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Richard Whitfield

Healthy Families, Young Minds and Developing Brains: Enabling all children to reach their potential

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A review of the NZ Families Commission Research Report

In May 2009, the Families Commission published the report Healthy Families, Young Minds and Developing Brains by Charles and Kasia Waldegrave. Child development expert Professor Richard Whitfield was invited to review the report and add some suggestions for future action.

While I am not seriously in touch with political developments in New Zealand over this past 3 years1, I have visited the country professionally on 19 occasions since 1974, largely concerned with child and youth affairs, and with the content and holistic balance of educational and related services.

Over that period, I have watched, with some sadness, what is an internationally very important test-tube democracy of a wonderful young country, having extensive natural and human resources, catch more than its fair share of the stultifying speak of ‘political correctness’. Sadly that tends to mean the death of common sense, if not some fear of truth, as the limits of what is publicly discussable shrink, along with the extension of bureaucratic legislation that cramps initiative within limits that are now crucial for a decent social ecology.

For example, in February 2002 I had the privilege of helping Ministers to launch a well-founded Youth Development Strategy, whose fine yet radical principles have been compromised in practical action through a lack of political will and bureaucratic creep condoned by political appointees. Shortly after that, as a professional visitor with no personal axes to grind, I endeavoured to influence the practical shaping of the then emerging, and certainly needed NZ Families Commission. I feared that the new body would not seriously aid the development of family and relational stability; that respectful, informed ‘having and holding on’ that all need in community in order to function effectively as citizens.

Against that background, I came to the fine title of this recent Commission Report with significant hope, at least until I reminded myself of the likely politics of tendering for and letting a research contract to assiduous ‘independent’ investigators. Then the probable internal censoring of any slightly brave consequential policy language which authors might dare before publication.

Without doubt the neurological development and nurture of young children and the maintenance of optimum brain functions later in the life-course are vitally important issues. This Report does a more than adequate job on the relevant neuroscience, and provides a useful glossary. The ‘critical role’ of parents and other care-givers in providing reliable climates for linguistic, cognitive, emotional, social regulatory and moral development is emphasised, as is concern for ‘a substantial minority’ of families where children are at risk of impaired development. While pathologies exist, such as sustained child neglect and trauma, and may, often with difficulty, be located in particular cases, the Report is, to say the least, complacent about the impacts of a range of socio-economic and structural changes that, in one way or another, impact all families.

The widespread lack of public awareness of the key dimensions of human growth and development over stages of the life-cycle, including emotional illiteracy is not seriously alluded to, even though this prompts significant vulnerabilities amongst the young, including teens, under modern social conditions, regardless of income group. Relaxed time for parenting, and the availability of significant attachment figures, including mentors, when youngsters are distressed, at times that they do not rationally choose, is now at a premium in most Westernised societies.

Arguably, a little over one half of Westernised youngsters are not deep-down sure that anybody loves them. Such feelings of insecurity may be remote from parental intent, yet are very relevant in soft then later hard-wired neural responses. Attachment patterns tend to persist strongly through generations, and, without interventions, affect partnering and parenting performance.

There are several glaring omissions from this Report, as much if not more the responsibility of the researchers’ paymasters. Amongst these are:

* Barely a mention of family structure as a related variable concerning stress and trauma: the whole complex and delicate arena of divorce and separation, parenting alone, mother-father relationships and their sufficient stability for children’s well-being.

* No attention to the number of ‘carers’ that young children can seriously attend to if they are to gain a sense of secure attachment, and so grow the neural circuits that prompt trust in the wider world into which they are born.

* No reference to well-proven cycles of emotional affirmation and deprivation.

As far as the Report’s recommendations’ are concerned, they are disappointingly fluffy and unimaginative. Aside from the far too familiar ‘we need more research’, there are well-worn pleas for greater access to ‘high quality’ early childhood education for children at risk of violence, abuse and neglect; for policies that focus on lifting children out of material poverty; and for information provision in popular formats about brain development in children, aimed firstly at target groups of at risk families and those who work with them.

In short, further unit-costly amelioration attempts for an assumed, yet hard to categorise minority, that again fail to address structural and cultural foci for primary prevention. Involved in that obvious vacuum must be programmes of serious preparation for all males and females for the most fundamental choices that anyone faces, namely the options of partnering and parenting. Holistic curricula for that would naturally include the broad gamut of what we know of human development, including appropriate aspects of the neurosciences.

Here was a potentially promising, and in several ways sound Report, yet lacking in common-sense practicalities. So replete with political correctness, I do not see the Report helping any Kiwi youngster or parent in practice. These secondary researchers aside, who have some seriously sensitive and informed segments in their Report, the Commissioners and CEO of the Families Commission should be ashamed of what they have sanctioned. Yes, I dare say, from my side of our globe, this Report seems a near total waste of Kiwi taxpayers’ money.

Yet Readers of this review can fairly ask: What would this reviewer commend from his awareness of the balance of evidence, and varied rock-face experience? In a few lines that is a tough ask, even for this radical grandfather, long dedicated to the interests of the young; those who, all too soon, become the parents and active (or depressed) citizens of tomorrow.

Hopefully I bring not only hard-headed insight, but also compassion within the brief words following in what is a barely credible yet real biological and cultural, so ethical blindness. Politics may be ‘the arts of the possible’, but it requires also the arts of an informed ‘tough love’ in representing the best collective interests of the populace; so here goes!

Our two countries have allowed themselves to be near indoctrinated into false views of freedom, and of rights without responsibilities. Biologically our species would never have evolved or survived without sufficient dogged, intimate collaboration of men and women in the processes of procreation and child-rearing. While there has never been a golden era in which those challenging tasks thrived without sometimes incredible struggles, this reality applies no less now also, as a given norm, however much we take on board particular differences of orientation and circumstances. Indeed, we can call this necessary long-term collaboration between men and women for procreation and child-rearing as the first law of human society.

Hence family structure, unsurprisingly a consistently strong variable in studies of children’s development and life chances, must be faced square on.2 That means long-term policy interventions that will help to promote patient, sufficiently harmonious coupling of men and women, particularly amongst those who choose or are likely to choose the parenthood option. There is huge ignorance over this, in which many, across income groups, often unknowingly inflict self and other harm. This ignorance is largely a failure of courage over what counts as core knowledge in public education.

A serious policy objective must be to reduce, by adults’ own better-informed choices, the proportion of children who grow up without both a mother and a father in their household. That of course may not necessarily be the birth mother or birth father; hence adoption’s currently low status will also need reversing.

With skill, not least though tax and benefit systems, such shifts can be incrementally achieved without stigmatising solo parents, many of whom are not and will not be, at least in the near future, solo by choice. [Those widowed early on in the parental life-cycle of course need separate consideration].

Crucial to accompany this vital goal of less lone or dysfunctional parenting must be massive reforms in the content of public education. There, sadly almost everything is given study status except that of the holistic development of the human person, including core facets of social and emotional relationship. This is as if we had no reliable science-based knowledge in those arenas. We have plenty, calling to be used and implemented preventatively. Involved here would be an emerging self-understanding, and understanding of others, and all the delicate matters of our human formation and change within a sound framework of developmental health of mind, body, emotions and spirit. These have huge potential savings in tax takes in almost every section of government.

We are now faced with increasingly threadbare social ecologies, and massive transmitted emotional deprivation impacting every area of human behaviour and public service response. Without action, the structural dysfunctions within home-bases, amid high expectations, will snowball down the generations. Functional literacy in the field of preparation for the options of partnering and parenthood, at least as important as mathematics, science and history, must now emerge as highly-esteemed core curriculum in school, college and community. Civic survival, no less, demands we take the mounting evidence long-term-seriously.

I have already noted that a NZ Families Commission is ‘certainly needed’, though it is clear now that the body was far from well-balanced in its setting up. Indeed, it was a child of political compromise rather than cross-party evidence-based conviction, with a relativistic, socially-permissive NZ Labour Party no doubt far too prominent in the driving seat, a matter affecting the selection and appointment of Commissioners and senior staff. The basis and choice of evidence and methodologies of enquiry have clearly been seriously distorted. Over this, Commissioners and lead staff are both individually and collectively responsible.

Hence under a new Government,this body charged with the serious task of helping to safeguard the social ecology of the Nation, on the basis of the strong balance of evidence, must be reformed within the totality of public interest. Family-friendly policies must, in short, come of age,with relevant institutions, and not least a Families Commission, endowed with well-formed ‘teeth’. Hopefully this may now be seriously underway, for people of goodwill must hold faith in properly constituted public bodies whose diligence and practical contributions can be widely respected, so outlasting the whims and winds of political change.

  1. The main business of my last visit in 2006 was to help to launch a politically very relevant research-informed book, co-authored with Bruce Gilberd (Emeritus Bishop of Auckland), Taproots for Transformation: Nurturing Intergenerational Discernment and Leadership in an Irrational World, Trafford Publishing. That book was well reviewed by Eugene Bingham in a whole page feature by the NZ Herald on May 13th 2006, and has sections that bear directly on family-related dynamics and public services discussed here. 
  2. As an aside, I recall how 25 years ago when as Director of UK Child Care for the Save the Children Fund, I attended several policy-formulating meetings of my peers from other ‘voluntary’ (charitable) child care agencies. All our organisations were then in receipt of sometimes compromising project grants from government. Through an assiduous assertiveness, with great difficulty I managed to secure the simple words: ‘Children should be reared and nurtured through the collaboration of men and women’ into our collective National Voluntary Child Care Organisation’s policy document. Such was the most I could negotiate surrounding family structure; and of course marriage as a seriously informed social contract, likely to aid family stability, was way off-bounds.