Child Tragedies Needn't Be Inevitable

Published: Tue 23 Sep 2003 10:18 AM
Child Tragedies Needn't Be Inevitable
By Lindsay Mitchell
Child tragedies hit hard. People instinctively, desperately seek a source of blame. They grasp at some collective, mendable cause and sometimes paradoxically come up with what they call "the culture of individualism" . People today only care about themselves, they say.
It's true that the the baby-boomers, and all who followed, don't have the sense of obligation or belonging to society that their parents did. And why would they? Government has gradually taken over most of the caring functions family and voluntary institutions used to fulfil. In doing so they have not only undermined people's commitment to broader relationships but to their personal relationships and their children and that is the real problem; being individuals and being self-interested is not. Voluntary transactions on a social or commercial level always deliver two people who have looked to their own gain but come out mutually advantaged. That is fact.
But when it comes to pitching self-interest against your child's they lose because they have no voice. Something occurs which they were not an acquiescing party to.
The 60's and 70's saw an emergence of so much 'freedom' that we baby-boomers couldn't distinguish real freedom from phoney freedom. We learnt life's lessons eventually, sometimes tortuously. In some cases the penny dropped - in others it didn't and it never will.
If you exercise your every urge without restraint you will never be free from a nagging conscience. In indulging every whim and craving, you can hurt others. In cutting your personal losses and running, you might buy a temporary reprieve but eventually those demons have to be faced. This type of lifestyle is clearly now commonplace.
"The grass is always greener and that's where I'm headed," applies to jobs, homes, lifestyles but most damagingly, to relationships. The damage is lessened in the absence of children but the presence of children doesn't lessen the phenomena. People walk. People walk away from partners just as readily, it seems, whether or not there are children in the picture.
Couples with kids split every day. Nobody knows exactly how many but the yearly number of DPB applications is around 43,000. Some will already be mums alone re-applying, some first-time mums without a partner. Even so, a good number will result from separations.
As a baby-boomer I confess to spending my single years hankering after greener grass. And I seemed to wade through lot of it before it occurred to me that I was subconsciously, literally living by a less than useful maxim. Worse. I might not have been green enough grass for someone else - I might be the problem. 'Happily ever after' was a myth and life is indeed a rollercoaster on which you relish the highs and manage the lows. It's the contrast that provides the essence. Fortunately for me this revelation happened before children.
When they arrive they put additional strain on a relationship. Deny this at your peril. BUT they take your relationship into a different realm. Watching the blend of parental characteristics merging with a brand new soul is awesome. Because of the enormous stake in our inter- dependence with them, they deserve both parent's paramount, unconditional commitment.
Whenever a child tragedy strikes in New Zealand, there are calls for the government to spend more, for CYFS to get their act together, for communities to 'own the problem' and for authorities to come down hard on the perpetrator to send a signal to society that violence isn't acceptable.
None of this would be necessary if, as individuals, we put our children first.
Lindsay Mitchell is a Research Fellow for the Institute for Liberal Values ( and specialises in issues relating to welfare policy.

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