I made a promise to Laurie O'Reilly that I would open this Forum, and so I am here. I am sorry that I could not manage it at the very beginning. But quite often I open buildings, for example, that have been in use for some time, so that it's quite reasonable and consistent to open a conference after it has commenced. I am truly delighted to have the opportunity to do so.
But I have come not just to redeem that promise, but because, like Laurie, I believe the issues that are to be considered at this Conference are among the most important issues of our time. They are important for today, but even more so for tomorrow and tomorrow's tomorrow, for the children of parents become parents themselves, and the kind of children they rear are very much determined by the kind of parents we are today. And so it goes, on and on, in an inevitable succession. The child is indeed father of the man.
But before I go on, I want to pay a personal tribute to Laurie, whose spirit will, I am sure, be watching over us today, willing us to be inspired with the same passion that drove him until his very last breath. I suppose he was always passionate - certainly he was when he was counsel in custody cases, perhaps even a bit much sometimes, because one had to insist that there was - only now and again of course - another point of view. But there is no other point of view to the cause to which he devoted himself when, so appropriately, he was appointed Commissioner for Children. He took up that office with an even greater passion, coupled with his restless and boundless energy, and enthusiasm, and his deep commitment to the welfare of those who could not speak for themselves. And with an insight and zeal that came both from his strong Christian faith and his own family life, he took up the cause of fathering, of fathers and of the fatherless, and almost single-handedly launched a mission, a crusade, of which today's gathering is I am sure only a beginning.
My qualifications to open this Conference are no greater than those of many, many other men. I am father to four, a grandfather of five, almost six. That is an exciting role too, although I temper my enthusiasm with the silly story about the boy who asked his mother if they could go to Disneyland. We can't go until grandfather croaks, she said. So when grandfather was at dinner one day he asked: "Grandfather, what sort of a noise does a frog make?" Grandfather duly obliged. The boy turned to his mother. "Mum, grandfather has croaked: now can we go to Disneyland?"
After that I should add to my meagre qualifications, the fact that in my professional life, in a family law practice and on the Bench, I was all too often acutely aware of what happens when there is no father in a family - no father present, or no father effective.
It is beyond dispute that a child is best nurtured by both parents. The parenting most likely to be successful is a partnership, in commitment and love, between mother and father. The children most likely to be maladjusted, with all the personal and social consequences that follow from that, are those who grow up in single parent families; and that is especially so with boys who grow up fatherless. And in New Zealand there are tens of thousands of them, and the numbers are increasing as the rate of divorce increases, along with the number of ex-nuptial births and sole parents. Rattling off statistics depersonalises the effects of all this. Suffice it to say that they are all too apparent in truancy and school dropouts, delinquency and vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and suicide.
It's hard to appreciate this when one sees, as I do, so many healthy, well-adjusted, high-achieving youngsters: but the fact is that we really do have a problem of major proportions, which can only compound unless the trends can be arrested. And in thinking of that, let us be clear that the absence of fathers is not simply a problem of no father living at home, it is also a problem of father being absent when he is needed.
This is not to say - and it is most important to emphasise this - that most mothers struggling to bring up families alone are not doing their very best, sometimes in the face of fearful odds, and often achieving complete success. It is all too easy to minimise the struggle a woman faces bringing up her family alone, on an inadequate income, coping somehow with the daunting workload, the many, many additional obstacles, that come in her way. But the fact that so many do so remarkably well does not invalidate the general proposition that children, and especially boys, need fathers. The particular relationship between father and daughter, or father and son, cannot be filled by mothers, no matter how wonderful they are. This is simply in the nature of things. Nor can the role be filled by another man, even less by a succession of men, the home environment for so many children today.
Being a father is therefore important, terribly important. It is a privilege and a responsibility to be proud of, to rejoice in, to give our all to. But why doesn't it work like that? Perhaps this Conference will come up with the answers. I certainly don't have them all. I was no ideal parent, but some things seem pretty clear.
The first is that many men are ignorant, to a surprising degree, of the importance of their role, and of the needs of their children. There is in our society virtually no preparation for this most important of responsibilities.
I recently went to a fathers' breakfast in Hutt City, and Ian Grant, who I see is to speak later in this Forum, described the special role of fathers in terms of the differing needs of boys and girls. I hope he will forgive me if I quote him. If he intended to say the same thing himself, it's a point that deserves repetition. He put it this way: "Boys need to know who's in charge, what the rules are, and that they are going to be enforced. Girls need to be told they are attractive, to be seen as capable, and to have someone to listen to them."
That's very basic, but how many men understand that? How many men understand that their children, boys as well as girls, need their affection, need it to be demonstrated, not just spoken about; and that if they don't get it from father, they will look for it elsewhere? How many men realise that their sons look to them as role models, and if they fail, their sons will look elsewhere? How many men realise their children's need for companionship, for a sharing of all the small and large experiences of childhood and youth? And that if they can't get it from their fathers, they will look elsewhere?
And when they do, that can be very hurtful to father. And it can be very dangerous for son. Just think, for example, how gang leaders fill the father role model for so many youngsters.
At that same breakfast, a police officer, very dynamic and committed to the needs of young people, spelt this out from the letters of the word "father":
F is for Friend
A is for Able to do anything
T for Time
H for Hug
E for Encourage
R for Remember to keep promises
Secondly, I suspect that some women do not understand the importance of fathers. That's often the fathers' own fault. But there is a perception on the part of some women that, if the marriage is unhappy, the children are better off without father in the house. That in fact was a fairly common perception, but its now realised to be erroneous as a general proposition. Unless the relationship is abusive, it's often better for the children for mum and dad to stay together. Staying together for the sake of the children is a very realistic and positive attitude. Then again, and this is very sad, wives who feel aggrieved at the break-up of the marriage are sometimes all to ready to punish the husband by making access to the children as difficult as possible. In legal practice and on the Bench, I found this distressingly common; and very hard to deal with, because at times the mother would convince herself that the children did not want to see their father, or that he was a malign influence, and so they would justify their attitude with reasons which, if they were valid at all, were of their own, perhaps unconscious, making. Of course, at times the mother's attitude was quite justified, but often, looked at objectively, it was not.
The Courts have a responsibility to be firm in this area, and I am sure that is well recognised. Weekly or fortnightly access is bad enough; it's the flimsiest base on which to build a fruitful relationship. But for the other parent to make even that difficult, or to deprive the child of the relationship altogether, is damaging in the extreme, for both child and parent.
Thirdly, work is allowed to take control. It may be that father sees his most pressing need to be to advance his career, or to earn as much as he can so that the family's material circumstances may be improved. Or he may just have to work very hard indeed, for long hours, simply to pay the bills. Or employers or business partners may demand too much, expecting a dedication of time and effort that leaves little or no time for family life. Some things I hear about what is expected of young professionals make my hair stand on end. Some employers have a lot to answer for. But so does society as a whole, in permitting these pressures to be applied.
Fourthly, and perhaps overarchingly, as a society we have lost faith in those values of simplicity and fidelity and responsibility that are essential to a healthy and constructive home life. There is no substitute for a complete family unit. Yet relationships are entered into and departed from even casually; there is increasing reluctance to enter into the commitment of marriage; and there is an unwillingness to work at making marriage a success. Preparation for marriage and its responsibilities, and preparation for parenting and its responsibilities, seem to me to be inextricably bound together. A successful marriage is the best assurance of successful parenting.
Those may be some of the reasons for the widespread failure of parenting we are experiencing. They may be the areas on which as a nation we have to work. There may be others, and you will, I am sure, address them all at this Conference.
I know that Laurie O'Reilly saw this conference not just as a time for identifying problems and devising solutions, but also as an opportunity to stress the joys of fatherhood. It gives us the opportunity of nurturing lives, moulding character. It enables us to share joy and sorrow, elation and disappointment, with those who trust us and depend on us and love us. It is no easy ride. It can be tough, even heartbreaking. But it has mighty rewards. It is the greatest of privileges, and the most rewarding of life's missions.
This is a message that desperately needs to be heard. I trust that this conference will give it a strong voice.
I am sorry I can't stay with you, but I look forward to reading of the outcome of your discussions. I wish you well; and now let me do what I promised to do, and declare this Forum officially open.