Monday, December 29, 2008

Let's be honest about child deaths

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 23.)

WE’RE killing our kids, according to a recent news item. Two children are said to die every week as a result of accidents, and the blame is being laid – at least in part – on our “she’ll be right” attitude.

A front-page news story in The Dominion Post cited figures from a recent World Health Organisation report and quoted Ann Weaver, director of Safekids New Zealand – the injury prevention arm of Starship Hospital – as saying that compared with other wealthy nations, New Zealand performed very badly.

“We have this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and an aversion to being told what to do,” she said. “We don’t want to mollycoddle our children … but, looking at these statistics, you can see we’re not doing enough.”

I interpreted the statement that we’re “not doing enough” as a coded call for more regulation – more rules that place the paternalistic state, rather than parents, at the centre of child protection.

I’m the first to agree that two child deaths a week are two deaths too many, but there are some important points to be made about these statistics.

The first is that a press statement issued with the WHO report specifically cites New Zealand as being among the countries with the lowest rates of accidental injury to children. Lobbyists who agitate for greater state intervention are careful to make us look bad by comparing us with the relatively few affluent western countries that have even better child safety figures.

They also seem careful to avoid reference to the politically unmentionable factor that prevents New Zealand from catching up with those countries. I refer to the disproportionately high rate of accidental death and injury among children from Maori and Pacific Island families.

It’s an awful but indisputable fact that whenever you read of a toddler being backed over by a careless driver, of a baby being smothered in bed, of a child wandering off on a riverbank or a beach and drowning when no one was watching, or of children dying in a house fire caused by a burning candle or a cigarette lighter left lying around, the probability is that the victim will be from a Maori or Pacific Island family.

It’s an even more terrible fact that children who die or are permanently damaged as a result of physical abuse are most likely to be Maori or Polynesian, though I’m not sure whether these deaths and injuries count as “accidental” for statistical purposes.

No one, least of all the innocent victims of parental carelessness or brutality, is served by denying that these problems are disproportionately common among Maori and Pacific Island families.

What’s more, these issues are well understood and in most cases are covered by existing laws. The law has long required, for example, that children in cars be properly restrained, but it's commonly disregarded by Maori and Pacific Island drivers.

Ignorance? Carelessness? Laziness? Lack of imagination? Who knows? But to suggest that we need more laws to reduce injuries to children is either delusional or dishonest. Adequate laws exist already.

Stricter enforcement might help, but what’s far more important is that parents are encouraged to develop a greater awareness of the risks surrounding children and a stronger sense of personal responsibility for the safety of those in their care. There can be no more urgent task confronting Maori and Pacific Island leaders.

Performing a haka at the graveside of a dead child is a poor way to show how precious the tamariki are.

* * *

MUCH has been said about the supposed virtues of online shopping. You can get goods cheaper, people say, because online retailers have low overheads. You can shop in the comfort of your own home and at a time of your own convenience.

But in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy, I want to put in a word for the old-fashioned shop.

Online retailers such as Amazon - which I use occasionally - have taken a huge amount of business from traditional stores, but there’s still something to be said for a retail outlet where you can examine the merchandise.

It’s easy to make a wrong decision about a product on the basis of a description on a website, as I did recently. Misled by an Internet retailer’s brief note about an expensive music reference book, I ordered it and when it arrived, found it wasn’t at all what I expected.

As it happened I liked the book anyway and have no regrets about buying it. But the deal could have turned sour.

Online shopping has other drawbacks too. I recently got the run-around from online retailer Fishpond over a DVD I ordered off its website at the beginning of November. To cut a long story short, the DVD turned out not to be in stock. After several exchanges of emails I was advised that it might not arrive before mid-January.

Tough luck if I’d ordered it to give someone for Christmas. I told them to forget it.

There are no such problems with the conventional retailer. If you’re shopping for a book, for example, you can pick it up and flick through the pages. And if you like it you can go to the counter, pay for it and walk out with your purchase tucked securely under your arm

Technology is great when it delivers, but too often it sings a siren song of false promises.


Sanctuary said...

Last time I checked Maori and Pacific Islanders were New Zealanders to. The socio-economic consequences of decision made by our white male so-called "captains of industry" directly impact on the lives of brown, poor New Zealanders, and we all know how much moral corruption of poverty contributes to violence.

So you see, it isn't an "us good white folk" vs. them "bad brown people" problem. We are all New Zealanders, and white or brown, it is all our problem.

Anonymous said...

It's the use of terms like "we beat children" and its "our problem" I find objectionable.

I don't beat children, I don't have children, if I knew of one being beaten I hope I'd be able do something about it.

It is the problem of people who beat children and the innocent victims of their actions.

We can do something about that but don't make me responsible for their actions.