Editorial: Prime obligation lies with parents

Last updated 05:00 13/12/2012

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OPINION: Poverty harmful to children. No-one will dispute the central tenet of the child poverty report released this week by Children's Commissioner Russell Wills.

 Kids who go to school hungry struggle to learn. Kids who live in damp, cold, crowded homes get sick. Kids  who grow up poor are more likely to struggle as adults.

Where readers may be inclined to part company with the commissioner's expert advisory group is over how to tackle the problem.

The authors, who include prominent academics as well as Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly and Salvation Army social policy director Major Campbell Roberts, pay lip service to the notion of reciprocal obligations. They say they were guided  by the notion of a ''social contract'' that recognises the mutual responsibilities of parents, the community and wider society.

However, when it comes to the pointy end of the exercise they have a  lot to say to the Government and nothing to say to parents. The report contains 78 recommendations. Seventy-eight of those are directed at the Government; none are directed at parents.

It is, the group appears to believe, the state's responsibility to ensure that every child has the opportunity to fulfil its potential. That is not possible.  The state cannot be a surrogate parent. It cannot provide love, it cannot offer encouragement and  it cannot set boundaries.

What it does do is offer help in times of difficulty and provide free education,  subsidised healthcare and a range of other social services.

Whether that assistance is sufficient  is debatable. The expert group thinks not. It wants the Government to spend an extra $2 billion or so a year on benefits, rental accommodation, state housing and 24-hour-a-day free health care for children up to the age of 5.

However, its recommendations ignore the reality that it is parents who have the most impact on children's lives. Money is important but it is not the most important thing. There are many New Zealanders who have overcome humble starts in life.  Prime Minister John Key is just one.

If Mr Key's mother had listened to the report's authors she would have assumed her children's prospects hinged entirely on the level of  assistance she was able to leverage from the state. Fortunately, she was a woman of independent mind. Instead of relying on others, she worked hard to set a positive example and encouraged her children to make the most of their educational opportunities.

Illness, injury and bad luck may deny others the same opportunity. However, the prime responsibility for bringing up children rests with those who bring them into the world.

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If prospective parents are not in a position to provide their offspring with the necessities of life then they should put off having children till they are.

It is a pity the group did not take the opportunity to say that.  By perpetuating the myth that the state can provide for all, it has done a disservice to children.

- The Dominion Post

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