Keep children safe

This article was first published in The Mandarin

By Annette Michaux
Director of Policy and Practice, Parenting Research Centre
Dr Nat Kendall-Taylor
CEO, FrameWorks Institute

At events around the country this week, leaders in politics, policy, and service delivery have marked National Child Protection Week by talking about how we can do better for children.

In Sydney, NSW Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services Gareth Ward talked to child and family services sector leaders about the importance of a whole-of-government approach to child protection. In Melbourne, Victorian Minister for Child Protection, Disability, Ageing and Carers Luke Donnellan said early intervention was key.

The national Every Child campaign has also been launched to drive forward a public health approach to achieving better outcomes for all children — but particularly those who are vulnerable and at risk.

How safe our children are from abuse and neglect and whether we support them to develop in a healthy way is an important measure of how healthy our communities are.

We all benefit when communities work well, so keeping kids safe and helping them thrive should be a team effort.

To achieve this, it will be no surprise that we still have significantly more to do.

But one bright spot might surprise you. And that is, that shifting the way all of us think and talk about what children need can really help.

Here are five ways forward, based on what we’ve learned from a major research project involving more than 7600 Australians.

1. To start helping children, stop judging parents

Blame, admonishments, and parenting labels are everywhere. When things go wrong with children, we pillory parents. And when children enter the child-protection system, their parents feel particularly stigmatised and judged. Blame and judgement of parents dressed up as necessary ‘hard truths’ or ‘honest advice’ doesn’t help children at all. This is because blame doesn’t acknowledge the complex situations parents face or help them do things differently. It just makes them feel bad and doesn’t encourage others to help. Of course, children’s safety should always be central. And it’s critical that governments and service providers continue to make daily judgements on that. Blame, though, is something quite different. Blame can be both obvious and subtle. It can be embedded in the language we use — like placing a heavy focus on ‘effective and ineffective’ parenting.

We know from research that when parents are confident in the job they’re doing, their children do better. So, let’s investigate the best ways to support parents and focus our energies on building their confidence. Australia’s children will thank us all if we each make a concerted effort to keep judgy-ness in check when we talk to — and about — their parents.

2. Remember that what surrounds us, shapes us

For healthy development, children need life to be on an even keel. But for families experiencing poverty, stress, and other challenges, the effort needed to raise children is like sailing through rough waters. It’s hard to focus on the destination when all of your focus is on staying afloat. Helping parents with supports like counselling, quality childcare, financial assistance, and accessible healthcare gives them the lighthouses and safe harbours that they need to navigate life’s storms.

Understanding this is very important for our children. This is because it lights the way forward for addressing major challenges for families. Even better, is thinking about how we can make sure all parents have safe harbours so that all children can thrive. Getting this right is an investment in preventing child abuse and neglect before it begins.

3. Demystify healthy child development

We all want children to reach their potential. But achieving ‘healthy child development’ is a rather fuzzy concept, so this one is for those who work with parents, carers, and families. Rather than telling parents what they should be doing for their children, we can show them how different things help kids develop well. Most of us have probably ignored health advice or other useful instructions we’ve been given. That’s because we haven’t truly bought into the idea.

But our research shows that focusing on getting this buy-in by explaining how children’s brains are built — and the critical role parents play in this brain-building — works well. For example, you could say, “It’s important that you read, talk, and sing to your baby every day”. But it’s more meaningful and motivating to parents to explain that babies’ brains are built through back-and-forth interaction — like a game of tennis. So, when a baby or young child babbles, gestures, makes eye contact, or uses words — that’s a serve. And when a parent responds to them — that’s a return. This ‘serve and return’ process seems deceptively simple, but it’s establishing vital connections in a baby’s brain that affect what happens for them later in life.

4. Keep our focus on what children need

If we stay the course and keep children at the centre of our community conversations, we can start to view parenting in a whole different light. When we understand how parenting is the key to unlocking children’s potential — it makes much more sense for communities to invest in it. Instead of seeing it as part of the problem for children at risk, we can see it as part of the solution.

And if we accept that every child deserves an environment that helps them thrive, then we’ll understand that we have a collective responsibility to build those environments. If we don’t do this, we’re accepting that it’s OK for some children to thrive and for others to be left behind. 

5. Ask ourselves how we can help children by working differently with families

Are we working in ways that really help people make true and lasting change for themselves and their children? This one is relevant for governments that fund services for at-risk families and providers who deliver them. There are encouraging signs this question is already on the agenda, as more agencies start to think about the experience of families who find themselves involved with the child-protection system and how we might do things differently. We are collectively thinking about better ways to work alongside people so that they are the agents of change in their own lives, rather than people who have solutions imposed on them.

There are also important conversations happening nationally about what might stop parents from seeking the help they need. This is a challenge with many moving parts, as anyone working in child-protection knows. But if we can hold true to the idea that kids do well when their families are supported we have a yardstick to measure our efforts by.

So, when it comes to children, words matter. How we think about parenting also matters. And having different conversations will have long-term benefits. There’s nothing to stop us from starting today.

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