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Auckland Mayoral Fathers' Breakfast

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 12 June 1996
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

There's increasingly strong evidence being collected around the world, that the make-up of the old-fashioned nuclear family - kids, plus mum, plus dad - is the most functional, the most desirable. Granted, it is also recognised that sometimes, family breakups cannot be avoided. But the idea that children are best raised by both parents - and grandparents as well, if possible - is becoming harder and harder to contradict.

Disheartening evidence of the need for fathers comes from the world's crime statistics. The children from fatherless families, seem to have much higher offending rates. I used to see the results of family breakup and family violence all the time, myself, as a judge, so I know that the statistics are based in social reality.

Another thing we know from these figures is that we have a great need, in New Zealand, for fathers whose example can be followed, whose care can be relied upon, and whose presence can be counted upon - heroes, as the theme of this year's Fathers' Breakfast calls them.

But perhaps we're not really thinking as clearly as we should, yet, about what those qualities are in a dad that are, truly, heroic.

Say the word hero, and you think of someone doing something extraordinarily dramatic. Yet this is inaccurate, as often as not. What about the quiet heroes? - not the people who rise to one great challenge, but the people who rise to a whole series of small ones? Theirs, I suggest, is every bit as courageous an example to follow.

These are not the men who snap under pressure and start laying about them. Paternal heroes are men of patience. Being a father is, to such men, not a burden only, but work that has its own great reward. A real hero is one whose example his children can emulate.

Instead, though, what sort of behaviour do we so often see, particularly as it is modelled on television, for instance.

Television is the most powerful medium yet invented for portraying behaviour, whether the conduct being portrayed is good, or bad. Unfortunately, it is often the worst of behaviour that is illustrated, over and over again, in police dramas, in action adventure shows: you name the type of mayhem, and it's sure to be on TV, some time each day. And the people behaving badly, particularly when it comes to violence, are men.

The question must be asked: if you watch enough "bad" behaviour in the course of watching such shows, do you, or do you not, begin to lose your standards of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable conduct?

Even the anti-family violence commercials show men being violent, or the results of men's violence. And yes, these commercials we've all seen have gained our attention. Yes, the medium has been able to show family violence in all its ugliness. Yes, the message has been driven home that violence by men towards women and children is a catastrophic, utterly-dispiriting condition of life for all too many New Zealand children and women.

But, should not the medium now be used to portray the kind of behaviour that we would like to see more of, as opposed to the kind of behaviour we would like to see less of, or, better yet, absolutely none of?

Remember the old wisdom that children emulate what they are shown, rather than doing something merely because they have been told to do so. Action and example have always, do now, and will always, speak much, much louder than words alone.

Instead of showing what some fathers do wrong, television commercials could usefully demonstrate how fathers can do right; how a few good humoured requests, for instance, can, almost always, achieve more - much more. Perhaps new television spots could show that children can be distracted from courses of action that fathers don't approve of - that confrontation is therefore an inferior response to an unheedful child. Could not new commercials demonstrate that rewards can change children's behaviour much more effectively than punishment - that carrots actually do work better than sticks?

Such a campaign as this, I suggest, might finally achieve a general change in our social expectations. It's a funny thing about expectations - humans are such social creatures that we almost always, in the end, pay great attention to what is expected of us. Then we proceed to live up to those expectations, or to live down to them.

What New Zealand could go on to achieve now, in the realm of public education about violence in the home, and how to prevent it, is to raise these social expectations. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," is a deadly phrase, from a verse in the Old, not the New, Testament. Using the rod spoils all children, and those children can go on to spoil their children in a self-perpetuating cycle of family misery. Talking about 'physical disciplining' should be exposed, once and for all, as an attempt to make something rather nasty, sound nicer than it can ever, really, be.

What is needed now, I suggest, are depictions of patient, gentle, kinder heroes. So, to everyone here at this year's Auckland Mayoral Father's Breakfast, may we all play our part in lifting our social expectations of every one of this country's fathers. May we also lead by our example wherever possible, rather than by issuing paternal commands. May we take every opportunity to encourage our children, rather than to check them. May we be readier to realise that it is always more influential to affirm than to reproach. And, may New Zealand fathers become, not their overlords but, more and more, their sons' and daughters' guiding companions. Amen.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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