This talk was delivered by Metiria at the TEDxhomeBushRdWomen event in Wellington, 7 December 2013.
I had an eclectic, sometimes impoverished childhood. We moved house a lot. But when I was about 3 my family lived in a big old house called Hillcrest flats.
Out the back was a garden and a long row of white sheds. Inside one of these sheds I had a playhouse. I had a little table and chairs, a little blue and white tea set where my dolls and I would play and have tea parties. It is one of my most enduring and most cherished memories.
Many years later, I reminded my mum about this little playhouse and tea set.
What tea set? said Mum. You never had a tea set.
Yes I did, I said, the little blue and white one. I had tea parties with my toys in the playhouse.
What playhouse? said Mum, you never had a playhouse.
The playhouse, I said, in the shed at Hillcrest flats
She looked sideways like I’d gone completely crazy. No playhouse, no table and chairs. No tea set.
Which is really weird because I have vivid memories of my tea set. I remember the smell of the dirt floor of the shed, the dark wooden walls and the weight of the little porcelain cups in my hands.
But mum was right, I know. My playhouse never existed.
I can see what you’re thinking. The poor brown kid imagines she has a playhouse like the rich white kids up the road did. How sad.
And while you could say I was fantasying an idyllic childhood I didn’t actually have, I prefer to think that if that little girl believed she had dolls and a table and little porcelain teacups, if I remembered that playhouse and the joy it gave me, then for all intents and purposes, I had it.
This is explained by the theory of headology developed by that great social philosopher, Terry Pratchett, and practiced by Granny Weatherwax, the wonderfully wise Lancre witch central to his Discworld Fantasy Series.
Headology holds that what you believe is real, is real, as Granny Weatherwax likes to say “it is what it is”. As such headology opens quite a different approach to problem solving.
Think of it like this. If a kid believes there is a monster under the bed, a psychologist will try to convince them the monster is not there. A headologist, on the other hand, will give the kid a bat and a chair to stand on to deal to the monster in a more direct fashion.
I like that. Of course, in the real world we need trained mental health professionals. But how wonderful to vest in a child their own power to bash away a monster!
Children are not silly. They are just a mystery to us, because they believe things we don’t.
They believe crazy, seemingly illogical things. But they’re not always wrong.
Apparently a child’s aversion to vegetables is not just deliberately annoying but, according to scientists, a biological imperative to avoid being poisoned by strange plants.
Children understand their world in ways that we simply don’t get.
I’m a politician, a member of the New Zealand Parliament, a policy maker. If I am to avoid simply doing policy to children, if I am to make policy for them, I need to listen to what concerns them – to what they understand is real.
This is hugely important in a country like New Zealand, where the realities of thousands of our children risk being completely obscured by the picture of a south pacific paradise made of milk and honey, whose riches are there for all to enjoy.
(Animation: a child describes how her parents can’t afford to buy new clothes or shoes, pointing to her own shoes saying “See these shoes, these used to belong to my Grandma”)
This is Amber and her friend Bob, their own pseudonyms. I met Amber at a very poor school. We listened to the children talking about poverty.
To me, this little girl in her grandma’s shoes encapsulates the absolute unreasonableness of inequality and poverty, from a child’s perspective.
When I listen to her I can see why relative poverty matters, why inequality scratches so painfully at the heart of a child.
The truth is, this modern and prosperous first world country is a fantastic place to be a kid. The best place in the world, for most kids.
But for 270,000 of our children, for kids like Amber, it’s just not that great at all.
We have a perverse situation where 1 in 5 of all our children live in poverty.
These children are three times as likely as other kids to go to hospital due to entirely preventable diseases, like rheumatic fever, diseases unheard of in the rest of the developed world, diseases caused by cold damp overcrowded homes and a lack of good food.
Nearly one in every ten kids goes to school without breakfast or lunch.
The problem is, the sheer idea of this kind of poverty, is so unbelievable in a beautiful, first world country like ours that many of us can’t accept it’s real for our kids. Deprivation, it’s reasoned, can only be the fault of parents not caring enough. And later on, it’s the fault of the kids themselves for not bothering to pull up their socks and move on.
I believe that until we really listen to children we will be incapable of envisioning for them a world where they are at the centre of our decisions, where every child has a warm dry home, a fantastic education, a safe clean environment and every opportunity to explore and exploit their natural talents.
When we do listen to children we hear surprising things.
Unicef is part of a global project called the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. They have worked with the Auckland City Council on the needs of inner city families. Researchers talked to inner city parents and children about their concerns.
The parents identified recreational activities and public transport as very important to their care-giving roles.
But when the kids were asked, 60% identified noise as a major issue, noise of people, traffic, construction, noise so persistent they couldn’t sleep.
Noise was overwhelming and confusing and it simply stressed them out.
We could respond by saying, well actually noise is not your biggest threat; it’s that ten-ton truck barrelling down on you on the road. But if we really want a child friendly city inner city, and kids are stressed out by noise, then noise demands a policy solution.
Kids who can’t sleep, can’t concentrate and can’t learn.
What children believe is real is real. That’s Headology.
Kids take the world’s problems on themselves. They have crazy ideas. They are paranoid. They believe they’re responsible when their parents divorce. And while they really shouldn’t believe that, they do. The responsibility they feel for all kinds of family problems is real.
(Animation: a child describes how when you moan about wanting a toy and your parents can’t afford it but they want to buy it for you, they get really stressed out, they buy it anyway and don’t have any money left)
Kids are deeply impacted by their parents’ financial stresses in ways we could not anticipate. They are trapped by social structures and institutional decisions in ways we can’t see or feel.
(Animation: three children discuss the economic system “So what’s happening with all our money?” “We’re giving it to the government and they’re giving it to the rich people.” “And they’re spending it on stuff they don’t need.”)
We can’t keep telling kids it’s going to be ok; they know it’s not ok. We have to make it ok.
So how might we transform the world of our children, once we have listened to their needs. How can we ensure genuine equality of opportunity for all our kids?
Roberto Unger is a Brazilian social and legal theorist and philosopher who offers us the concept of deep freedom. Deep freedom not shallow freedom. He sees equality as part of deep freedom.
He says that a society that deliberately creates inequality and then resorts to redistribution to soften the impact, is not only useless but inhumane.
To have every citizen be deeply free – our institutions, economic, political, social need to be purposefully built to deliver equality.
Just making little tweaks in a band aid response to inequality is not good enough for our kids.
So I, Metiria, grown up, accept responsibility for delivering a genuinely transformed world for our children, not for perpetuating one that embeds inequality.
Deep freedom would liberate Amber, from the social forces that have trapped her in grandma’s shoes, and would allow her all the opportunities she needs to fulfil her potential.
Shallow freedom on the other hand leaves Amber feeling trapped, while people tell her she is actually not.
Amber, like all children, need deep freedom to have genuine equality of opportunity.
Granny Weatherwax likes to say that being Good, and being Right, doesn’t necessarily make one Nice. That is, our choices come at a cost. The question is, who bears it?
Right now our children bear the full brunt of structural inequality.
Imbedding child centred deep freedom into our policy making requires those in power to back away from absolute control to make room for social agency of children and families.
It will be challenging but it means the cost is borne by us, grown ups, in our economic and political decisions, in abandoning easy options in favour of effective solutions, in the making the effort and taking the time to listen.
To do so might be scary but we will look that monster straight in the eye. It might be hard but we have a bat and a chair. It might not be so nice. But it is right.
And if that’s what’s needed for all kids to be truly free, then it is right enough for me. And, I hope for you. As a great man once said, there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul, than the way it treats its children.