Babes in the woods

Australia has never been so rich, yet there are serious doubts about whether our children are reaping the benefits. Karen Kissane reports on whether the needs of children are compatible with the demands of modern life.
WHEN Anne Manne’s last child started school, Manne brushed off her CV and rang old university colleagues to inquire about paid work. One asked what she had been doing all this time. She told him she had been looking after children. There was an appalled silence.
“I’ve often wondered what happened to you,” he said wanly. “But I thought . . . you know . . . New York, London . . .”
Retelling the story in her new book, Manne, who had tutored in history and politics before she became a mother, writes: “I knew what he meant. A brilliant career. But here I was, down among the children. He sounded terribly disappointed, more embarrassed for me than if I had told him I had been imprisoned for embezzling university funds . . . How hard it is to explain; it is as if one steps back across a threshold into a different world with different values, a different universe. Everything that is a priority in the other, parallel universe is reversed, turned upside down. The centre of life in one world – children – is invisible to the other. There is no shared language.”
Manne’s is one of two new books to suggest that Australia’s children are falling into the gaps between those two worlds; that the next generation is at risk of being failed in a wholesale way by new-economy obsessions with long working hours, the financial bottom line and a self-absorbed individualism that is cruelly undermining the less visible sphere of the family.
While Australia has never been so rich, according to many yardsticks the health and well-being of its children is not improving in line with this increased prosperity. It is actually getting worse.
A barrage of statistics backing this claim can be found in Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian Society has turned its back on children and why children matter, which is co-authored by Fiona Stanley, former Australian of the Year and professor of child health at the University of Western Australia.
Anne Manne’s book, Motherhood: How should we care for our children? relates more to the needs of the early childhood years and, in particular, research findings about the potential emotional damage to babies and toddlers who spend long hours in day care.
Manne writes ardently of the grief felt by mothers and babies who are separated from each other too soon and calls for a new “maternal feminism” to fight for the rights of mothers to both work and care for children in the way they feel is best. “It is not just the ‘social construction’ of motherhood that makes us feel guilty. It is the expression on the face of a child,” she writes.
The increasing problems of Australian children begin before birth. The rate of “low-birth-weight babies” – those whose small size or prematurity makes them more vulnerable to conditions such as cerebral palsy and intellectual disability – is rising, not falling. Stanley says this is due to factors including mothers’ smoking, drinking or drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and the multiple births associated with IVF.
Autism is also on the rise, for reasons which cannot be determined. Asthma now affects 30 per cent of Australian children compared with about 10 per cent in the 1970s.
Obesity and type-2 diabetes in children rose by nearly 30 per cent between 1990 and 2000. This is predicted to lead to increased incidences of adult heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure and stroke, and it has been suggested that this generation of Australian children will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Anxiety and depression are more widespread among teenagers than they used to be; according to Stanley’s book, suicide rates for males aged 15-24 have increased four-fold and female rates have doubled since the 1960s. One national survey found that over 15 per cent of children and teenagers had a psychological problem that significantly interfered with their daily lives, and in disadvantaged groups the rate was as high as 40 per cent.
“People who live in good areas with nice facilities and children who are OK have no idea that (this picture) is true because they can successfully avoid evidence of it,” Stanley says. “Everyone says I’m gloomy but I’m not; I’m facing reality.”
Stanley argues that the nurturing aspect of society, its willingness to provide the services that are the community’s mortar, has been pushed aside in the personal rush towards money and success and the governmental push for a lean, mean economy. Parents are not valued enough, and nor are the educators and health professionals who try to help troubled families with abusive fathers or drug-addicted mothers.
Fixing these complex, deep-seated public health problems, Stanley says, will be “a damn sight harder” than targeting the scourges of childhood past, the infectious diseases such as polio and gastroenteritis. They could be fixed with sanitation and vaccination.
“There’s a significant amount of infrastructure missing in many families and many neighbourhoods. Map the learning disabilities and school problems and Melbourne suburbs, and then map the kinds of things needed to help them: how far do you need to go to a speech pathologist, how easy is it to see a GP for a child’s ear infection, do you have a good preschool and green space to play? Over the last 30 years we have dismantled many of these things, such as the maternal and child health clinic sisters who were the backbone of young families.”
Governments of earlier eras saw preventive support for mothers as crucial, but “economic rationalists of the 1980s and 1990s have pushed a lot of those things to one side because they don’t understand the relationship between healthy children and parents and a healthy workforce and society”.
Now, Stanley says, a child is often left to suffer disadvantage until he or she exhibits learning or behavioural problems at school, by which time the damage can be too deep-seated to repair. “Is the only answer to wait until they become little criminals and then lock them away?”
Manne, too, sees children as “the canaries in the mine of the new economy”. “Why do we have so many kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), so many teenagers with depression?”
Manne writes luminously of the tenderness of early motherhood, of the importance of the little glances and touches that reassure a small child that the world is a safe place and which help the child regulate his own feelings. She writes: “What must be understood here is that child care for a baby intrudes into the midst of an intense love affair . . . There is both force and delicacy in what babies and young children feel. Their emotions are complex and deep before language. Part of my Toddlers’ Bill of Rights would include the possibility of climbing into the lap of someone who truly, deeply loves them, whenever they wish.”
Manne says that most child developmentalists agree that child care from the age of three can be a benefit, particularly in terms of a child’s intellectual abilities. But there is evidence that long day care under the age of two can be harmful: one recent US study found that 70 per cent of toddlers in “medium to excellent” day care centres had raised levels of cortisol, a hormone related to anxiety. High levels of cortisol at a time when the pathways in the brain are still being built might lead to long-term difficulties in regulating one’s emotions.
As hours of child care grew, so did the problems. One study found that at age four and a half, three times as many children (17 per cent) in more than 30 hours of care showed more aggressive behavioural problems than children in care for less than 10 hours (6 per cent). The long day care children were more disobedient and bullying, with more explosive tempers.
Manne also looks at the consequences for mothers at home who are not supported and whose distress might lead to depression and child abuse, examining the case of Sydney woman Kathleen Folbigg, an abused and neglected child who grew up to murder her own four babies. Manne asks: “Who cares for the carers?”
Manne believes that, for the sake of children, the world of work needs to be much more accommodating of the world of caring. She believes that the fertility crisis hands working women a bargaining chip in the battle for better parental conditions, and she backs the ACTU’s bid for two years’ leave after the birth of a child. And, she asks, what about the 120 days of parental sick leave offered in some Scandinavian countries? And the option of a six-hour working day, as offered to Swedish parents? And welcoming pathways back into the workforce for women who have taken time out to raise the next generation, so that they are not punished for their efforts?
For those under-twos who must attend child care because of a parent’s circumstances, Manne argues that the standard of care must be raised to one caregiver to three babies. At present, Australian regulations require only one staff member to five babies – but humans, her book points out, do not have babies in litters.
Children who are not securely attached to a trusted adult in the early years are called “insecure”, and one sub-form of that insecurity is “the avoidant child”, who shuts down emotionally, giving up attempts to connect with the parent and repressing his own needs for affection by busying himself with activities. Such children are more self-centred and hard-hearted in their dealings with others.
This might be one way in which those two worlds (described in these books) overlap. Manne writes about the possibility that we are becoming “an avoidant society . . . cooler, impatient if not hostile to the display of dependency needs in children and the vulnerable, attracted to ideas of self-sufficiency and independence, and dismissive of attachment needs.
“Another way of looking at the harsh new world, however, is to see (these qualities) as imperatives for survival in the hyper-individualist paradise of the new capitalism.
A good childhood, in (this) dog-eat-dog world . . . gives children unreasonable expectations.”
Motherhood: How should we care for our children? By Anne Manne. Allen and Unwin, $29.95.
Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter. By Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior. Pan Macmillan, $30.
· 25 per cent of eight to 12-year-olds are overweight or obese.
· 18 per cent of four to 17-year-olds have clinically significant mental-health problems.
· Type 2 diabetes in under-17s rose about 2.8 per cent a year between 1990 and 2002.
· In 1970, the suicide rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19 was 8.4 per 100,000. In 2003, it was 12.7 per 100,000.
· In 1984, 33 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds who drank alcohol were binge drinkers. By 2002, the figure was 41 per cent.
· Children under care and protection orders rose from 335 per 100,000 children in 1997 to 460 per 100,000 in 2003.

First published in The Age.