I am a lot worse at parenting than I thought I would be: Child poverty and our privilege

When my wife and I thought about having children, we thought we’d probably be pretty good parents. We’d lived with a few people with kids, we’d judged them inadequate and imagined how we’d do things differently. We’d already made sure to judge our parents inadequate and promised not to do what they did. So we were as ready as anyone is.

We have four children now. Some days I feel sorry for them. Sometimes those kids are trapped in a house with irrational, yelling people. They really do wonder what they did to end up with such assholes. And to be fair, that’s a pretty reasonable question.

I have discovered that I am way worse at parenting than I thought I would be. It can bring up all the worst bits of me. Anger is my emotion I feel under stress, and betrayal is what I fear the most. Kids can push all those buttons before breakfast. And it’s quite likely that if you have kids, turns out that you aren’t as good as you thought you’d be. We should all be saving for our kids counselling now.

But I am doing my very best. I love them. I don’t think I have ever experienced the intensity of emotion that I feel for my kids. I have depths to my heart that have only been revealed in the agony of their lows and the ecstasy of their highs. I love them. And evidence says that my kids are getting some of the best parenting available in Aotearoa New Zealand as they live in a warm and dry house, they have two parents, they get fed three times a day, they have enough resources to do whatever they want to do; they are not subject to violence and they go to school regularly.

This is not true for over 265,000 children in Aotearoa New Zealand. According to the Child Poverty Monitor report released on Monday 9 December, one in four New Zealand children live in poverty. They live in a poverty of resources, of opportunities, and of emotional connection. Of course, the government dismissed the report as a repackaged government figures which didn’t tell them anything new. But these political posturings bore me. What I really want to know is how do their parents feel?

I feel a level of guilt and shame when I am not good at parenting. How does it feel when you are failing at the most fundamental level to provide for your children? How do you process that? How do you live with yourself? If there are 265,000 children in poverty, how many adults are living an existence of shame, self-loathing, guilt and fear that someone will discover their inadequacy?

I live in Merivale, Tauranga. It is our city’s poorest neighbourhood. This report is written about the kids I see every day. Within 50 metres of my house are children who live in a damp and cold house, who have one stressed, substance addicted solo parent, who get fed sometimes and get fed crap, who never do anything other than play on the street, who regularly experience physical and psychological violence, and who don’t go to school very regularly.

I really have tried to help. I have volunteered in lots of really great programmes for these kids. I have run an amazing community centre that is an advocate, a friend and a role model to these kids. I have been a neighbour who has talked to these kids’ parents about what they need, tried to cajole them to do the right thing. I have rung Child, Youth and Family, the Police, Work and Income and Housing New Zealand to complain and report my concern. I have made submissions, written letters to the editor, presented at forums as a concerned citizen of our city. I really have tried to help, and these kids lives are exactly the same as when I arrived here 8 years ago.

So what the child poverty report tells us beyond the fact that there are poor people in Aotearoa New Zealand is that you and I – which is what we mean when we say society – are a lot worse at being the responsible patrons, the civic parents of our society than we thought we were. Don’t doubt that if you have power, if you have resouces, and if you have education, than you and I are essentially the parents of our society; our privilege carries this civic responsibility. And we have fundamentally failed in our civic responsibility to succour the poor, to show the people around us who are failing their children how to parent well, and we aren’t even any good at driving the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. After all we haven’t picked up the slack and been good parents to those kids who end up in our state care.

The government is not responsible for this. You and I are. It’s our society. Politicians, in their own weird way, reflect us. Our cowardice and our avarice. In the main, they seem to be a projection of our most selfish nature. Their policies are the outworking of our failure to care, and to demand that our representatives care.

And let me be clear on this: personal responsibility of poor parents be damned. We should’ve parented those kids in poverty if only to protect our own society from a long tail of angry, socially maladjusted young people with time to burn it all to the ground.

The Child Poverty Action report is no condemnation of the poor. It is a condemnation of those of us who are wealthy, educated, and powerful because privilege comes with civic responsibilities. We know that if we do not actively parent our children then we will suffer the consequences and shame. The same principle applies in our wider community.

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2 thoughts on “I am a lot worse at parenting than I thought I would be: Child poverty and our privilege

  1. Graham, thank you for this piece. You yourself have used all the seeming tools/vehicles at your disposal in relation to the community around you and yet consider “these kids lives are exactly the same as when I arrived here 8 years ago.” You yourself sound defeated on this front. Any ideas about what we the “wealthy, educated, and powerful” can do about child poverty in own communities and/or NZ in general?

    1. I don’t feel defeated, just frustrated and reflective. We still live in the community I have described, and I will have other seasons of involvement and effort. However, my reflection stands that it is so hard to have discernible impact at the flaxroots, which I would hazard to suggest is because the systemic issues are dominant. So, as a member of the wealthy, educated and powerful, I think we really need to work on change our economic system to reduce income inequality, and we need to work in our communities to resurrect both the sense of boundaries and expectations that are a moderating influence on peoples’ behaviours and the genuine concern of neighbours looking after neighbours.

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