The rector of St Patrick’s College, Wellington, Paul Martin sm, suggests that a significant factor in New Zealand’s high incidence of child violence is a shift in society’s expectations of children.
‘In general in the past even when you were a teenager you were still a kid, whereas I think in this society we tend to have more expectations that by the time boys reach Year 11 (15 years), they’re capable of making decisions that a lot of them aren’t actually ready to make.’
He says this comes from a genuine desire to treat them as young men but they’re actually not.
‘Often they don’t have the emotional maturity to make some of those calls and I think they’re actually left to make them when they need to be made for them.’
Fr Martin says it’s important parents follow through on any threatened punishment because if children think their parents will not carry out a punishment, they will not take a threat seriously and by the time they become teenagers they’re out of control.
Often parents who are consistently firm with their children don’t feel much support in the choices that other parents are making.
‘So kids will be going to parties—the parents are providing alcohol to 15-year-olds. People say we’ve got to teach them to drink responsibly but I’m not sure that that happens.’A
Catholic Social Services social worker Cathy Agnew says a key issue for boys in particular is a lack of male role models. Fr Martin agrees.
‘When boys get to third and fourth form (Years 9 and 10) they sort of get sick of their mothers—they’re looking for some males to do boy stuff with.’ Fr Martin says when there are few strong men to look up to, the boys start acting up.
‘I think boys like to romp with their fathers and if they haven’t got someone that they can do that sort of thing with, it gets sublimated into risky behaviour. They have that tendency to be risky anyway and there are a lot more opportunities for it now.’
He says at times it may just come down to needing someone to blame ‘and they can say, “Oh, the old man won’t let me do that” which allows them to save face with their friends.’
A culture change away from hitting
Cathy Agnew, who works in a number of Catholic primary schools in Wellington, says New Zealand needs to change its culture to make the family system work better, ‘so that we don’t have to hit to get the message across to children that what they are doing is unacceptable’.
‘I remember someone saying that they tried using the “naughty chair” but it took too long and it was much easier just to smack. I thought that’s the epitome of the issue. Is it that we have such busy lives now that we’re not taking the time to make the effort with the children we are choosing to have?’
Fr Martin says there are a number of social problems with kids.
‘When I look at our community we’ve got some great kids but there are some that, when you explore their family background, it’s pretty hard for them really. They often do much better than you’d expect. And their parents, I don’t think they’ve consciously chosen to be poor parents either. It is about the confidence to be parents.’
Parenting skills vary according to personal experience. Many of today’s parents were brought up to ‘put up or shut up’ and although society demands a change from this pattern, this does not mean that today’s children are more principled.
‘I’m glad we don’t have caning anymore but it strikes me that the levels of self-discipline and moral behaviour are no better than they were in the past—if anything they’re probably worse.
‘We have a problem with kids stealing. We say to them in Assembly, “You talk to each other about being brothers. And yet you’ll turn around and steal from each other. Why would it be just good luck that you’ll find a wallet on the ground and decide that its contents are yours?” They’re not bad kids but there seems to be another morality operating.
‘I believe a key strategy is to keep them busy. The kids who are playing sport and doing music or are involved in other activities often don’t have the same time or motivation to get into trouble.’
A sense of belonging, whether it be to a sports team or a music group, is a key part of nurturing self-esteem in children, he says.