude not always matched by action.

The changing way in which children are viewed derives from a demographic shift and its impact on social values and priorities. Australia's population of 22.3 million now comprises only 2.4 million families with dependent children and over 24.4% of our households contain only one person. Young people are delaying marriage and child-bearing to establish themselves in careers and prolong the single lifestyle, so parenthood comes later, for fewer people, and they have fewer children than did previous generations. Australia's birth rate at 1.93 is below replacement level, and the number of childless women has increased from 27.6% in 1986 to 40.1% in 2006 (for women aged 40-44, it has increased from 9% to 15.1% childless).

This makes for a double-edged sword: those with children value them highly, invest more heavily in their development and education, while those without children see them as irrelevant and not their responsibility. Childhood seems to have become privatized, not seen as a social good, with responsibility resting largely on the parents. The community as a whole has become less centered round children and families, with urban planning often forgetful of the needs of children and much of the caring work handed over to professional child carers, teachers and other service-providers. With an ageing population (14% over age 65 and a doubling of those aged over 85) policy focus in terms of spending is in danger of shifting away from investing in the young to caring for the elderly.

Inequality has increased in Australian society, with more people now living in poverty (2.2 million in 2011) and more children living in areas of disadvantage in terms of their overall development. The geographic clustering of families with young children makes for very different policy issues from place to place, with outer suburbs and rural areas severely disadvantaged in terms of resources, facilities and services which could support parents in raising their children. There is an 'ecology' of childhood that is too often ignored.

Vinson (2007) ranked localities by disadvantage in his 'Dropping off the edge' report in 2007, showing that disadvantage is not just economic, but involves a multi-dimensional compounding of factors such as 'place effects', lack of opportunities, weak social networks and community social capital, gaps in various 'capabilities', direct social exclusion from activities, community support services, the denial of any 'voice' in decision-making, and historical trauma for groups such as refugees and Aboriginals. His indicators of locality-specific disadvantage include social distress (as in housing), health issues, community safety, skills and employment, plus education. The drift to private schooling exacerbates educational inequality, opportunity and life outcomes for a majority of already disadvantaged children. As the DEECD Strategic Plan 2012-16 puts it, school performance (despite an increase of 44% in real spending on education since 2000) is 'flatlining', because of high regional variation in access to services, increasing numbers of children who are developmentally vulnerable, and the poorer outcomes of indigenous and lower SES students.

Anne Harding (2006) used ABS statistics to examine the geographic 'clustering' of child disadvantage, defined in terms of a range of 'social exclusion' measures. These include (for low income families) : being in a sole-parent family, having no family member who has completed secondary school, having parents in blue collar occupations, or no parent employed, living in public housing, being in a government school, having no motor vehicle available, having no computer in the home, and having one parent who is non-English-speaking. This multi-faceted measure of social exclusion correlates highly with the simpler measure of low income/poverty but goes beyond it to show the multi-dimensional quality of disadvantage and social exclusion. As Argy (2007) sums it up, a child's class/family origins lead to educational inequalities, which in turn lead to employment disadvantage and inequality. Without increased resources targeted at state schools in disadvantaged areas, such inequality will only increase.

The strength of these family status effects could mean a degree of policy paralysis concerning childhood disadvantage and wellbeing, because having a job, better parental education or being separated/divorced are beyond any immediate government actions or services; they must be addressed by macro-economic and nation-wide social policy measures to reduce inequality, enhance family stability and improve children's opportunities. However, we know that certain actions do make a difference in terms of (i) preventing childhood disadvantage and its compounding effects (ii) ensuring access to a range of family support services and improving the quality of services already offered to assist all parents in bringing up children, such as maternal health, child care, schools and local amenities (iii) providing appropriate remedial/protection/family support services once problems have been identified.

The Victorian DEECD Strategic Plan for 2012-16 identifies several of these potentially positive interventions:

Investing more in early childhood and home learning environments; early intervention where there is vulnerability and disengagement; treating education as a shared responsibility (between families, learners, teachers and employers; insisting on higher standards in literacy and numeracy; building a self-improving teaching profession; offering more choice and diversity of pathways; sharing community assets for various purposes; shifting the focus from 'care' to 'development'; and moving from central bureaucratic micro-management to greater autonomy for schools and spending on 'frontline' services. The term 'engagement' seems to be central to this proposed cultural shift, one that can only be achieved by increasing local autonomy and control not just of schools but the whole range of family and children's services. The Victorian Children's Council has long argued for this sort of 'place-based' strategy.

Advocacy on behalf of children can take many forms. We can argue on the basis of children's rights - as the UN puts it, every child's right to survival, to adequate development, health, nutrition and protection, to policies and actions in their best interests, to non-discrimination on the basis of gender or race, and to participation, a voice in their own future. The rights approach has run into assertions that Australian children already have good life conditions and such a framework would undermine parental authority. Nonetheless, several States have effective Children's Commissioners and the UNICEF framework for building Child-Friendly Cities has gained traction (as in Bendigo) giving full voice to children and young people without threatening parental authority.

Other advocates for children feel on safer ground with an economic, cost-benefit argument: that we must invest in children's education and healthy development in order to ensure ongoing productivity and prosperity for Australia. This runs another risk - of favoring too narrow and vocational a curriculum, with holistic development subordinated to purely instrumental goals. In a rapidly changing digital world, it is not even clear what sort of vocational education will be most effective in an economic sense and how early in a child's schooling should such a focus be imposed. Yet the flatlining of educational outcomes in recent years suggests that money is not being invested in the right places or the right ways and better results from what is already a huge investment expenditure on children's education should be demanded.

More recently, research on the brain's growth in the early years, its plasticity and the impact of adverse life conditions such as family violence and lack of a stimulating environment have gained some traction in arguing for more investment in early childhood development, quality child care, kindergartens and a seamless transition to formal schooling. Great Britain's Sure Start program was initiated and funded as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. UK's Treasury) recognizing the clear cost-benefits of investing in early childhood development. Yet even here the elephant in the room is the fact that most of that early development takes place in the family and little can be done to alter the scenarios most likely to damage children in the home. Interventions at the formal level are seen as an invasion of privacy; while parental misreading of the research leads to such excesses as Baby Einstein videos and 'Tiger Mums' putting too much pressure on children at an early age. As well, development does not stop at the early years and ongoing investment is required at every stage of a child's life.

In Victoria, it should be noted that our rhetoric about spending on the early years is not matched in real funding terms. DEECD tables given for numbers and costs for various sectors of the 'education market' show a clear discrepancy between the Plan's emphasis on early childhood and actual spending at present :

School education $7469.3m 850,000 students = $8787 per student

Higher education & skills $2437.7m 890,000 learners = $2738 per learner

Early childhood developt $507m 400,000 children = $1267 per child

Operating & support services $1133m 2,140,000 'clients' = $529 per 'client' in 'education.'

It should also be noted that the Victorian Government spends $533 million per year on statutory child protection, yet only $170 million on positive child and family support services. The question needs to be asked, why are these services (mostly provided by contracted welfare agencies outside the Department of Human Services) not made more accountable for the fact that 70% of children have been reported previously; 2000 children were the subject of more than 10 reports; and the rate for Aboriginal children is 221 per 1000 (i.e. 27%) compared with the overall rate for Victorian children of 32.7 per 1000 (3%)? Such children are not in fact being protected, but the money continues to be allocated for 'child protection'.

Whatever our approach to child advocacy may be we cannot move forward without better understanding of the social changes affecting children in families and their importance to the wider community.

There are three main points to be made about children in Australia (and Victoria) today:

  1. Most of them are in good health, living with both parents and being well cared for and educated, yet most of our attention (rightly) focuses on the minority who are not.
  2. Life is increasingly uncertain for children and their parents in what is being called a 'patchwork economy' or a 'two-speed economy'. Such slogans obscure the main point about child wellbeing - that family life is not continuously stable, it is subject to 'chance' events (such as loss of a job and income, divorce, illness, accidents and sudden disability) that can affect any level of society and we should not label particular groups (ATSI, sole-parent, ethnic, the unemployed) as always being more 'vulnerable' than others. Every family is subject to such risks and we must avoid using broad 'risk factors' as categories that lock some groups into an inferior status.
  3. The prevailing culture of post-modern relativism makes it difficult to socialize children into any 'core' values such as respect for others, social reciprocity, responsibility for one's own actions, self-control, notions of 'truth', 'justice' and 'goodness'. The so-called models for sound ethical behavior - political and church leaders, media and public opinion leaders - seem to have lost the way. (See Gardner, 2011)

That said, there are several trends which can be identified in the demographics and the sociological literature which mean family and community life for most children is different (not necessarily worse) from what it was for previous generations of children. These include (relevant statistics in italics):

  • A greater diversity of family types.

Total households - 8,556,000 Total families - 6,400,000

Families with children - 2,367,000 Couple families with children - 79.3%

Lone-parent families - 20.8% (3% lone fathers)

Families with one child under 5 - 47.7%; Children under 5 in one-parent fams.- 19.0%

  • Older age of parents at marriage and first parenthood (can mean greater economic stability, maturity, but higher expectations and work-related stress, child care issues).

Median age Males at first marriage- 29.6 years; Median age Females - 27.9 years

Births to mothers under age 20 - 3.8%; Births to mothers over 35 - 23.1%; Births outside marriage - 33.8%

  • Family instability is a reality for many children. Though the divorce rate has leveled off in recent years, many children grow up in de facto, separated and step families, with the corollary of uncertain parenting, housing, schooling and neighborhood support. Conflict is known to damage children, but the ongoing instability which follows separation and divorce is even more damaging.

In 2010, 24,853 divorces (49.5%) involved children under age 18 (fewer than in 1990)

Median duration marriage to separation - 8.8 years

Median duration marriage to divorce - 12.3 (was 10.2 years in 1989)

Joint applications for divorced increased from 14% in 1990 to 38% in 2010

  • Later age of parenthood means fewer children, thus fewer siblings to 'socialise' children and greater 'preciousness' on the part of parents about children's performance and achievement. Over-protectiveness and indulgence seem to be growing issues.
  • Wide ethnic diversity across the Australian community.

23.8% of all Victorians and 6.6% of Victorian children were born overseas

20.4% of all Victorians and 16.8% of Victorian children speak a language other than English at home

0.6% of Victoria's population identifies as Indigenous (approx. 30,000 people)

Under our Skilled Migrant intake, there has been a six-fold increase in Chinese over the past decade and a four-fold increase in Indian migrants. They cluster in the main cities, 90% living in Sydney or Melbourne, more Chinese in Sydney, more Indians in Melbourne. 43% of the Indian-born are couple families with children, so are 38% of the Chinese.

Skilled migrants have three times more higher degrees compared with Australian-born, mostly in management, commerce, engineering and technology. In the IT industry alone, 11% of all employees are Chinese, 14% Indian and only 3% Australian-born.

But the poorer groups of immigrants, from African countries, from war zones such as the Sudan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan tend to cluster in certain suburbs, the outer west where housing is cheaper but jobs harder to get, and both their education level and language skills are poorer than the Chinese and Indians.. The ethnic mix in some suburbs is volatile: Cabramatta for example 133 nationalities and 70 languages, with 31% born in Vietnam and 28% born in Australia. Springvale in Melbourne's outer east comprises 21% Vietnamese, 29% Catholic and 29% Buddhist.

  • Too much emphasis on 'self-esteem' and too little on 'self-control' add to the difficulty of socializing children to become cooperative members of the community; no society can exist or survive without compromise, cooperation and empathy. Too many children are 'spoiled', expecting the world to revolve solely around them and their needs/wants.

The VCAMS 'Snapshot' 10.2 (June 2012) reports that 14.1% of Metropolitan and 16.0% of Non-metro parents have concerns about their child's behavior, more for boys (18.7%) than for girls (11.1%); 26.8% for Aboriginal children; 25% for those living with only one parent; and more for the most disadvantaged (17.6%) than for the least disadvantaged (11.9%).

  • This throws more weight onto non-family members to 'handle' problem children, but it also means more of our attention should be focused on helping parents understand the new childhood and deal with it in sensible ways. Teachers, for example, can no longer simply protest that they are not 'social workers' and must concentrate on their 'real job of teaching'; they must actually face up to the social inadequacies children bring with them to school, and ensure the school acts as a conduit to better (more specialized) family support. Some schools in Victoria have already become 'Children's Hubs', linking a variety of family and children's support services through what is a universal access point - an approach that should apply to every school.
  • Higher education of women and societal demand for their skills in the workplace mean fewer children grow up with the mother as full-time carer. Much of the scare-mongering in this area is suspect, but it makes quality of child care an important issue, and sensible flexibility in the workplace (hours, leave arrangements, etc) vital to child welfare.

Both parents employed - 62.6% Neither parent employed - 5.1%

Work intensity has increased: the average hours worked for fathers is 50 hours, for mothers 24.

82% of employed couples with children under 15 report feeling 'rushed or hurried', the reasons given being the difficulty of juggling work and family, the real-time demands of family life and simply having 'too many demands' on their time.

  • We have still not progressed far enough in terms of the 'work-family balance'. It's actually a 'see-saw' in that it bumps up and down as kids get older and parents' work situations change. No workplace can be truly 'family-friendly' unless it links into wider community-based family support services; nor can internal workplace rules about start/finish times or flexible hours/days make much difference if those other institutions involving children (child care, kindergartens, the schools, children's services) have inflexible access times.

Children under 3 using formal care - 30.3%; informal care - 29.9%; Children 3-4 using formal care - 43.2%; informal care - 32.5%; Median (combined) weekly hours care - 15

Victorian kindergarten participation rate - 98%, but varies by geographic area and ethnicity and contact is often not continued beyond the first two years.

  • The overall ageing of the population means more children have grandparents and extended family members to help, with income, care and emotional support, yet this is not often acknowledged in policy thinking. There are more multi-generational households and extended family contacts beyond the household than ever before.

In 2008, 600,000 Australian children were in grandparent care, far outstripping other forms of childcare including long day care and after school care. (Jenkins, 2009)

Total Australian population (2012) - 22.3 million. Total children - 3,978,392

Median age increased by 4.7 years over past two decades - now 37.1 years

Under 15s decreased from 21.9% in 1991 to 18.8% in 2011 (2.040,848 males, 1,937,544 females)

15-64 year-olds stable at 67.7%; 65+ increased from 11.3% to 13.7% (total 3,053,084)

85+ age group doubled since 1991

  • However, an ageing population (and a population where fewer adults have children) is potentially less 'child-centred' and less well disposed to spending on children, their education and well-being. Ageism can have a negative face.
  • Children are exposed from an early age to influences outside the family, especially the new media, leading to greater (pseudo?) sophistication, a blurring of the edges between childhood/adolescence/adulthood and a loosening of the 'authority' of parents, who become more like 'friends' of their offspring than adult monitors/disciplinarians. Concerns about media sex and violence are overstated as 'causes' of social dysfunction but certainly make childhood a very different experience and a challenge for parents.
  • The duration of childhood has been extended into 'adultescence', with prolonged years of education and financial dependency clashing with an earlier sexual maturity and a choice-based value system, driven by modern society's ethic of self-exploration, self-actualisation and consumerist self-indulgence. Large numbers of young adults stay on in the parental home, are less resilient/independent and influence other children's view of what 'growing up' means.

20-24 year-olds living with parents 48.1%

25-34 year-olds living with parents 13.0%

  • The new media are 'over-blamed and over-claimed' for their impact on children and society. The truth lies in between and the key point to make is simply that they have changed the cultural landscape for children, and for everyone; they cannot be ignored and should be harnessed for their positive potential, not just vilified in a Luddite way.
  • In fact, the data show that most children do not spend excessive time on media use, they have 'real' friends, socialize and play outdoors as well. It's not either/or.
  • In seeking causes for the 'decline' in children's behavior and the quality of family life, it is perhaps too easy to forget the practical realities of life for many kids - unstable housing, inadequate incomes, poor quality food/diet, lack of public transport, playgrounds and other community facilities that take pressure off the family itself - all the 'supports' for families that those living in better-off circumstances take for granted.

Mean weekly equivalent disposable income:

Lo income - $429; Middle - $721; High - $1,704; All h'holds - $848

Couple with dependent children - $1,996; One parent h'hold - $996

Mean weekly housing costs (2010):

No mortgage - $35; With mortgage - $408;

Renters - State authority - $119; Private landlord - $305

  • The 'free market' is out of control and contemptuous of children and their parents - exploited through unhealthy food and drink products, unintelligent media programs and 'stars' whose lives set a salacious model for the behavior of children. Children should not be seen as 'consumers' to be sold 'brands' via 'media platforms' but as potential future good citizens (and not just productive workers).

Close to half Australia's adults are overweight or obese

23% Australian children are overweight or obese

  • Despite concerns about obesity, most children still engage in a high degree of physical activity and neighborhoods should be designed to encourage such activity.

-          63% participate in sports and/or dancing (56% for boys 12-14 years)

-          Girls 5% less than boys; disadvantaged children 9% less; NES background 9% less; both parents NES 24% less; if not use internet at home 19% less participation.

-          Children spend 40+ hours/fortnight watching TV/DVDs 10% less; but those who watch TV/DVDs 20-39 hours/fortnight are just as likely to participate in sport and dancing as all other children.

  • Today's child grows up in a world where alcohol and drug use is endemic, adding to Australia's traditional binge-drinking culture and the violence in streets and clubs.
  • This plays into another contradiction - parents are overly-protective, yet young people demand the freedom to explore what they see going on in the media and in the community.
  • Children today are increasingly self-taught and self-directed, using the media and peers as key sources of information and social contact. This has profound consequences for the place of 'authority' in both the home and in schools and especially for how we should be handling education in the new technological age.

-          Majority (85%) use internet for education and schoolwork

-          Second most popular use is playing games online (boys 69% cf. girls 78%; more use by younger children cf. older - 59% of 12-14 year-olds)

-          Social networking use is increasing - 26% girls, 19% boys visit networking sites, 12-14 year-olds highest users (48%)

  • Scare-mongering has moved into blaming the new media for society's ills - bullying, school failure, obesity, etc - while the evidence contradicts the notion that watching TV or using the internet and social media is 'bad' for children. See my other paper 'Modern technology and childhood' (2012)
  • I am skeptical of the current push to diagnose 'mental health' as an issue for children. Much of what is decried is normal behavior, can be dealt with by parents, professional carers and teachers who understand 'the new child', and so-called 'treatment' is not evidence-based, labels children unnecessarily and distorts the extent of the 'problem'.

In sum, children today live in a world where parents are older, siblings fewer, with increasing numbers of the aged and 'solo' young adults who may not see children's needs as a social priority. They also live in a society where income inequality and the private/public school divide increasingly affect life chances and where market values permeate family lifestyles and reflect consumer interests. None of this means today's children are 'worse' than previous generations, but their socialization through parenting, schooling and community are different. Many of our institutions (such as schools and workplaces) are still based on assumptions about family life that are outdated and new media technology has taken on a new role in the social learning and development of children. Both policies and programs need to take such changes into account if we are to ensure children's chances of reaching competent adulthood are satisfied.

Selected References:

Amato, P. & A. Booth (2007), A Generation at Risk: Growing up in an Era of Family Upheaval, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Carr-Gregg, M. (2007), Real Wired Child: What Parents Need to Know About Kids Online, Penguin, Melbourne

Edgar, D. (2001), The Patchwork Nation: Rethinking Government, Rebuilding Community, HarperCollins, Sydney

Edgar, D. (2005), The War Over Work: The future of work and family, Melbourne University Press

Edgar, D. & P. Edgar (2008), The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne

Edgar, D. (2012), Modern Technology and Childhood Learning, a background Discussion Paper for the Victorian Children's Council

Family Matters, articles on child and family policy and research, 1980-2012, passim, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne

Gardner, H. (2011), Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, Basic Books, NY

Jenkins, Bridget (2009), Grandparent childcare in Australia: A literature review,

Kirkpatrick, D. (2010), The Facebook Effect, Simon & Schuster, NY

Kolbert, Elizabeth (2012), 'Spoiled rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?', The New Yorker, 2 July

Premier's Children's Advisory Committee Report, Joining the Dots: A New Vision for Victoria's Children (2004), Victorian Department of Premier & Cabinet

Shonkoff, J. & D. Phillips (2000), From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, National Academy Press, Washington