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Respecting children, not blaming parents

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Tuesday, 23 May 2006

The amount of interest in Mal Brough’s suggestion to monitor the spending of young families is a worrying sign. It is a further indication of our society’s obsession with childhood and misunderstanding of the messages from the early childhood sector. Consequently, we hide behind the idea of children’s rights while not giving children the respect they deserve.

There is no greater benefit to a child than the love of their parent. The parent-child relationship, even at its most dysfunctional, is an important one. We are inextricably linked to our parents.

A community committed to the well being of children would give greater support to that relationship. When parents are neglectful or abusive it is the whole community’s responsibility to intervene, but we rarely do. This is why governments have implemented mandatory reporting. This is why everyone’s lining up behind Mal Brough and says, “Yeah. Those parents shouldn’t have that money if they spend it on alcohol and cigarettes”. It is easier than taking individual responsibility.


We are extraordinary in our affluent, middle-class views. Gambling the money away is irresponsible. But, parents in the suburbs who spend their baby bonus on a holiday, or a new plasma screen TV, or an expensive bottle of Moet to toast the birth of their baby they are using that money in their children’s interest? Right?

To continue to lay the blame at the feet of parents from lower-socio economic backgrounds for problems that belong to all of us will provide little benefit to Australia’s youngest citizens. Instead of pointing fingers and feeling good about how much more capable we are as parents we should be asking how our communities can have greater involvement in raising a child whose parents, for whatever reason, don’t have the capacity to effectively do it themselves. How do we support them to develop that capacity?

This, of course, is not an argument to ignore child neglect. But our inability to respect the capacity children have to govern aspects of their own development means we talk about children’s rights from an adult perspective of childhood, rather than a child’s. It is for this reason we should drop discussion of monitored payments to parents because punitive approaches achieve very little. Just ask early childhood development experts.

Children’s rights are about respecting and honouring children as members and contributors to our society. In the early childhood sector greater focus is given to support children’s development and encouraging appropriate behaviours, rather than punishing inappropriate ones.

Instead, Mal Brough might like to increase the investment his department makes in recurrent funding of parenting services. That is services, not information websites like the new Raising Children Network site funded by Family and Community Services. Or, he could talk to early childhood Dr Fiona Stanley whose book Children of the Lucky Country clearly identifies the issues for children at risk lie in systematic issues around the wealth gap and an inability to address poverty, rather than individual parenting styles.

Parental responsibility for children should not be questioned, but supported. We are showing little respect to children by limiting their parents already meagre incomes and benefits to try and force them to improve their relationships. Situations of neglect and abuse are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. These issues are often generational. They require high levels of intervention and community support.


The real solution is to start considering a new image of childhood. One founded on respect and the acknowledgement that children’s rights are not about dictating how their parents spend their money, but involving children in our societies decision-making processes. Give them a say in the world that they will inherit so that they have a chance to begin dealing with the problems that inevitably come with that inheritance.

If the minister really wants to make an impact he’ll start to consider how the United Nation’s Convention of the Rights of the Child can be applied in the Australian context and reading up on how to consult children to support the development of government policy.

Quick fixes and new programs are good for the adult-centred world of political ambition, but in the long term they won’t support our children. Children need our respect. And, parents need our support. We need to realise that the best opportunities for children will come from being raised by an entire community, rather than just one or two parents. That means more involvement from us than just finger-pointing.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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