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Zonta Club of Metropolitan Dunedin

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 1 December 1998
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Suzanne Hannagan, President, Lyn Farry, Vice President - thank you for the invitation to share this evening with you, and so to meet Zonta in Dunedin as well as in Wellington. And my congratulations to you of the Metropolitan Dunedin Club on your first anniversary. My wife has met Zonta Wellington at the opening of an art exhibition last year, while we have together had the pleasure of twice hosting the Zonta Science Awards in ceremonies at Government House in Wellington. These are important awards, both for their recognition of outstanding women scientists, and also for the encouragement they must give to women pursuing careers in science, for we don't have enough scientists of either gender in New Zealand, and certainly too few women.

Your Secretary told me that you have taken the Family as your current theme, and it was rather implicit in what she said that you would like me to talk on that general topic. It's an important subject, if only because of the number of split and dysfunctional families and the consequences of that, both for the children of those families, and for the community, to which so many of them make little if any contribution other than the negative one too often reflected in all kinds of worrying statistics that we read about from time to time.

I have said, publicly, several times, that the combination of the complementary and distinct roles of mothers and fathers, is the best assurance of a healthy, happy family life; and, most importantly, of well-adjusted children ready to play their own constructive part in society and in their own families. Yet saying that sort of thing can produce some adverse reactions. It is seen as a criticism of those many mothers who for one reason or another - divorce or desertion perhaps, or the death of the father - who have to struggle on their own, usually with great success. Of course it is not criticism of them at all, but simply a plea to parents - and fathers in particular - to recognise how important it is that each contributes fully to the nurturing of their children.

I have, as you no doubt noticed, just defined 'family' traditionally, in terms of 'mum, dad and the kids.' That is of course not entirely appropriate for all New Zealanders, because for Maori in particular the concept of family extends beyond that kind of unit. Indeed, the upbringing of children was generally a whanau's responsibility rather than a parental one. This was reflected in a comment the President of the Maori Women's Welfare League made to me just the other day, that the problems of Maori youth could quickly be solved if only whanau accepted their traditional responsibilities. That, however, is more easily said than done when the whanau is dispersed through the move from marae to city.

We have to accept that family structures have changed in other ways too, so that the concept of 'family' has to be widened if we are to be realistic. The number of couples living in de facto relationships has increased dramatically, and there seems no longer to be the belief that they should marry before the children begin to come. It is necessary to bear this in mind when looking at the statistics of ex-nuptial births. Then there is the number of second or third marriages, with step-fathers, step-mothers and step-children, half-brothers and -sisters. We have families of gay couples, with children of an earlier, or perhaps a made-to-order, heterosexual relationship. Then there are the families where the natural father is absent, but a succession of men, so often totally unsatisfactory, live for a time with the mother and exercise some kind of influence, for good or bad, over the children. And then there are the rarer families where there is no woman in the house, father doing his best with whatever help he may need and may be able to get. And finally, and this is the largest group, apart from the traditional families, there are the families where there is no man in the house at all, where the home is headed by widows, separated or divorced women, lone mothers; their circumstances vary widely. Among them, as we all know, are a great many women who manage admirably, even with the most limited means.

So many of these situations are the result of attitudes for which society as a whole must accept responsibility: and which society is surely capable of changing.

We have promoted sexual liberation without teaching sexual responsibility. We have encouraged single women to keep their babies without preparing them for the stresses, the exhaustion, the restrictions on lifestyle, that this necessitates. For example, many young people these days are quite unprepared for the responsibilities of parenthood: there was a recent report, for instance, which found that one in three parents think that it is someone else's responsibility - the government's or schools' - to teach their children even such basic life skills as healthy eating habits. This, no doubt, because they are unable to teach them themselves.

Again, too many young New Zealanders are ill-educated, and so, effectively, unemployable. And so welfare dependency dictates family life and family attitudes and creates huge stresses within the family.

And then, many couples, even more single women, have no physical or moral support; are left to fend for themselves. Many live in streets of people in a similar plight.

And some lone mothers are like the old woman who lived in a shoe: they have so many children they don't know what to do.

A daunting number depend entirely on the state for their incomes - the number of fathers who refuse to accept financial responsibility for their children is quite staggering.

And perhaps, finally, to give credit where a lot of credit is due, we should remember another kind of family, that provided by foster parents, those quite remarkable people who spend their lives bringing up other people's children as their own: there was a Rotorua couple I met at the most recent investitures at Government House for example, who, for 32 years, had fostered dozens and dozens of children, and who are still providing a loving and caring environment for foster babies, children and adolescents. Some of their charges had come to join them in their Investiture.

So the word 'family' is capable of being extended to any household that includes children. Do we need to be more precise than that? Or should we agree on a tighter definition, that excludes some of those I have mentioned, but at the same time sets an ideal to which all should be challenged to aspire if at all possible?

When you took the family as your theme and focus, I expect that you had primarily in mind the traditional family of 'mum, dad and the kids.' And if we are looking at the ideal society should strive for, that's how I would define it, certainly; but perhaps with this qualification; that we can't C we mustn't C rigidly insist, for our ideal, on both parents being the natural parents. The essential features of a family are a secure home, and secure loving relationships with both male and female caregivers and role models.

One cannot but be concerned at the rate of separation and divorce, and want to see every means of reducing it. There are many organisations working at this. But we must accept that some marriages just will not work, and that it is better for everyone to bring them to an end. But that must be done in a way that minimises bitterness and that ensures that the children continue to stay in touch with both parents. And so obviously, second-, or third-marriage families are still families and can be very good families indeed. I am sure, too, that many stable de facto relationships also provide a good family life.

The essential criteria for a family are not found in legal status, but in human relationships.

So why any insistence on a male presence in an 'ideal' family? Why is a father or a father figure, so important to a child's development, and so to full family life? Ian Grant, well known for his very effective work among young people, says of the father's role that boys and girls have different needs. 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. These he believes are roles best filled by men. Granted, it's a rather simplistic statement, that omits some of the nuances, let's say, in order to be to be unambiguous. Because there are, as I'm sure he would readily admit, very broad overlaps between the female and male parenting roles; gender roles in general. But, there are, too, persistent and consistent differences between women and men - in world view, in customary modes of thinking, in manner of relating to others, even in patterns of speech.

So fathers and mothers have complementary, often distinct, roles within the family. Mothers and fathers give different kinds of emotional support, have different ways of doing and thinking and feeling, provide different role models to follow. It's the combination of the two that is the best assurance of a healthy happy family life, and most importantly, of well-adjusted children ready to play their own constructive part in society and in their own families. But why, precisely, some might ask. And the answer, I believe, is that with two slightly different role models to guide them, children develop their own clear perspectives, not only on the other people and the world around them, but on their own lives as well. They are, therefore, better equipped to understand their own characters, to make their own practical and moral choices. Having their own perspective - with both a mother's and a father's model to educate them - they acquire what astronomers might call a parallax view of things. A parallax view is what you obtain when have more than one position from which you can observe something - for astronomers, celestial objects; for children, their occasionally less-than-stellar mums and dads. The extra point of view enables the observer to measure, to judge, distance in the case of astronomical bodies; roles, character and patterns of behaviour in the case of children growing up in a traditional family.

This is why we best teach greater sexual and financial responsibility by being ourselves, more responsible; why, too, we must do all we can to reduce the pressure on families, to help couples resolve their differences and stay together if they possibly can. It is why we must, somehow, find ways to reduce the demands of work and financial necessity, so that both fathers and mothers have the time and energy for a fulfilling family life: because a fatherless family is not just one where father lives elsewhere; it is equally one where father lives in the house but has no time or inclination to make it a home.

And we must re-affirm what a privilege fatherhood is, as well as motherhood, and what a joy it can be. But that joy comes only through a commitment, not just of resources, but of fathers' time: time to listen and time to share; and a commitment to loving, too - a love demonstrated in tangible, visible affection. But too many young New Zealand men have forgotten, or have never learned, that paternal lesson, and that is another of the reasons why so many social indicators have been so negative for many years now.

In the nature of things, motherhood is more 'biological' than is fatherhood; fatherhood being almost as much a socially-defined role as it is a biological one. And that particular role can be quite hard work. But it is work that for a man is more worth doing, and doing well, than any other: for a man, the eventual rewards of being a good father are without compare. Reminders of the joy and the honour of being a responsible and loving father, surely need to be given more frequently than they have in recent times. So to anyone who asks the question, what can be done to aid families and family life in New Zealand, there, I suggest, is one answer.

Another response would be to re-affirm that the family is still society's key institution; strong loving families still being the best way to raise happy, self-confident, self-respecting children. But as many of the social problems we face are the result of families not fulfilling their proper role, I believe we must also look to our schools to inculcate some of the basic values of life. There has been a certain reluctance to do this. The philosophy of moral relativism has had a strong influence. But I believe that influence is waning, as schools more and more recognise the need to teach those basic values of community life that are also the essentials of sound family life.

And we must also lift our support for the many voluntary organisations in the community that endeavour to help families, usually pitting diminishing resources against increasing needs. These range from schools providing breakfasts and lunches, to the Alan Duff Books in Homes scheme, to the traditional welfare organisations like the City Missions that more and more are concentrating their efforts on children and families. Barnardo's, which once ran orphanages, now has a wide ranging programme of care for youngsters and help for families. The health camps now provide residential programmes for parents. There is an outstanding initiative in Porirua East, the low socio-economic suburb north of Wellington, where a school is providing classes for teenage unmarried mothers who had dropped out of school but are now being motivated to continue their education as well as being taught parenting and home management skills. These are but a few of the many organisations in this country that are working to solve family problems, to shore up society's foundation.

Hopefully these groups' efforts are a sign of further initiatives to come, that they are forerunners in a movement to restore the vitality of our most fundamental social institution. I hope indeed that that is so, for without extra effort, we are bound to go on seeing all too many of our young people reaching chronological adulthood, while still too young in understanding to be loving and kind to themselves, and to their partners, and to their own children. Then, their unhappy circumstances can become self-perpetuating, a heritable condition; perhaps in the form of anger, even violent anger; or of a lack of self-esteem or a resignation to comparative misery, passed down from one generation to another.

But I don't want to paint too gloomy a picture of modern New Zealand. To be sure, many of our families have grave problems. The institution of marriage has been and is still being questioned, sometimes constructively, more often destructively. But this very questioning is forcing many an examination of old assumptions, and changes in some attitudes that are perhaps no longer useful, and closer concentration on those aspects of family life that improve its quality, both for parents and for children.

Which is where organisations like Zonta have a vital role to play, in choosing a theme such as that of the family as a topic to pursue, to explore and to discuss. There are no other themes that could be rated as being more important; indeed, there few that even match it. So I thank you for the opportunity to join you this evening, and I trust that by doing so I may have helped keep the profile of your theme raised as high as it deserves to be.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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