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Mayoral Fathers' Prayer Breakfast

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 11 March 1998
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

For some years now, it's been obvious, hasn't it, that the level of violence in New Zealand society has been going up: violent action is part of our everyday entertainment, and violent crime is much more common than it was twenty, thirty or forty years ago. Dismayingly, this includes violence within families, including, sometimes, truly sickening assaults upon children. Such truly horrible crimes as these arouse great passions against the perpetrators; but they also have caused many thinking people to start questioning even very basic assumptions, about who we are, and how we behave, and how we might reverse or alter the social course we seem to be set on.

New Zealand is not unique in this, of course. There was a case last year in Japan, where two primary school children were murdered. A 14 year old had done it. Two social commentators there, a Professor of Psychiatry and a novelist, offered their thoughts on the social conditions that might have contributed to that horror.

"Let's look at the issue in terms of the changes that have swept society," the novelist said. "Before the war, the roles of children and adults, men and women, were clearly differentiated. But in our information-inundated society, the barriers are increasingly removed. Just as men and women have come to dress alike, the boundary between childhood and adulthood has become increasingly blurred."

The psychiatrist agreed. "Adults have become more like children, and children more like adults. Having lost their distinct roles, neither are able to establish criteria to govern their own behaviour."

Very general statements, to be sure. But unsettling, too, because isn't there a ring of truth about them?

However, before we begin to make any attempt to change social trends that we believe to be dangerous or abhorrent, we first have to define precisely what it is that we are trying to achieve here. What is the objective of parenthood?. Is this an acceptable definition?: that the task, the sacred task, of any responsible and effective parent is to play his or her full part in raising healthy, happy, well-educated, morally and socially and spiritually aware, sons and daughters. But how?

The social changes we have all been going through since the Second World War have not only been sweeping, but also extremely rapid. Many feel that we may have too-quickly repudiated too much of the way we were, of the way we used to do things. But it is not a sensible response to social change, merely to try to re-create the old days; the days when children, for instance, were to be seen but not heard; or when women's place was "in the home," with all that that formula leaves unsaid; or when men did not cry or even show emotion, but, usually alone, got on and did what men "had to do."

Those archetypes of so-called proper behaviour simply will not do any more. On the other hand, there is no simple choice to be made, say, between turning back to the strict and rigid family hierarchies of fifty or more years ago - with husbands and fathers being like all-powerful dictators or commanding generals - or the opposite and quite widely practised view that contemporary parents, mothers and fathers alike, have no role, let alone any authority, as social and moral educators. This is the view that would have it that a parent's job comes down to being a good material provider, helping with school homework, and ferrying the offspring to and from Saturday sport.

One of the huge hurdles many young people have to surmount is their parents' separation and divorce. How should we be responding to the still- and steadily-rising rate at which New Zealand families are breaking up? How do we, how might we, assist families to stay together? These are questions that we must, both as a society, but more often as individuals, study more seriously. How might young New Zealanders, for instance, become better prepared for marriage? Should we be so rapidly modifying our basic concept of what a marriage is and what it is for?

Or should we instead be re-affirming the sacredness, the tapu, of marriage, as something quite exceptional amongst all our other social relationships? And how are our children to learn about marriage, all that it might entail; the accommodations that have to be made, or where to look for and to find its rewards?

These are all questions best asked, and the answers best demonstrated, parent by parent, family by family, child by child. This is life education, the sort of education that "others" - outsiders, our schools or the state - will never be able to perform wholly satisfactorily.

Yet it takes whole families to raise children most effectively. Too many New Zealand fathers, however, have not been, and still are not, fully living up to their responsibilities; some are not allowed the opportunity, too many do not satisfactorily distinguish between patriarchal force and paternal moral leadership; too many are just plain absent from their children's lives.

Certainly we have to accept that, sometimes, family breakups cannot be avoided. But this does not change the fact, that is often not recognised by separated mothers, that in a majority of cases, children raised outside a so-called 'traditional,' two-parent family setting, are disadvantaged, and disadvantaged in many ways, both hidden and obvious.

I want to emphasise what I mean by fatherless families. I don't just mean families where mother is the only caregiver, or where she tries to share the caregiving with another man. I mean too families where father pursues his own interests, or is immersed in his work, or in playing or watching his sport, so much that he has no time to share with his children, no time to read to them, to play with them, to talk with them, to share family life with them, even to show them the affection they so urgently need to grow whole. These too are deprived children.

We have to remember that children, the parents of tomorrow, 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 mere words.

I believe that we New Zealand men need, first, to raise our own expectations of ourselves, and second, to live up to new, generally-higher expectations of what a father's role and responsibility must be these days. That involves forsaking the more oppressive practices of the past. For example, corporal punishment will never be a substitute for, or the buttress of, true paternal authority. Leaders lead; only dictators oppress.

It involves sharing fully their parental role with their partners, and to develop their individual endowments of patience, kindliness and gentleness, even while striving to attain the traditional paternal virtues like fairness, firmness and an ever-present willingness to guide, not force, their children towards their betterment.

I trust that all of us here this morning, fathers or grandfathers, will play our part in lifting expectations about what it really is, and what it really means, to be a father. May we all also accept that we must lead more by personal example, less than by issuing paternal commands. May we take every opportunity to encourage our children, rather than only to check or criticise them, may we understand that it is always better to affirm, to praise, than it is to reproach, or to punish. And with these changes made, may New Zealand fathers become, not their masters but, more and more, their sons' and daughters' guiding companions.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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