Family Matters No. 27, 1990

Australia's children: Their rights, our responsibilities


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Content type
Family Matters issue

October 1990


Australia's children: Their rights, our responsibilities

Director's report

What are the messages being given to Australians about children? Children cannot speak for themselves, yet their futures seem clouded by adult confusions and contradictions.

At the moment when the Australian Government has signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, we have a budgetary situation where the universality of the family allowance has been declared dead, one State's family pledge not to increase basic costs has been abandoned, and family support services throughout the nation are under resourced.

Everyone is supposed to love children, yet declining birth rates indicate they will be other people's, and the childless/childfree may increasingly resent the health, education and other costs of bringing up those 'little strangers'.

Amidst calls for a 'clever country', more money is put into tertiary education than into early childhood, despite ample evidence that the most important period for learning and cognitive ability is between birth and age six, and that diminished curiosity, literacy and problem-solving in those early years is virtually irretrievable and socially costly.

On the one hand we still applaud motherhood; nowadays we even call for better fatherhood as an unused resource for child development. We enshrine the principle of joint parental responsibility in the Family Law Act and enforce it through a new system of Child Support assessment and enforcement. Yet we still fail to count in our national measures of productivity the unpaid work of child-rearing and associated home-making; we fail to develop work structures which would enable both parents to fulfil jointly their responsibilities for children; and by income testing family allowances we remove recognition in the tax system of the greater costs for those raising children so that they might enjoy some sort of equivalence in living standards to those without children.

We give mixed messages to women especially. Now better educated, protected by equal opportunity and equal pay legislation, more and more women choose to establish a career before choosing to marry and/or to have children. Maternity leave provisions in Australia, however, are often ignored and are not equal between public and private sectors in respect of the paid and unpaid components (Glezer 1988). Mothers who stay at home to care for children are called dependent spouses rather than active carers. They have to be on low family incomes to qualify for full fee-relief in subsidised child care centres if they do work, and preference there is given to full-time workers rather than part-time worker - mothers.

If you happen to be a 'single mother' you may receive a Sole Parent's Pension - but that 'supports' you and your children close to the poverty line, and is reduced if earnings exceed a fixed amount (currently $52 per week if the parent has one child).

Even in relation to parents separated from a marriage, there is a growing concern that equal child support may not be matched by equal parenting rights.

In addition, we have now an active employment policy. Quite sensibly, it is no longer seen as acceptable for someone capable of earning a living to rely solely upon the State's coffers. We now have a Job Search Allowance and active training and retraining schemes to encourage self- reliance. This philosophy was extended to single parents via the Jobs, Education and Training Program (JET) and now also applies to the disabled who will be placed in 'rehabilitation' schemes so they can become active participants in a productive economy.

Who can argue against that? Yet the message for mothers is that paid employment is preferable to full-time child attention, that a child care centre is necessary (if not desirable) because paid work is better than unpaid. This is not to mention the reality that there may not be enough training places or jobs for those being encouraged back to work.

Even in terms of basic fertility issues, the message is mixed. The stigma of infertility is less strong, but huge costs are acceptable for reproduction technology and its low success rate, while adoption is seen as problematic, especially with overseas adoptees. Just what paths to motherhood are acceptable to whom, and why? And where in all this is the child?

As I have indicated elsewhere (Edgar 1988): 'Families are no longer (if they ever were) self-sufficient units, where children (along with adults) played important productive roles within the household. Children are now consumers rather than economic assets and parents today have children despite their economic cost. More and more couples are deciding to restrict numbers or not have children at all, and that in part explains the low policy priority given to children.' Just as the separation of work from the family household drove men out of the family to be breadwinners, now the need for two incomes and the demand for autonomy and self-fulfilment on the part of women are driving women out of the household too.

Women have discovered the 'child trap' that marriage in the modern nuclear family represented in the post-war decades. Divorce has also demonstrated the poverty trap for women if they do not maintain a career or keep their links with the income-earning labour force.

As the socio-political system began to allow, even encourage, women back into the paid labour force, women began to question the dominant theories of child development. Looser marriage ties, easier divorce and failure of the system to divide matrimonial property equitably, or to enforce child maintenance payments, meant that women and children suffered more. As Weitzman (1985) puts it, the new divorce laws, though touted as 'equal' for women, in effect taught them not to 'become so invested in their children, and they joined men in the wider 'flight from children'. Women want to be both parents and in paid employment as men have always been so that they can enjoy both the worlds of work and family.

'The traditional law embodied the partnership concept of marriage by rewarding sharing and mutual investments in the marital community. Implicit in the new laws, in contrast, are incentives for investing in oneself, maintaining one's separate identity, and being self-sufficient' (p.374). The new laws thus exacerbate what Weitzman calls 'the clouded status of children'.

So we are seeing a major structural shift in the nature of family life, not yet accompanied by the necessary structural changes in forms of child care, hours of work, employment structures that might accommodate the new family. Guilt is manufactured not just by the vested interests of male employers and heads of families, but also from the intense normative expectations of motherhood engendered in women by the psychology of attachment, child development theory and the competitive ethic which says we must do our best by our children within an outmoded social configuration.

It is important to examine such unintended consequences, for the law and other social institutions both define and limit what is possible for children. If we are really concerned about child poverty or adequate child development or the quality of life for children, we have to think beyond the rhetoric and beyond standard questions or assumptions and to look realistically at what is happening to children in Australian society.

There is another broad social reason why thinking about the place of children is confused. This relates to their actual cost and the apparent reduction of returns from our 'investment' in children. Instead of valuing childhood we seem to be in danger of devaluing its contribution to modern society.

Child labour was moved out of the factories and homes and into the schools not because of any great surge of altruism or philanthropy, but because advancing industrial development needed people who were disciplined, literate and able to learn new skills (Bowles and Gintis 1976; Zelizer 1985; Qvortrup 1987) - in other words, because the social cost of poverty and educational disadvantage was recognised by those in power. That is what 'investment in human capital' means.

The creation of new technology-based market niches will depend not only upon having the select few who can develop such industries, but also on developing a general information technology literacy throughout the community, and distribution of household income to promote a favourable domestic market. The payoff from selective elitism seems better, but it is only in the short run. Unfortunately, as Davidson (1986) says, 'the productive potential of education for all has been obscured in the education debate by the dominant middle class in favour of the struggle for relative advantage'. The situation will not be reversed unless the middle class understands 'that by concentrating on maintaining and increasing relative educational advantage and income differentials they endanger the economic base on which all classes depend'. That is the message to be conveyed: poverty, including poor education and child development, damages us all.

The Costs of Not Caring for our Children

As indicated by those comments on education, we can document many of the direct costs of not caring for children, though we should be more concerned with long-term costs. Early childhood must become a priority concern for educators, health workers and community service programs. Early intervention is needed across the board.

Child abuse alarms us, yet its major causes - family isolation and lack of adequate community support services, not to mention ignorance of parenting skills and the sense of powerlessness engendered by poverty and oppression - - are not faced realistically. The costs of such abuse are long-term self-deprecation and an inability to trust and relate positively to others.

Good quality early child care and education sets the right foundation for children's future development. It should be seen as complementary to what parents do for their children, not as replacing them, for partnership is the only way we can enhance both home and out-of-home environment for children.

Within quality early childhood environments, children develop self- confidence and trust, social skills, a love of learning, problem-solving skills, ways of representing their ideas, a willingness to apply effort to worthwhile tasks. Language concepts and vocabulary, mathematical and spatial concepts, physical skills competence and creative expression are all enhanced.

We have known for some time how significant the early years are to the development of cognitive ability (Bloom 1964). But we now know also that the development of competence, in its broadest sense, is directly affected by the quality of early childhood care.

David Weikart (1989) in a controlled study of the US Highscope early childhood project, has shown that IQ gains result from quality care. He even documents the cost- benefits for those who may be sceptical, in terms of later outcomes such as children getting better jobs, being less frequently delinquent, completing school more often and having lower teenage pregnancy rates. By calculating what it costs to put a child in remedial education, to pay a teenager the dole or to keep him or her in gaol, the taxpayer's costs versus savings through investment in early childhood can be estimated.

The Oxford team led by Kathy Silva replicated those gains, but they insist IQ is not the main gain. Rather it is competence, the capacity to persist, to be self-initiating, to be socially competent. Children who attend high quality pre-schools are more independent, do not give up on tasks, have more positive language skills and a more learning- oriented approach to adults. They are, in sum, more functionally competent as human beings, more efficacious and self-assured.

What a cost then it is to the whole community to permit thousands of children to be placed in poor quality care, to deny the development of their full potentiality. The real spinoff of investment in early childhood education is the long-term social consequences of the enhancement of competence.

On the physical side too, there are clear social costs of a lack of care and of poverty for children.

Neglect usually arises from ignorance about what children need for proper development, but its underlying cause is a lack of resources for children to thrive. Medical research shows us the damage that can be done.

In the United Kingdom, areas with high unemployment, overcrowding and other indicators of poverty are those with the highest mortality and morbidity rates. Unemployment of fathers is significantly associated with greater sickness, hospital admission and mortality in children (Brennan 1978). Workers made redundant have higher blood pressure, cardiovascular and joint disease than the employed (Cobb and Kasl 1977), and unemployed school leavers have poorer mental health than those who find jobs (quoted in Townsend 1984).

According to Fagin and Little (1984), the wives of unemployed men suffer apathy and despair, their children behavioural disorders, accident proneness, truancy and withdrawal. Suicide rates are higher for the unemployed and parasuicide acts are at the rate of 11 to 1 compared with employed workers. As the Black Report (1980) put it: 'If the mortality rates of Class 1 (professional) had applied to Classes IV and V (partly skilled and unskilled) during 1970- -72, 74000 lives of people aged under 75 would not have been lost. This estimate includes nearly 10000 children and 32000 men aged 15 - 64' (quoted in Townsend 1984, p.15).

Moreover, according to the Black Report, the myth of rising 'diseases of affluence' is overwhelmed by diseases and deaths of the poor resulting from factors over which the health care system has little control. Material deprivation, bad housing, dangerous locations, polluted air and unsafe heating lead to the early accidents and respiratory diseases which account for the large class differences in infant mortality. A single woman on a supplementary benefit would have to spend 49 per cent of her living allowance on food in order to conform to hospital recommendations of a suitable diet for pregnancy. Free school meals and free school milk and the wartime vitamin supplement were vital factors in reducing the class-related inequalities in vitamin, protein and calcium intake, yet they have now been withdrawn.

In Australia, complaints are made about the high cost of Medicare and the health system generally, yet the social impacts of ill-health are demonstrably worse. Reforms to the system must focus on the real cost of medical abuse of the system while insisting that public health is a bonus, of benefit to the whole community, a resource which must be equitably available to all, not the monopoly of those who can afford it.

A Victorian Health Department (1987) study of Melbourne's western region found an association between deficiencies in basic goods and services (such as inadequate amounts of food and clothing) and negative effects on children's cognitive development.

Poverty and lack of appropriate resources have other long-term costs as well. Trevor Williams of the Australian Council for Educational Research found that: 'Without exception, as family wealth increases, so does participation [in education]. Relative to persons from the poorest 25 per cent of families, those from the wealthiest 25 per cent are about twice as likely to complete Year 12, to undertake some form of post-secondary education, to enter higher education, to attend a university, to enrol in a CAE, or to commit themselves to study for a degree. The evidence, then, seems overwhelming and in support of contentions that family economic circumstances are an impediment to educational participation.' (Williams 1987, p.49)

Moreover, it extends into long-term employment chances, in a job market that requires increasingly skilled workers. We cannot afford to have a cohort of Australian children - - one in five of our young people - becoming 'adults with few work skills and a marginal attachment to the workforce ... the economic cost of their wasted productivity is too great' (ACOSS 1988, p.7).

Blinkers on the Child Care Debate

Finally, let me sum up by listing some of the changes that must be taken into account if we are to stimulate greater investment in the early childhood years. The list includes several 'blinkers' in the child care debate which have, in my view, clouded the issue and made it harder to convince policy-makers that young children and their carers are worth the cost of input. The mixed messages here need to be sorted out.

  • The so-called 'crisis of the welfare state' coincides with a so-called 'rediscovery of the family'. This reflects our naive post-war view of the family as a unit of emotional commitment and nurture, forgetting that families have always been economically significant units. Male - female relationships are based on economic interdependence (and dependence and exploitation) as much as on 'love'. Two wages are now increasingly necessary to sustain a family. So child care (whether 'free' or for wages) is an economically productive and vital form of work that sustains the economy.
  • The 'cost of child care' debate therefore has to be turned on its head. It's not a 'burden' on the State, it's not 'welfare', it's not 'abdication of parental responsibility' - it is an economically productive necessity by which today's families maintain their purchasing power, feed the growth system's need to increase consumer appetites and fuel the economy.
  • The realpolitik is not just that two incomes are needed and children have to be cared for in other ways than maternal at-home care; it is also that both women and men now expect joint responsibility and individual earning capacity rather than having a financially dependent spouse.
  • The family as buffer zone has been eroded, yet its caring functions remain. New forms of 'care buffer zones' must be created, not just for children but increasingly also for the sick and the ageing.
  • Policy makers should be reminded that a static and monolithic image of the family as carer and socialiser is out of date and has been for a long time. Primary education was set up to protect children from parental neglect and to better educate the new industrial workforce. Public health, child welfare laws, housing standards, even the mass media, all function as surrogate care and socialisation mechanisms. Family separation and re-formation mean that the socialisation of children is now frequently the responsibility of adults who are biologically unrelated to those children. So child care by family outsiders or professional carers is not some new and threatening attack on the family.
  • Historically, children have always been surrounded by carers other than (or additional to) the mother, but with high mobility and marital disruption, that buffer zone of close and available carers has been eroded. Time is not elastic and we must face the fact that parental/maternal time for child care is less, in a context where substitutes are not naturally present.
  • Historically too, those other carers may have been adequate for children to develop elementary cultural requisites (such as basic language skills, norms, skills), but now they would not be. While formal education in the early years is probably still inappropriate (the forced maths, language, arts genius syndrome), cultural and intellectual demands on all children are more complex. The need for an enriched environment, for full cognitive development is real, not imagined, and one parent alone in the early years is probably not adequate to the task.
  • This is not meant as an insult to mothers or as a rejection of full-time home care by mothers in the early years. It is to insist that external care resources (if not actual carers) are always needed but access to them is inequitable and uneven. The 'perfect mother' draws upon education, adequate income for food, clothes, toys, books on child care, use of infant health and welfare services, access to all sorts of resources which are not 'natural' to her. It is also to insist that the 'public parent' has an increasingly important role in supporting the efforts of private parenting.
  • So the child care debate must not bog down in arguments about family day care versus centre-based care, versus full-time maternal care, and so on. It must highlight the need for access to child care and parenting resources. This includes parent education, infant and child health and developmental courses, books and materials on early childhood development, play resources, family support services in local neighbourhoods, emergency relief care and a wide range of family accessible child care options.
  • One of the basic care resources is time. Blithe repetition of the homily that 'it's not the amount of time that matters it's the quality of time that does' will no longer pass muster. On any measure, working full- time for money as well as running a family household leaves little time for interpersonal relationships between either partners or them and their offspring. Power and consistency, limited parental time and varied significant others must inevitably alter the socialisation process. Some of this impact may well be positive, but the fact must be faced that there is a major social disruption or shift in the centrally important mechanisms of childhood socialisation in our society (Popenoe 1988).
  • Quality of care becomes ever more important because of that shift. But the issue of standards must apply across the board. Family day care homes, centres (both work-based and community-based) are required to meet certain standards of quality. Why not in-home, mother standards of quality too? Since most informal in-home child care will remain invisible and unlicensed, standards and regulations cannot be applied. Nor will we ever be likely to afford centre-based care for all children. So the question of quality here must be handled differently. That is, again, family- accessible resources for parenting must be made available, so that informal carers are encouraged to become more effective for the children in their charge.
  • Educational opportunities for in-home care providers, toy exchanges, community-based information and referral services, drop-in centres for 'day parents', newsletters for child care providers, mass media child development programs, tax incentives to upgrade facilities, support systems for caregivers as well as systems to monitor them might all be worth trying.
  • Another element of child care resources often ignored in the debate is the father - that 'double engine of the child's potentiality' (Jackson 1984). While women now have some choice between paid work and being a 'housewife', the male role is still traditional in that workplace and management attitudes and structures militate against even willing males caring more for their children. Two lines of attack are essential:
    • One is simply re-education of boys and men to a broader view of their potential as parents. Being a breadwinner is not enough; being a co-parent in every way has to be the goal. Women who allow men to be caring fathers sacrifice something of what they have been taught is their one area of power, but such a value and behaviour shift is crucial if the stress arising from choice is not to fall inequitably on women.
    • The second is to push the child care debate into the workplace productivity arena. The demands of the workplace are, at present, incompatible with the employee's responsibilities as parent. So an improved system of child care is not just a matter of having more places; it demands finding ways in which the working environment can be made more compatible with and complementary to parental care responsibilities. Flex-time, permanent part-time work, job sharing, employer support of child care costs, family assistance programs in the workplace, smorgasboard work/family benefits are all options in place overseas. The appeal to employers need not be mere altruism, but based on the real costs of absenteeism, reduced productivity, stress and low morale where family responsive working arrangements are not in place (Edgar 1986; Wolcott 1987).
  • It should be noted in this regard that worktime demands are growing, not decreasing, especially at the executive career level. For women, labour market trends show expansion in areas (such as community services, hospitality, information and communication) which are more time-and- family intrusive than traditional occupations.

Questions for Discussion

There are several blinkers in the child care industry that may run counter to the need for a flexible mosaic of child care options. A range of options rather than a monolithic system of either child care centres or family day care homes would more appropriately meet the real needs of children and parents. All I can do here is list some of those blinkers and pose some questions for discussion.

  • Has the ideology of participation and local community control gone too far? Who has time for participation, for committee meetings? Who says it's best for parents to be involved when they have neither time nor know how? Does it lead to a new form of disadvantage, of exclusion?
  • Has the demand for standards gone beyond what is feasible and ruled out the essential 'gap-fillers' that modern life means many parents need? Does a child left for an hour or two at a shopping centre really need a fully qualified teacher/nurse/multiple staff/low carer - child ratios? Does a neighbourhood house really have to conform to child care standards suited to a more formal centre?
  • Why should in-home care be treated as small-scale institutional care? The simple transference of institutional standards and mechanisms of enforcement may not be an appropriate response to the need for quality in- home care. Instead, these family-like child care arrangements may well require standards and mechanisms of enforcement that respect the unique characteristics of the family-like environment.
  • Does a targetted system of direct government subsidies to child care merely reinforce a 'welfare' attitude towards the recipients of that support? Should we be looking, less dogmatically, at other forms such as graduated cost-sharing, small business grants and loans to child care centres run for profit, concessions to employers for providing other family/parental support resources apart from child care places?
  • What really is our ideology, our theoretical approach to the development of young children? Is it still the old philanthropy versus education debate? Is mother care the only or the favoured way to go? Where is the evidence of benign neglect, quality care, child maladjustment? Who are the child bashers, the child neglecters? Which babies are more at risk, in what forms of care? Where are the data we need to address the polemics of the policy debate?
  • Why is it that men have children too, but it doesn't wreck their careers? Has the ideology of motherhood simply reinforced the male advantage? Who most supports the maternal myth?
  • Do service providers and bureaucrats really understand what people need, or do they categorise too much, making the mosaic of options conform too closely to standards and forms of child care that don't match people's needs?
  • Have we narrowed down the child care debate to a government versus child care lobby battle, and neglected the role of unions, employers, private enterprise, broader family support and parental education in what I have called the collective resources for child care?
  • Might we not get further if we talked more of parenting and support for the child-rearing task, and if we demanded more policies and programs that were supportive of families with children?
  • Might we not also get further if we stopped arguing the relative merits and demerits of family day care, parental child care and centre care, and instead insisted on the economic and moral value of ensuring that the nation's children are all given optimum conditions for development in the early years of life?

We must bring our senior policy-makers to a better understanding that 'in contrast to the conventional one- sided precept that a strong economy is required to maintain a strong foundation of social relations and collective responsibility, it is equally true that the quality of familial and social relations is also central to the sound functioning of any economy' (Vanier Institute, Canada, 1983).


  • ACOSS (1988), Keeping the Promise: A Strategy for Reducing Child Poverty, Australian Council of Social Service, Sydney.
  • Black Report (1980), Inequalities in Health, DHSS, London.
  • Bloom, B.J. (1964), Stability and Change in Human Characteristics, Wiley & Sons, New York.
  • Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America, Basic Books, New York.
  • Brennan, M.E. (1978), 'Patterns of mortality and the alienation of life: a study using census indicators', in Armytage, W.H.G. & Peel, J. (eds) Perimeters of Social Repair, Academic Press, London.
  • Cobb, S. and Kasl, S. (1977), Termination: The Consequences of Job Loss, PHSS Report, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Washington.
  • Davidson, K. (1986), Education and the Economy: A Portfolio of Choices, Commission for the Future, Melbourne.
  • Edgar, D. (1986), 'The family in between: the hidden factor in employer/employee relationships', Address to the Business Council of Australia Conference, September.
  • Edgar, D.E. (1988) 'The Social Reconstruction of Marriage and Parenthood in Australia', in Quah, Stella R. (ed) (1990) The Family as an Asset : An International Perspective on Marriage, Parenthood and Social Policy, Times Academic Press, Singapore, (Ch.6, pp.96 - 121).
  • Fagin, L. and Little, M. (1984), Forsaken Families: The Effects of Unemployment on Family Life, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
  • Glezer, H. (1988), Maternity Leave in Australia: Employee and Employer Experiences, Monograph No.7, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Jackson, B. (1984), Fatherhood, George Allen & Unwin, London.
  • Popenoe, D. (1988), Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies, Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
  • Qvortrup, J. (1987), Childhood as a Social Phenomenon, Project Proposal, Sydjysk Universitet Centre, Denmark.
  • Townsend, P. (1984), Fewer Children, More Poverty: An Incomes Plan, University of Bristol.
  • Weikart, David (1989), 'The High/Scope Perry Preschool study: implications for early childhood care and education', Prevention in Human Services, Vol.7, No.1.
  • Weitzman, L.J. (1985), The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America, The Free Press, New York.
  • Williams, T. (1987), Participation in Education, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, I. (1987), Employer Responses to Workers with Family Responsibilities, Discussion Paper No.14, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Zelizer, V. (1985), Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, Basic Books, New York.

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Meredith Michie

Assistant Editor

Allyson Trainor

Editorial Assistants

Sandra Marsden and Allyson Trainor

Publications Committee

Don Edgar, Rob Kidston, Peter McDonald, Meredith Michie, Gay Ochiltree, Liz Sharman, Allyson Trainor, Ilene Wolcott, assisted by Helen Brownlee.