Marc My Words… 16 March 2007
Children do not belong to the state
While the current focus is on the implicitly intrusive ‘spanking legislation’, a wider debate has been largely ignored: namely, the differentiating role of both government and parent in raising children. The largely informational approach of successive governments has encroached into the domain of what used to be thought of as a family matter. While the state continued to craft policies relating to childcare, (inclusive of health, schooling, and the wider spill-over effects into the criminal justice system), the last seven years of the Labour led government has expanded that role into a prescriptive approach to re-cast society into its own ideological image.
Take the smoking debate for example: it is undeniably bad for your health but where prior governments proffered advice, encouragement and tax incentives to help change behavior, this Labour government trampled private property rights into the ground by the enforcement of a prohibition in the privacy of your own hospitality investment. The double standard is that if you are incarcerated in a publicly owned prison as a punishment, no such prohibition exists. You are free to puff your lungs out. It will not, I suspect, take long before some canny lawyer decides to sue the state on the grounds that criminals – being considered now as state ‘patients’ undergoing rehabilitation ‘treatment’ are provided with less concern for their health and well-being than lawful tax-payers. I presume, tongue in cheek of course, that Labour may have more of an interest in prolonging the life of taxpayers over those that reflect not only a tax burden but also a negative social indicator on how well they are managing society.
But back to the children…
It seems like we have lost sight of the proper role of the parent and of why children matter. It’s getting to the point where the state simply tolerates families to be the repository of our future citizens because they do not yet know how to manufacture and raise kids without them. They have therefore gone for the next best strategy which is to be as intrusive as possible. In so doing they have obliterated distinctions between ‘abuse’ and ‘reasonable force’, and have equated anything less than gender/sexual and value neutral ideals as an abomination of a bygone age. Sadly they have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
We have lost sight of the importance of childhood and youth. We have distorted what is important by substituting the natural and common bonds between parent and child with the advocacy of academics who may have a string of letters after their names but couldn’t change a nappy to save themselves. And why? Because of the scholastic mob mentality that confronts each case of child abuse as if it was a general rather than a specific breakdown in intergenerational care.
Concomitant with such advocacy is the accompanying effort to make parents feel guilty. Advocacy groups target our heart-strings and our wallets to tell us how to be better, and there’s no shortage of politicians eager to line up and swear their fidelity to these causes that may also, not coincidentally, provide some votes.
Unfortunately fuzzy ideas are no replacement for good research. The prospect of criminalizing parents who are inclined towards the tried and true principles of good parenting will do little to stem the tide of child abuse. The smacking debate has nothing to do with child abuse or even parenting for that matter, but everything to do with the ongoing human rights debate beloved of our Labour government.
If the primary interest really is about child abuse and neglect, then why cast the net so wide that it will catch all the fish rather than the species responsible? All that will happen is that there will be a climate and capacity to perpetuate fears about how we measure up in regard to our own child-rearing skills. Besides, the advocacy groups in cahoots with ideologically driven politicians will inevitably create power structures that champion children’s rights against parent’s rights. The problem is that these bureaucratic clowns haven’t figured out that these rights are actually mirror responsibilities of each other. Destroy one destroy the other.
Moreover the landscape of even more intrusive state interventions supposedly on behalf of the child necessarily creates a harm-minimization approach that institutionally undermines the point of childhood. Government departments such as CYF’s are so overwhelmingly constricted by doing the right thing (even if they often don’t), that respect for a child’s natural journey to adulthood becomes overly stunted. Mistakes, unless particularly dire, are not to be avoided but embraced as learning experiences – part and parcel of learning to be, but government functionaries do not trust themselves to allow for it. It becomes about safety not growth. In the end they extend that mistrust to all parents and bad law is sure to follow.
What that means in practical terms is that childhood becomes over-regulated. Checks and balances with Plunkett, nurses, doctors, teachers – all putting to effect parts of the government’s monitoring regime focusing on the basic distrust of kiwi families. It amazes me to hear of school boards removing trees from the school playground on the off-chance that a child might climb it and fall; or that a complicated sequence of forms need to be filled, signed and countersigned so that an excursion into the community bears all the bureaucratic hallmarks of a beach assault on D day. Most schools and parents just give up in the face of these and other such impediments.
Driving a wedge between parents and the children they choose to raise doesn’t just deprive a family of a chance at normalcy; it compromises our future by compromising our next generation citizens and parents. After smacking where to next? Will the government try and assess psychological abuses? And if so, who will decide the guidelines? More childless bureaucrats I’ll bet. ‘Telling off’ may soon end up being the subject of yet another research study which will ‘prove’ that it diminishes self-esteem and causes shame. We will be cocooned from failure, from reality, from life.
We will survive the ban on smacking as we have survived all the other assaults on the family but we will be the poorer for it. While each generation in the past has laid the foundation for the next, we are perilously close to a time when those adjustments become less about pragmatic adaptability and more about an engineered construct from the minds of pointy-headed ideologues for whom real life has already ceased to be their life experience. Regulation is the price of government involvement. Unfortunately that price is now far too high. We are in danger of being mollycoddled to death.