In 2003, children were a key focus of Larry Anthony’s ministerial portfolio: childhood advocate Dr Fiona Stanley as Australian of the year and children were receiving extra funding and attention at all levels of government. The heady days of early childhood advocacy may have past, but there is still work to do.
Australia hasn’t turned its back on children. I think the ongoing development of government programs and continued debates over childcare and parenting indicate we are all interested in supporting children as best we can. But we do seem to have lost sight of why children matter.
It is not fair to say that we don’t care about children: we clearly do. However, what we are losing in our rapidly changing world is the ability to nurture very core parts of our humanity. In the ever-quickening pace and anxiety-driven nature of our society, we are at a loss to foster that in our children.
We have not lost sight of the importance of childhood and youth. But we have distorted what is really important. We have evolved into a market-driven society where work and income are dominant, and this has hamstrung our ability to cater to the needs, that we are told we need to meet, of children.
There is a significant problem faced by those advocating the best interests of children: the message that childhood advocates deliver is often drowned out by their justifications for improving the lives of children. Author Anne Manne refers to this as “groupthink”.
She details an experience in a workshop she attended, held by the federal government, called “Closed Workshop on Non Parental Childcare”. In a two-day discussion, despite some participants questioning the complex nature of supporting early childhood development, the “mob mentality” of intellectuals drowned out any detailed debate about what was really in the best interests of children.
“One early childhood professor went ballistic even at the suggestion of paid parental leave - since it implied that not all childcare was ideal. Others were outraged at the admission of negative evidence because ‘it made parents feel guilty’,” she writes.
Advocacy organisations like Australian Childhood Foundation present an image of representing the best interests of children. And while they do have strong opinions and ideas that we should regard highly, they also come from a strong welfare and child protection advocacy model.
Their primary interest is child abuse and neglect, and supporting changes to the most vulnerable children in our society. This means they also have the capacity to perpetuate our fears about the dangers to children, and reinforce old images of childhood innocence and vulnerability.
They create a clear power structure where they are advocating for, but not with, children. Their work is clearly dominated by the idea that children are threatened by a predatory adult world, and it is their role to protect them.
Another aspect of the problem is that services and funding for children’s services are driven by this fear. Parental fear, but also political fear. Government departments responsible for children and their ministers are forced, through media representations of children who have been kidnapped, abused or murdered, to defer most funding to a risk management approach.
There is value in this for children at risk, but it means that the broader, positive family support and community building activities are not adequately supported financially, and for all the rhetoric are not being given the chance to succeed.
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