Growing up Kiwi: Sophie's story of a New Zealand childhood

    What's it like growing up as a Kiwi kid in 2016? Reporter Katie Kenny and illustrator Sharon Murdoch created Sophie's story to help us understand, as part of the School Report series.

    You've heard it before. Official reports; expert interviews; new data sets.

    Each helps us to understand a little more about a Kiwi child's life in 2016. But how to make sense of it all?

    We created Sophie, and wrote her story, to try and give a basic idea of what it's like growing up Kiwi.

    No part of Sophie's story is there just 'cause. Not even her name.

    While she's not exactly "average", her experiences are drawn from relevant data, literature, and interviews.

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    We analysed research revealing what it's like growing up and going to school in New Zealand. We spoke with teenagers, parents, early-childhood carers, teachers (at urban and rural, primary and secondary schools), health professionals, social workers, and psychologists.

    This is how each part of her story was told.


    We chose the name Sophie because it's been a consistently popular girls' names in New Zealand for a long, long time. It first appeared in the top 100 names in 1984.

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    Sophie's family is a typical Kiwi household: two parents, two kids. The median income for this type of household in New Zealand is about $85,000. 

    Sophie's father is a tradesman, and her mother a teacher. Why? Statistically, the most popular jobs for men aged 25-34 are "specialist manager", at 9 per cent, followed by "construction trade or business", and "HR or marketing", around 5 per cent. The most popular job for women in the same age bracket is "education professional", around 9 per cent.


    "My name is Sophie, I am five years old, and today is my first day of school."
    Kiwi kids can start school any time between the ages of five and six. Once they turn six, they must been enrolled and attend school every day. 

    "I live with my mum, dad, and baby brother."
    The most common type of couple-with-children household has two children, according to the Household Economic Survey. Two-parent families make up 71 per cent of family households, while single-parent families make up 18 per cent. 

    "Before starting school, I went to kindergarten." 
    More than 95 per cent of children starting school have participated in early childhood education. The standard of this education can vary. There is no mention of being able to read and write in the description of a "school-ready" child. While most can write their name, read a few lines, and draw recognisable pictures, some arrive at school not knowing numbers and letters, unable to sit still on the mat, and never having held a book. 


    "My friend Joe has been off school because he caught measles."
    Immunisation coverage for New Zealand children at five years is 84.7 per cent for the three-month period ending March 2016. One of the free vaccines available is for measles. Children need two doses of measles-containing vaccine to be fully immunised, usually given at 15 months and then four years.

    "I have friends from China, Fiji and South Africa. A girl from Syria has joined my class, too."
    New Zealand children are more ethnically diverse than adults, according to census data. Within the population aged 5-9, 71 per cent identified as European, 25 per cent as Maori, 13 per cent as Pacific, and 11 per cent as Asian. (People can give more than one response which is why these percentages don't add to 100.)

    "I've started playing soccer on Saturday mornings and I go to gymnastics on Wednesday night."
    Almost all young people take part in at least one sport and recreation activity, according to the New Zealand Young People's Survey Series. Soccer and gymnastics are popular options for girls, ranked fifth and ninth respectively among the 5-10 age group.  


    "Dad packs my lunch each day. Today, I have a Marmite sandwich, an apple, and yoghurt."
    The Heart Foundation recommends seasonal fruit, sandwiches, sushi, couscous, and plain popcorn as lunchbox fillers. However, a sweep around a decile 4 school in Christchurch shows this is an ideal, not a reality for many families. 

    "My favourite subject at school is writing." 
    Sophie's preference is in line with surveys showing girls' favourite subjects are arts and English.

    "I walk to school with mum. I know to look both ways before crossing the street."
    Sophie is setting a good example. A Transport Ministry report released last December shows fewer than a third of Kiwi kids take active transport to school, such as walking, cycling or using a scooter, and about 60 per cent are dropped off at the gate.


    "Today I had a baby tooth removed because it was rotten. It hurt."
    Diets heavy in high-sugar food and drink, often combined with a lack of regular brushing using fluoride toothpaste, are causing high tooth decay rates among young children. Nationally, each year just over 5000 children aged eight and under received treatment for severe tooth decay using a general anaesthetic.

    "I'm learning to play the recorder."
    Did you go to primary school in New Zealand? Chances are, you also know how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the recorder.

    "We went on a school trip to the art gallery. It was fun."
    This example is taken from an interview with a primary school teacher.


    "I broke my arm at gymnastics. I have to wear a cast." 
    Research suggests the average two-child family will experience at least one childhood fracture. The most common bones for children to break are collarbones, forearms, and fingers.These breaks are often caused by falls – from play equipment, skateboards, and trampolines – or from playing sport or just running around. 

    "My friend Tui has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She has to inject herself with insulin."
    Type 1 diabetes most often occurs in childhood, between the ages of 7-12. It's an autoimmune condition which is the result of the body not creating enough insulin to keep blood glucose levels in the normal range. 

    "My class has 40 students and three teachers."
    Modern learning environments (MLE) are replacing traditional, or single cell, classrooms. A "junior learning community" has about 40 students with three teachers. 

    AGE 10

    "I get computer time at the weekend. But first: homework."
    Around 78 per cent of New Zealand households have internet access. Access is around 96 per cent for households with a combined income of more than $100,000. Access drops to 59 per cent for households earning less than $50,000. 

    "We're moving house. I'm going to get my own bedroom."
    New Zealand families with children younger than two move house much more than families in other countries, according to the longevity study Growing up in New Zealand. The study, involving nearly 7000 children, showed nearly 50 per cent had moved house at least once in their young lives. It found moving could be stressful for children, who crave stability and familiarity.

    AGE 11

    "Today is my first day at my new intermediate school." 
    It is particularly important for teachers and parents to watch for signs that children are turning away from school and learning around ages 10-14, according to the New Zealand Council for Educational Research's Competent Learners study. A follow-up study showed how deeply memories of school at this time can influence later attitudes to learning.

    "My parents gave me a mobile phone for my birthday."
    Research from the United Kingdom shows on average, children are given a handset at age 11, but nearly one in 10 has a phone by the time they are five. 

    "I'm not supposed to have Facebook, but I signed up."
    One teacher at a small, rural school said his Year 7 and 8 students, who are aged 11-13, lie about their age to set up social media profiles on websites such as Facebook. Facebook says it requires users to be at least 13 years old before they can create an account. Creating an account with false information is a violation of its terms.

    AGE 12

    "We moved cities for Dad's work. I have to make new friends."

    "I had a sleepover at Ruby's house. Her mum smokes."
    In the 2013 census, 14 per cent of the total adult population - or 463,194 people - said they smoked. Teenagers are more likely to smoke if one or both parents smoke. Even having just one parent who smokes triples the risk of a teenager being a daily smoker. 

    "My coach said if I train hard at soccer, I could make the rep team."

    AGE 13

    "I started high school today. It's a girls' school."
    According to Education Counts, there are 367 secondary schools in New Zealand. There are three types of schools: state schools, state integrated schools, and private schools. Around 85 per cent of Kiwi kids go to a state school. Around 10 per cent go to state integrated schools, which can be run by a particular religious faith or education method. Just under 5 per cent go to private schools.

    "Ruby brought some of her mum's cigarettes to school and we tried them."
    Data from Action on Smoking and Health shows the average age at which smoking starts in New Zealand is 14.6 years. 

    "Thomas teased me about my backpack. Dad won' t let me get a new one."
    According to the Youth '12 health and wellbeing survey, almost 10 per cent of students talked about being afraid someone would hurt them, and 6 per cent reported being bullied on a weekly basis. Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson says bullying is a "significant issue" during teenage years. 

    AGE 14


    "I want to have a birthday party, but I don't have enough friends to invite."
    Psychologists believe teenagers may be especially vulnerable to loneliness because of their brain development. The adolescent brain is still a work in progress, meaning teenagers are more likely to misread social cues and other people's emotions. 

    Mum says I can now wear mascara and lip gloss, finally."
    Writer and mother-of-two Josefa Pete found herself wondering about young girls and make-up after innocently buying a lip gloss and glitter eye shadow for her 7-year-old niece. After speaking with teenage girls and their parents, we decided Sophie might start wearing make up around age 14. 

    "People on said I am 'chubby' and 'ugly'."
    About 93 per cent of 15 to 24-year-old New Zealanders are internet users, with the most prevalent online activity engaged in by young people being use of social media. Research shows about 25 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds have suffered online abuse, with teenage girls most at risk. 

    AGE 15

    "Ruby has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma of her distal femur: bone cancer. She will miss a whole year of school."
    We asked a health professional at a children's hospital what kind of serious illness could befall Ruby. The treatment for this type of bone cancer usually requires joint replacement, amputation, or rotationplasty – where the ankle and foot replace the knee joint. 

    "Mum follows me on Instagram, and told me off for posing with Vodka. I blocked her."
    Over half of 15 to 17-year-olds drank alcohol in the past year, according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey. Around 11 per cent of 15 to 17-year-olds took part in "hazardous drinking" – defined as "an established drinking pattern that carries a risk of harming physical or mental health, or having harmful social effects to the drinker or others".

    "My acne is so bad, I don't want to go to school today."
    Acne can cause serious social anxiety for teenagers. Patients report having low self-esteem, withdrawing from their peers because they are "ashamed" of their appearance, and struggling with their body image, GP and medical forensic examiner Cathy Stephenson says

    AGE 16

    "I can't sleep well, because I have NCEA external exams coming up."
    Social workers, guidance counsellors, parents, and teenagers, told us the structure of NCEA, with its assessments throughout the year, can cause high levels of stress among some students. 

    "I can't be bothered sitting the test for my learner licence." 
    Sophie is possibly showing signs of mood disorder. Adolescence is when most experience mental illness for the first time, and for the majority, it won't recur later in life. More children are being medicated for mental disorders than ever – with clinicians blaming the stress of being a modern-day teenager. Figures released under the Official Information Act show nearly 20,000 children and teenagers were on anti-depressants in 2013. On the other hand, Sophie might just be sick of studying. 

    "There's a rumour a girl in the class above got pregnant. She left school."
    Although New Zealand has a relatively high level of teenage pregnancy, teenage birth rates throughout the country are on the decline. In 2015, the rate for women aged 15-19 years was 19 births per 1,000 women, down from 33 in 2008. 

    AGE 17

    "I'm keeping a food diary. I want to lose weight for the ball."
    Negative body image can place a person at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. Obesity statistics show almost one in three Kiwi adults are obese, with a further 35 per cent overweight but not obese. 

    "Granddad died, he was only in his 70s, but he had lung cancer."
    If Sophie's granddad was born in 1943, his life expectancy would be around 87 years. Lung cancer is the biggest cause of cancer death in New Zealand. 

    "I'm seeing this guy, and he wants to have sex, but I don't want to do it."
    The Adolescent Health Research Group 2012 survey of New Zealand youth found 24 per cent of Kiwis aged 13-17 have had sex. 

    AGE 18

    "I'm hoping to pass Level 3 with excellence, because I want to go to law school."
    More than 80 per cent of students who gain NCEA Level 3 and who met the university entrance requirement process progress on to bachelors-level study after leaving school. To qualify for entrance to a New Zealand university using NCEA, Sophie will need enough numeracy, literacy and subject credits at Levels 1, 2, and 3. Some university programmes have additional entry requirements. Lagging well below world standards, New Zealand has one of the lowest higher education qualification completion rates in the OECD. If Sophie's aiming for excellence, however, she's doing well academically. 

    "My guidance counsellor gave me some coping mechanisms for my anxiety, after I had a panic attack."
    One in five people will have a serious mood disorder, including depression, at some time in their life. A psychologist who works with young people told us if Sophie was to develop a low-level mental illness, it would most likely be anxiety. Pressures to be "exceptional", as well as the image-heavy technologies of modern life, add to anxiety experienced by teenagers at this age. With help, anxiety disorders can be managed and overcome.

    "I'm on the waitlist for a hall of residence at Otago University."


    Sophie's story provides just a glimpse into her life through selected quotes. You are left to imagine the rest: where she lives, how she might decorate her bedroom, whether she makes the rep soccer team, the day she gets her period for the first time, if she argues with her brother, and why she doesn't get around to sitting the test for her licence. 

    Some young people will relate to Sophie more than others. Everyone's different – and she's an individual, not a representation of the average. 

    If you're older, perhaps she makes you think about your own experiences at that age, or about your children's experiences in 2016. 

    Hopefully through her eyes you can see that actually, being a modern-day school kid is a bit more complicated than it may appear.

     - Stuff


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