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Real Issues - Parenting, Communication, Dignity

Real Issues No. 329 - Parenting, Communication, Dignity
Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 329 27 November 2008 www.maxim.org.nz

Reinvigorating the parenting debate
Keeping in touch
Welcoming the weak

New Zealand scores well in prosperity index
Community important in child protection services


In her new role as the Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett has called for New Zealanders to start having a debate on the balance of parenting and paid work. In her maiden speech, back in 2005, she claimed too many women were feeling pushed back into paid employment soon after having children and asked the question, 'Who will be raising our next generation?' Her wish now is to see this issue rigorously debated and for society to acknowledge this as a concern we need to address.

If we want to be a society built on thriving families, then issues like extended paid parental leave, 20 hours free early childhood education, flexible working hours and the provision of breast-feeding spaces at work, need to be discussed within this context. Although the intention of these initiatives was to assist mothers and provide them with the choice of returning to work, they have had the effect of strongly encouraging parents to place their children in care and head back to the workforce.

In having this debate, we need to ask ourselves what exactly is it that we are bringing to the table in this discussion? What things are we considering, what do we value as important? It is one thing to talk about 'choice,' but what does it really mean to make a wise decision, informed not just by preference but moderated by the evidence on the subject.

Research shows the importance of the mother-child bond, especially while an infant is under the age of two. It also shows that placing children in day-care for extended hours can have a negative effect on the social behaviour of the child. Despite this, our society places such a high emphasis on utility; in many circles the value of an individual has become tied to employment status and contribution to the workplace. We need to properly engage with the decisions we are making and the reasons behind those decisions, ensuring we are carefully informed on choices that impact on our children today and on our society tomorrow.


Vodafone New Zealand is celebrating its tenth birthday this year and as part of the festivity it is in the process of undertaking an online survey into the communication habits of its customers. The survey is not yet complete, and so detail on it is sketchy, but preliminary indications show unsurprisingly that many of us are increasingly using text messages, mobile phones and email to keep in touch.

35 percent of respondents cited mobile phones as the 'communications technology [they used] most each day to communicate with friends' while 39 percent named text messages, as compared to 3 percent for the old-fashioned telephone. Email tops the poll at work, while for communication with 'best mate, partner, or spouse' mobile phones take out the majority. 44 percent have 'asked someone on a date via text,' 17 percent have 'dumped someone by text' and a brave 2 percent have 'proposed' by text message.

All the usual caveats for self-selected online polls apply, but the survey is a fascinating look into a technologically connected culture, that is craving relationship. Fairly obviously, we can see the desire for communication, from email and text messages with work colleagues and friends, to more personal contact with best friends, and present or prospective spouses. The appeal of mobile phones, texting and social networking sites like facebook is their immediacy; they give the sense of being connected to a wider whole, and a wider community, one especially valuable in a culture where loneliness is a big problem. At the touch of a button, we can be assured that we matter, that we are valued, that there is someone out there thinking of us and pulling for us to come through. This relational fix is increasingly valued in a culture in which deeper and more permanent forms of community are so hard to come by. We need to be thoughtful though about how we seek connection -- relationship mediated by technology, while more convenient and less risky, may also be less rich, requiring less sacrifice, and so may yield fewer rewards. Despite our increasing interconnectedness, there is still no substitute for face-to-face relationship, care and connection -- as most of those who attempt to propose by text message will probably find out.

Take part in the Vodafone survey


749 babies with Down's Syndrome were 'live-born' in the United Kingdom in 2006, the largest number since prenatal screening began in 1989. This good news has been highlighted by a recent Radio Four documentary, 'Born with Down's,' which examines the journeys of several families and their children with Down's Syndrome and explores the reasons they continued with the pregnancy.

These reasons, buttressed by a recent Down's Syndrome Association survey, include holding a moral objection to abortion and hence being willing to confront the challenge of a child with special needs, but they also include a sense that life for Down's Syndrome children has improved and that society is more accepting of people with disabilities.

No longer locked in institutions, and increasingly visible, those with disabilities, including Down's Syndrome, challenge wider society to recognise and respect their humanity, the humanity we all share together. For many, seeing a disabled person was key in their decision to recognise the humanity of another one -- the child in the womb. No longer a defective foetus, but a real person, disabled children are hard to ignore. In building an inclusive society the attitude of wider culture matters. We really can make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities, by treating disabled people as exactly that -- people -- human beings, living on the same earth and members of the same human family. People with aspirations, hopes, fears and weaknesses become hard to dismiss or ignore -- and once we have seen their humanity, disabled people, even those in the womb, have a claim upon our consciences, in terms of support and concrete assistance. As the documentary points out, this is another area in which we can do better.

We may congratulate ourselves that in the West, those with disabilities are no longer hidden away with shame but play a part in our wider society. We justifiably celebrate the achievements of our paralympians and pride ourselves that we welcome the weak. But at the same time, the same British report which reported the 2006 increase states that 'after the prenatal diagnosis of Down's Syndrome, 94 percent of affected pregnancies are legally terminated.' We cannot claim to value the dignity of the weak in Western culture, when we fail to see disabled babies as people and we fail to make room for them. The documentary shows we have the power in our own hands to be generous, or to be blind, to make room in our attitudes and hearts, or not to.

Listen to the documentary 'Born with Down's' http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fkx0m

Read the 2006 Down's Syndrome statistics for the UK http://www.wolfson.qmul.ac.uk/ndscr/reports/NDSCRreport06.pdf



The Legatum Institute, a British-based think tank, has just released its second 'prosperity index.' Ranking countries according to a range of criteria that relate to prosperity, including good governance, social support and entrepreneurship, the index places New Zealand as tied for ninth place with Denmark. As with other international comparisons New Zealand scores well, in part due to its focus on the environment and the openness of its governance processes.

Read The 2008 Legatum Prosperity Index


The final report of a year-long inquiry into child protection services in New South Wales has been released recommending a number of changes to their current system. Amongst the recommendations is the suggestion that the 'capacity of non-government organisations ... should be developed' with the private sector taking a much greater role in ensuring child protection services. An underpinning principle of the Inquiry's recommendations is that 'primary responsibility for rearing and supporting children and young people should rest with families and communities,' resulting in an emphasis on keeping children close to or within, where possible, their existing communities and support networks.

Read the Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/Special_Projects/ll_splprojects.nsf/vwFiles/Report_Executive_Summary_Recommendations.pdf/$file/Report_Executive_Summary_Recommendations.pdf


'Who will be raising our next generation?'

Paula Bennett MP

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Maxim Institute's regular email publication, Real Issues, provides thought-provoking analysis of developments in policy and culture in New Zealand and around the world.


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