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ParentsOctober 25, 2016

Think Big for Kids: 5 big ideas (and a few dozen more) to protect children and support families

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Experts agree: improving the welfare of our children – especially the most vulnerable – would bring huge social benefits, not least among them a drastic decrease in crime. So what are the fixes? And what’s stopping us? Thalia Kehoe Rowden has some suggestions.

What can you say about Thalia Kehoe Rowden? She is a lightening bolt of a woman. She is generous and kind and she lives her values. She wrote this ambitious and passionate piece from Thailand where she is currently doing development work with her family. Her heart is with us here in her home and I love her fierce courage is standing up and saying: We have to do better. Here she asks us what better looks like. What could we do? What do we have to do? Thank you Thalia. – Emily Writes, The Spinoff Parents editor

Here’s a moment from what was simultaneously the most depressing and insightful interview I heard last month.

Lynn Freeman is talking to family lawyer Anne Stevens on RNZ’s Nine to Noon about the government’s proposed domestic violence law changes:

LF: “What do you sense are the major changes, and have they been enough?”

AS: “Well, I can’t really find any major changes.”

Hold on. A nearly two-year review process, including public submissions, has resulted in Cabinet approving a bunch of proposals that… don’t make much difference? How the hell did that happen?

A brief reminder of the scale of the problem in the land of the long white cloud:

  • Fourteen per cent of children report being deliberately hurt by an adult in the last year.
  • One in three women will be physically or sexually assaulted by a partner in their lifetime.

In terms of cold hard cash, family violence costs us between $4 billion and $7 billion a year. (For these and more horrifying facts and figures, head to the It’s Not OK stats page.)

So when Anne Stevens says, “I can’t really find any major changes,” something is terribly wrong.

Stevens represented Katharine Webb, whose ex-partner Edward Livingstone killed their two children and himself, despite a protection order being in place. Here’s the most important part of the interview:

AS: “I can understand why these things are done. It looks like there’s been a response. But the issue starts at childhood, and these changes don’t go to the factors that lead to the violence that’s so endemic in New Zealand.”

LF: “So could that $130million over four years be spent differently and be more effective?

AS: “Oh, I’m certain it could be. If you look at the Dunedin Longitudinal Study’s findings, they have found that one of the principal factors in the path that a person’s life takes is self-control. Is that learnt at the mother’s knee? Of course it is.

“We know the families where the violence is occurring, the bulk of them. If you go in then, at that point, when the child is learning how to react to frustrating situations, put your money in there, then hopefully the court is going to have a lot less of the people appearing 20, 30 years later on charges of violence.”

The three year election cycle’s a bitch, right?

When power-brokers focus more on getting elected than on actually leading once they have been elected, this is what you get: a shiny, sparkly ambulance, neatly parked at the bottom of the seven-billion-dollar-a-year cliff, and not even a bit of number 8 wire at the top to stop the steady flow of our citizens walking off the edge.

This is negligence on an astonishing scale.

Family violence is a scourge we are not addressing. So is child poverty. So is substandard housing that makes our citizens sick at an alarming rate. We have appalling rates of youth suicide, mental illness, obesity and family breakup.

It is time. We need to have courage. We need to listen to what high-quality research has been telling us for years, and we need to tackle the root causes of these problems.


It’s time to THINK BIG (but not about dams and smelters this time)

But if you and I ran the world, my friends, oh the things we could achieve!

Here’s a thought experiment to help us ditch the short-term mindset:

If I made you Minister for Children, with an unlimited budget, strong influence in Cabinet, and a goal to, let’s say, halve crime over the next 20 years, by building a population of resilient, thriving children, what would you do?

What would your policies be? How would you spend government money to make society dramatically better for everyone?

Of course, I’m using ‘halving crime’ as a proxy for ‘everyone is healthy and resilient,’ because we know that the prison population is largely composed of people whom we have failed.

People are locked up, in many cases, because they grew up in poverty, with all the family stress that brings.

So here’s the thing: if we strengthen families, we can cut crime. Honest. If we strengthen families – like, a lot – we all win, in every possible way.

Five big ideas (and a few dozen more)

I asked Twitter and Facebook for ideas. I’ve woven those responses in with pieces of expert advice given to the government (and mostly ignored) over the last few years.

So here are five THINK BIG projects for the next decade that could get 2016 in the history books for some good reasons for once:

  • Wrap support services around parents (instead of bars around offenders)
  • Strengthen stressed families (instead of splitting them up)
  • Respect and restore mana of tangata whenua (instead of perpetuating cycles of shame and deprivation)
  • Eliminate childhood deprivation (it’s better than depriving offenders of freedom later)
  • Welcome children in public life (I don’t have a nifty parenthesis for this one, but it’s important, okay?)

THINK BIG IDEA #1: Wrap support services around parents (instead of bars around offenders)

There’s scientific consensus that the first three years of a child’s life set the direction for adulthood. We also know that Zealand public investment in children is both low and relatively ineffective by international standards. Almost every problem that leads an adult to prison can be fixed in early childhood, if we actually want to improve children’s lives.

Here’s what we need: wraparound support for every parent who needs it, beginning in pregnancy.

When someone is two months pregnant, ask: ‘What will this baby need to thrive? How can we make that happen?’ And then make it happen. All of it.

Poverty alleviation, family violence intervention, smoking cessation, drug and alcohol interventions, healthy housing, arrangements for young parents to continue their education, treatment for health problems, budgeting advice and addressing problem debt, nutrition advice and cooking skills, parenting courses, counselling for anger or depression, even daily mentoring to coach someone through all this stuff: if all of these were available to every family unit, right from the beginning, how much misery would we save down the road? How much of the justice and health budgets could we slash by putting our money in early?

If we want to make young children’s lives healthy and secure, we also need

  • Better birthing: including counselling after traumatic births; more funding for all Lead Maternity Carers so women have real choices about where and how to give birth; birthing units where partners and whānau are welcome instead of banned from the premises
  • Breastfeeding services so that every woman who wants to breastfeed has all the practical and social support she needs to feed her baby. We are currently failing at this.
  • Paid parental leave for the first three years of a child’s life. There is simply no one better to look after a child than a parent who is willing and able to do it. If a parent wants to be at home with children, we should celebrate that fact, and fund it.

    I was surprised at how many contributors suggested three whole years. Since that is indeed the developmental window the research tells us is most important, why not shake up our economy to value the time a parent pours into a child in that crucial period?

    How about a model where most businesses don’t need to hold specific jobs open longer than the current 12 months, and leave is paid for centrally by the government, as an investment in its citizens.

    I note that parliament is probably going to make room for organ donors to receive 100% of their income to recover. How about if people donating an entire human being to society get a commensurate regime?

  • Home help when babies are born. This brings me to one of my favourite ideas: all new parents should have a significant amount of paid home help for the early years of a child’s life.

    Perhaps something like this: for the first 12 weeks, a trained doula will come to your house for three hours a day to do housework, cook family meals, cuddle the baby while sleep-deprived parents shower or sleep and tell the parents what a brilliant job they’re doing. The doula can also refer families to support services like perinatal mental health teams, lactation consultants and so on.

    After the first few months, you and your Well Child provider, GP, or other support professional will decide together how much home help will be best for your family. It can be a combination of housework and help with the baby or older children. Imagine if every mother of three could have a fun babysitter swing by three times a week and make a fuss of the older kids while she feeds the baby and has a nap after another broken night? This is building a better world, people.

    And before anyone sniffs that parents have coped fine for generations without all of this pandering, let me just remind you of our appalling stats. We are not coping fine. As a nation, we are drowning. Life preservers like this are desperately warranted.

    One daydreaming step further: sick leave for parents. As in, when you are at home with little kids and come down with whatever bug they picked up at kindy, you can call in a government-paid nanny to take over while you curl up in bed with a cold flannel on your forehead.

  • Coaching so parents can do a great job: Every family needs access to free parenting classes, beginning during pregnancy. Let’s also provide friendly, empowering, parenting coaches, available to chat to on the phone or for home visits.

THINK BIG IDEA #2: Eliminate poverty (duh)

Every piece of research on what makes for resilient, healthy children – and adults – says the same thing: poverty is the enemy.

And we could just get rid of it, you know. Whether we institute a Universal Basic Income, or follow the 78 recommendations of the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group, there really is plenty we can do to lift families out of deprivation. So let’s do it. Now, please.

Do it for a generation and watch the prison population plummet.

These reports and resources need special mention here. Go and read them to see how true it is that we already know what to do – we’re just refusing to do it.

Even with a secure income, New Zealand’s appalling housing rental stock means kids would still get sick. At the moment, 40,000 children go into hospital each year with ‘housing avoidable’ respiratory illness.

The rental WOF scheme is a thoroughly rational idea that has worked well in trials, has near unanimous support from experts, and simply must be enacted. Refusing to do so sentences thousands of families to unsafe housing. Conscientious landlords have nothing to fear. The rest don’t deserve protection from their responsibilities.

Remember when a Work and Income office was found to be directing struggling families to garages? They protested that they couldn’t be expected to know the quality of the rental accommodation in their neighbourhood. A WOF system would solve that problem.

THINK BIG IDEA #3: Respect and restore the mana of tangata whenua

On top of other measures to get rid of child poverty and get every family off to a great start, there’s plenty more we can to do to make sure every Māori kid can grow up proud, confident, and resilient.

I’m Pākehā, so I’ll refrain from suggesting my own solutions under this heading. Instead I’ll tell you what other people have said would make a difference.

  • Boost funding for kohanga reo
  • Oversight for kohanga reo and kura kaupapa by a Māori commission
  • Teach te reo Māori to all students, in all schools
  • Special ring-fenced funding to ensure all schools can offer kapa haka
  • More bilingual and immersion units in mainstream schools
  • Keep moving on Treaty settlements

THINK BIG IDEA #4: We need to stop splitting up families

You don’t fix a broken leg with amputation. A plaster cast holds the broken pieces together to give them a chance to knit.

In many broken families, children would be better off cocooned by cast, with their parents, to give the family a chance to get healthy. Separating families should be a last resort. Instead, let’s invest in intensive support of families under stress.

We routinely separate families to keep kids safe. But that’s a cheapskate, ineffective and often harmful answer. If we spend more money and effort on families, we can keep children safe and keep families together.

Imagine a future where every suburb or district has a house where families whose kids are not safe at home could move, all together, for as long as it takes to learn the skills they need to look after their kids: budgeting, stress management, addiction counselling, cooking, literacy, how to play with a toddler – whatever they’re lacking.

These would be lovely homes, well-staffed around the clock with social workers and foster carers to make sure the children are safe, as well as professionals to help upskill and treat the parents. All while the family is still together, still near their schools and neighbours, and can establish new, healthy routines, like bedtime stories and good breakfasts.

These homes, a bit like women’s refuges, would be run in different ways according to community needs. Iwi and hapu would have the option to set their own up, run according to local tikanga.

Build parent-child treatment units in every town

Similarly, if a parent of a young child is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, mentally ill or has other serious health problems, they must have the option of being treated without separating them from dependent children, if that’s what’s best for everyone.

Perinatal mental illness affects more than 10 per cent of mothers. There’s only one, small, mother-baby unit in New Zealand where these mums can be treated as inpatients with their babies still with them. Bonding and attachment are so crucial to healthy development that there should be one in every town.

Make prisons and sentencing family-friendly

Frankly, I think it’s pretty clear that prisons are counter-productive in every way. We’d do much better to incarcerate people only for treatment or preventive detention. That’d be a great way to find the money for all these other solutions.

But in the meantime, why, oh why would we punish children for their parents’ crimes? Why take their parents away, making kids even more at risk of every negative outcome you can imagine? Please imagine the effect on your own child or small friend if their parent were ripped away overnight. This is horrific. It is inhumane. It should be illegal to do this to a child, with very few exceptions.

The children of prisoners are an extremely vulnerable group, whose internationally recognised rights are systematically abused and ignored and whose futures are put at risk by the break-up of their families.

Invest in families when relationships break down

We all benefit when children grow up in secure family environments. It’s in all our interests to make it as easy as possible to access relationship-strengthening counselling and courses, and to support families going through transition to do so as healthily as possible.

  • Free relationship counselling for all parents
  • Family court parenting coaches whose only role is to help families make a healthy transition when a relationship is over.
  • Wraparound support services for all families in crisis: is a relationship in strife because of problem debt, chronic depression or addiction? Let’s pour our money into solving those problems, with the pay-off of thriving children in healthy families.

THINK BIG #5: Welcome kids in public spaces and public life

Not a single piece of this article is rocket science or brain surgery (though there is plenty of brain science).

Report after report, expert submission after think-tank inquiry after policy document has told us what will make a difference for children’s lives. So why don’t things change?

For one thing, children don’t vote.

We need to dramatically change the value we place on the interests of children.

I suggest we give the Children’s Commissioner more constitutional clout to advocate for children’s rights and interests. The Attorney-General is required under the Bill of Rights Act 1990 to make an official report to Parliament whenever a proposed law would infringe someone’s rights.

Let’s ask the Children’s Commissioner to do the same for all legislation. Make the government explain out loud how it justifies harming children with any move that’s not in the interests of families.

And what about children’s voting rights reform? A classic Big Piece of Cheese episode of The West Wing gave compelling arguments for children to have the vote. Some contributors to this article suggested lowering the voting age considerably, plus giving parents a proxy vote for any children in their care below that age. Perhaps this would give more incentive for policy-makers to push out their horizon and make plans that consider the long-term effect on society.

Children also need to be more welcome in public places. Boost libraries, fence playgrounds, and make sure every suburb has a welcoming place for all children to hang out and all parents to be resourced with whatever they need. And a public campaign on how brilliant it is to have kids in cafés wouldn’t go astray either.

Kids are actually human beings, you know?

Assorted extra ideas

  • No more school fundraisers for necessities, please! Just fund schools well!
  • Every school must have warm, dry classrooms.
  • Nurses and counsellors in all schools.
  • Schools are great for some and not the best educational pathway for others. We need to make high-quality home-based education possible for every child who would be better off at home rather than in a school. Let’s start with an educator’s allowance for parents, so they can afford the time to focus on their children’s education. And wouldn’t it be great to have home-ed coaches available to support families with their kids’ learning?
  • Give employers free consultations on how to make their business more family-friendly – and why it will help them too. Maybe they’ve never considered the needs of pumping employees, how their opening hours affect employees with children, or the feasibility of job-sharing. Present them with the business case for family-friendly workplaces.
  • Scholarships for Early Childhood Education students, aiming at a more diverse teacher population.
  • Increased funding so that every single ECE centre is an excellent one, with low child-teacher ratios, nutritious food, and highly-trained staff.
  • A capital works subsidy to make sure ECE centres are in the locations most convenient to families. At the moment there are often not enough in poorer suburbs, or near parents’ workplaces.
  • Dramatically increase funding of Playcentres and other parent-run, community-based early childhood gathering points.
  • Free healthcare for everyone who needs it. It’s hard to be a good parent – it’s hard to be a good human – if you’re often ill. Let’s help parents put their own oxygen mask on first (literally if necessary) by making primary healthcare free for many more people.
  • Free dental care for everyone who needs it. Have you ever tried being a patient parent with terrible toothache and no savings?
  • Boost mental health services. Every person should be able to access counselling and psychiatric care as soon as the need is identified, at no cost for anyone for whom it would be a barrier. This would pay for itself approximately four zillion times over. In the first year.
  • Free or subsidised sunscreen
  • Free or subsidised sanitary items
  • Free or subsidised auto-injector adrenaline pens for severe allergic reactions, currently unfunded and prohibitively expensive.

Tell her she’s dreamin’

If I could wave a magic wand and do all this stuff tomorrow with my imaginary unlimited budget, I would bet you my left kidney that it would work. We would dramatically reduce crime and misery in God’s own country. We’d actually have a shot at breaking cycles of poverty and violence that we otherwise seem to be stuck with.

Lacking a magic wand, let’s talk money.

First things first, remember that we’re talking about investment. The earlier you intervene, the less it costs to do so. Child poverty costs billions a year. The measures I’m suggesting will save us money in the long term, as costly things like hospital admissions and crime go down. The only problem is that governments so often lack incentives to consider the long term.

Check out the reports and resources at the bottom for a detailed discussion on the fiscal implications, and the ideological debates on cash-versus-services or employment-versus-welfare.

If you wanted to get a whole pile of extra money right now to fund these investments, here’s the cash we might find down the back of the couch:

  • $9.4bn lost to fraud and other ‘economic’ crime. That’s a crime crack-down I could get behind.
  • $1.6bn in the Corrections budget. Here’s a thought: what if we immediately halved all prison sentences for future offenders? Does anyone seriously think that being in jail for eight years instead of four will improve anything? If you’re devoted to the (largely fictional) deterrent value of prison sentences, then sure, have different numbers for different offences. But halve them all, tomorrow. And we’ll take the savings and use them to make little kids’ lives better, so they don’t end up in court at all.
  • The Morgan Foundation’s proposal for tax reform
  • A good, old-fashioned rise in tax on those on the highest incomes.

Pie in the sky. The too-hard basket. Tell him he’s dreamin’.

But don’t you think we’ve kind of got two choices? We can tinker around with legislation and benefit rates and pretend we’re doing something, or we can admit that it’s not working.

So maybe we should try something new. Some actual leadership.

Hands up, anyone?

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at

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