Thinking about children

by Meg Richens

Good morning.  I want to talk to you today about children.  It’s a pretty comfortable topic generally – kids can be kids for sure, but overall they’re not too bad.  They’ll probably turn out alright in the long run.  And for some reason, other people’s kids always seem to be better behaved than my own… at least when they’re visiting our place.  But perhaps ‘children’ may not be such a comfortable topic in an election year… and there’s no getting away from the fact that this is an election year.  In 27 days those of us who are old enough are called to vote.  Our vote will have some effect on the selection of members of our community who are asked to step up and lead our country. 

If I’m going to be asking someone to lead the country on my behalf then part of that process for me is about working out which of those people are most likely to do what in relation to a wide range of important issues.  I’ll then make judgements about how their proposed actions fit with my understanding of what’s required to create a community I’d like to live in.  And – for me – defining such a community is a wordy but not too difficult process.  I won’t go into it all in detail now, but just by the way – ‘a loving, nurturing community’ (that which we are trying to create as our mission here at Kippax) is a pretty good synopsis.  One of the more detailed things that does define a community in which I want to live is the way that community treats its children.  And right now that’s a mixed bag here in Australia.

Nationally we have some wonderful policies to support a good start for children…there’s the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, the National Early Childhood Development Strategy – Investing in the Early Years, the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care and I’m sure many more.  In addition, Australia is a signatory to all significant treaties that impact on children’s rights and those rights and protection of children are governed by Federal, state and territory law.

But we have a lot of things happening that are not wonderful and that we know are detrimental to children – children living in institutional and community detention; child abuse and the much more prevalent and equally devastating levels of child neglect; children living in poverty; homeless children; children who are being left behind in the education system because they don’t fit the way the system works; children for whom laughter and joy and happiness and regular food are not the norm, but an exception.

And the fact that it is that way means that children are as much an election issue as asylum seekers or the economy.  But more importantly children – in all their glory – are a Kippax issue as much as asylum seekers needing financial support, members of our community needing emotional support, immigrants needing language support or anyone else who needs support.  Kids are contributors to Kippax as much as any other congregation member, volunteer, person who uses our services or stranger who walk in off the street.  Kids are a fundamental part of who we (Kippax) are.  And I mean fundamental, as in being part of the foundations of this place.

Indeed, the majority of our externally funded UCK programs work with children and they work specifically to protect those children from things we know to be detrimental to development and long term health. 

Newpin helps to reconstruct families and attachment between mother and child – and we know that insecure emotional attachment (along with other things) can lead to reduced readiness for school, low educational attainment, problem behaviour and the risk of social marginalisation in adulthood.

HIPPY works with parents to help them be the first educators of their children to improve school readiness because we know that success at school has a major impact on health and wellbeing later in life.

Kippax Kids and the Drop In Play Group work with families to build social connections, provide times for interaction and give kids a chance to play constructively with others as all these things help to improve emotional support.  We know that poor emotional support, especially when combined with slow growth, raise the lifetime risk of poor physical health and reduces physical, cognitive and emotional functioning in adulthood.

Rock, Rhythm and Roll helps to strengthen connections between parents/carers and a child, helps to develop gross motor skills, help to build connections between families and begins the process of building mental awareness skills.  These things are all critical to early development and the health impact of early development and education lasts a lifetime.

Much of what we do here as a congregation is also focused on children and their families – our first third ministry specifically works with families to nurture and support their mental and spiritual development; Kippax Kids Sunday Club is another opportunity, young families provides an opportunity for peer support and shared experience of parenting and the list goes on.

So we’re doing OK, right?  Well yes, we are doing pretty well and that’s a strength to celebrate.  It’s great that we welcome and include children in worship, in community services, in our community life here at Kippax.  It’s great when we listen to them and respond to their understanding of their needs and desires.  We’re doing a pretty good job, but that’s not a reason to rest on our laurels!

The high-level outcome of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children is that: Australia’s children and young people are safe and well.  It has six sub-goals, the first one of which is that ‘Children live in safe and supportive families and communities’.  There are still children in our local area who are living in poverty – not a particularly supportive environment.  Indeed in the last six months 765 children aged 0 – 17 were beneficiaries of the EFMA program either directly or through their families.  I don’t know about you but I’m old enough to remember former Prime Minister Bob Hawke proclaiming that no child should live in poverty by the year 2000.  It’s 2013, we’re facing another election and there are still children right here living in disadvantage.  Being vulnerable.  Missing out on opportunities.  So there’s still a way to go.  For sure we’re making a difference.  We need to keep on making it.  We need to make it in different ways too – helping the people we know are in need now is good.  But we also need to consider how we might help to create benefits for people we’ll never see.  One of the ways we can contribute to that is by choosing to vote for leaders who will promote effective responses to the issues we care about… in this case, for me, building a society that is equitable and in which everyone has the chance to live a decent life, including kids. 

There are some important underpinnings here that are about the society, the community and the individuals.  Some of them can be simply (but not necessarily simplistically) stated.  For example, the society needs to be fair and equitable for kids to live a decent life.  The community needs to be loving and nurturing – after all it really does take a village to raise a child.  And for the individual, the foundations of adult health are laid in early childhood and before birth.  For these very young children a few things are critical… maternal health; appropriate cognitive, emotional and sensory inputs that program the brain’s responses; access to early childhood education.  The National Early Childhood Development Strategy that I mentioned before goes some way towards this by including universal access to early childhood education for all four year olds in the year prior to starting school for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year.  That’s a great start, especially in South Australia, the Northern Territory and here in the ACT because we all provide free preschool programs.   WA asks for a voluntary contribution of up to $60 per year.  In Tasmania and Victoria, the average fees are $15.32 per week and $33.71 per week, respectively.  By contrast, community preschools in NSW cost an average of $27.89 per DAY.  Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why New South Wales has the second lowest enrolment rate in early childhood education and care. 

But what about this?  Children from families in the lowest socio-economic quartile (so the quarter of the population with the lowest socio-economic ranking) were 7 times more likely (12.8%) to have not attended an education or care program prior to starting school than children from families (1.8%) in the highest socio-economic quartile.  Similarly, 24.4% of Indigenous children did not attend an education or care program compared to 5.9% of non-Indigenous children.   So despite the good intentions of the National Early Childhood Development Strategy there is still some way to go in implementation to create actual universal access – that is, everyone – regardless of race or socio-economic background – being able to access early childhood education and care services. 

So to go back to the type of community I’d like to live in… it’s one where children are treated well and have the things they need to develop and grow and live a decent life.  And for that to happen I want to know whether the people I am nominating to run the country will be committed to universal access to early childhood education and care services, whether they’ll be committed to the quality standards we already have as a minimum, whether they’ll act to improve implementation of the good intentions expressed in policy.  This is important to me as a member of the community and a citizen of the country.  It’s important because how we treat our children (along with others who are vulnerable) is a pretty good indicator of the type of community we are.  And it’s important because it’s not just about children becoming something.  While children most definitely are the future of our community and our world they are also intrinsic, valuable contributors to that community and that world right now, exactly as they are.  As Francis Owusu, director of KultureBreak here in the ACT says, ‘You don’t become somebody – you ARE somebody’.  Somebody important.  About whom we care.  Somebody we want to do well by.  Somebody we want our country to treat well.


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