06 June 2013

Toward Resolving the Problem of Family Failure

by Dr Mark Keown

So we are now going to see the government providing breakfasts for low decile schools. If the Mana Party is part of the next government, this may go much further with “healthy meals for all children in school.” I presume that means breakfast and lunch for every child in every school? Now the Green Party have announced that they intend to put nurses into schools as a means to improve the health of Kiwi children. I wonder what other agencies will be added to the school context next. Social workers in every school? Police? Counsellors, even in primary schools? Some of this is happening of course in some places. The question I have is, where will it end?

Now, I am not against any of these ideas per se. If we have children turning up to school who are genuinely malnourished, then a civil society acts first to feed them. If we have children being deprived of primary health care, we must act. And so on. People must be fed before they can be taught to get their own food I suppose. Yet, there are such ironies in some of these changes like the simultaneous problem of kids going hungry in the mornings, and growing problems of obesity. Further, are these only band-aid to the real problem?

To me the common thread that underlies many of these problems: namely, the failure of many Kiwis to parent well. Families are breaking down and kids are not being raised as they could be. They thus lack love and identity, face deep brokenness and are more vulnerable to the many pressures young people face today.

A good parents(s), whatever the family configuration, ensures that their kids get to a doctor when they are sick. They get to go to school having had breakfast and with lunch provided. They bring them up in a safe and secure environment(s). They ensure that they get enough sleep. They love and discipline them and guide them in this difficult age. They nurture them.

What we have in NZ is a failure of the primary institution for human development, the family. These seemingly obvious basics cannot be taken for granted. Whereas in the “good ol’ days” parenting was passed down and learnt generationally and by community, this is rarer and rarer. People parent poorly because they have not been taught how. Parenting is also implicitly learnt as we grow in families. With the passing of each generation, what is being taught is increasingly fragmented and broken. Poor parenting becomes systemic as it is passed on. People simply don’t know how to do it well because they have never seen it or experienced it.

So what is our solution? The school? The local primary school in particular is becoming the “go to” context to resolve these issues. We load more and more on schools in the belief that education will resolve the problems. I feel deeply for today’s educators! It was tough enough when I was in the intermediate school classroom in the 1980s! What a challenge! Yet, the problems really stem from the homes of our nation. The family remains the primary educator of the child, and despite our best efforts, the school will not solve the problem. In fact, as we load more and more on the school, we are arguably perpetuating the problem. We release the family from its primary function to nurture the next generation for civil society and the problem is exacerbated.

The question I have been pondering is this: how can we work to strengthen the NZ family? The more that can be done to teach NZers how to parent, the essentials of raising children, the better off we will be. I would far rather see the government develop policies to strengthen marriages and families. Of course, this is difficult when the very idea of marriage and sexuality is so fluid and we cannot propose in the public realm that a certain type of relationship is better for children. It would seem that provision of government funding for programs that specifically strengthen families in local communities would be important. Similarly, linking those identified in school as having difficulties to social assistance in local communities.

One thing churches can do is focus on strengthening marriages and good parenting. After all, are we Christians any better? We cannot assume the connection of gospel and family. We need to ensure our people hear how the gospel relates to marriages and families and urge them on to do this well. We can also make available to the wider communities in which we are embedded programs and assistance to help build strong families. Some groups are already doing this well, e.g. “The Parenting Place.” In a culture that is very open to a range of family models, we need non-judgmental and non-patriarchal programs in our communities that can help Kiwis do marriage and family well. If we don’t build NZ families from the bottom up, I suspect the future of NZ looks bleak whatever the government does in schools.

Some questions:

Despite being in a context where “family” is a fluid and debated idea, how can NZ strengthen its families?

Admitting the complexities, how can we the church national and local be a part of this?

What programs and ideas are out there that we can promote in this area?

Generally speaking, what do you think?

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