Saturday, 15 November 2008

Safe and Loved

Earlier this year my 14 year old daughter came to Jo (my wife) and I to ask if she could go to the movies on a Friday evening. Her proposal was that her and her friend would catch a bus to Takapuna watch the movie and then catch the bus home. She didn't ask to be out late. The movie started around 6.00pm and she expected to be home by 8.30. We said no. We were concerned about her safety because of the "wilding" and issues in and around Takapuna especially the bus terminal area. As a compromise we drove them there and picked them up again. I tell this story to people fairly often and they all agree they wouldn't let their daughters do it either. BUT SURELY THIS ISN'T RIGHT!! My daughter should be able to catch the bus to a movie in the early evening and be safe!! We shouldn't have to say no!!

Now about this time several other events thrust themselves onto our consciousness. These include a series of local events such as the much publicised suicide associated with Takapuna Grammar. While we were not at all close to this it impacted our family as our oldest daughter is a student at Grammar. There were several incidents on the streets around Devonport which either were or were alluded to be attempted abductions. In addition through my increasing involvement with the stepUP Foundation I have become aware of many issues affecting the teens of our country. In particular I am shocked at the rate of teen suicide and depression and the number of families for who violence in the home is a regular occurrence. The ongoing publicity surrounding the Kahui twins really highlights this issue and for those of us who sit in our comfortable middle and upper income suburbs let's not forget about the Tony Vietch affair. It happens everywhere.

It's highly likely that these "events" as I call them are happening all the time and that we had just been sensitised to them (mainly as a result of our involvement with Landmark Education's Curriculum for Living). Up until that point all of my life had been concerned with what had been happening to my family and I. Really little else mattered. Over time came to the twin realisations of:



The synergy of this struck me immediately. Because of the interconnectedness of our world ultimately if we wanted to do what was right for my family we had to do what was right for our community and society in general. While you may be able to ignore what is going on outside your family in the short term in the long run my family and New Zealand society are interconnected and can not be separated. (Well they could. We could move countries but then the same applies for wherever you go). Selfishness of wanting the best for my family and the selflessness in working for a better society are in fact the same thing!

So all fired up we set out to change the world!! But how?? Where do you start?? Our focus immediately went to the two core issues above:
  • We have one of the worst records in the world for teenage suicide and depression. The future of our country see so little for them that they are constantly depressed and killing themselves in large numbers.
  • People are not safe in our country. In fact people are not even safe in their own homes. Violence, particularly domestic violence, is everywhere and as a society we are ignoring it.

As I looked into this closer I noticed that many approaches to these issues took a fairly negative stance. Indeed I noticed that we tend to look at nearly every issue in our world from a negative stance. What do I mean by this? Well we tend to focus on what we don't want rather than what we do want. We don't want violence in our society so we are anti violence. We don't want our teens to commit suicide so we set out to prevent suicide. It really struck me that this "get rid of the negative stuff" approach is reactionary and in many ways blame oriented. That is your violent, so you are bad and you need to be punished is a typical response. Really this is just treating the symptom of a problem not the cause - if you lock up the bad people forever they will not be able to do any harm. The problem is it never gets to addressing the cause and so our society keeps producing ever increasing numbers of bad people (or more depressed people) to replace them.

I do not want to be part of the "anti world". Yes these are real issues and they need to be addressed (we'll get back to that again soon) but I want to be part of creating something positive. What I wanted was not the elimination of bad but the creation of a community and society that I would love to live in and would love my family to live in. What would that world look like? I began to imagine.

To start with, my daughter would be able to go to the movies on a Friday evening and there would be no fears for her. Let's take it further. I or any member of my family would be able to go anywhere in New Zealand and be safe. Not just my family. Everyone would be able to go anywhere in New Zealand and be safe. I began to see my 73 year old pakeha mother from Southland walking through Mangere on any given night night with her gammy knee in the middle of an open, festive and welcoming atmosphere. People of all ages and every ethnic background you can imagine including families, teens and twenty somethings and many grandparents partying together.

What's next? Let's be specific on an issue that I think really matters and that I mentioned earlier. Everyone would be safe in their own home. Children and partners (both male and female) should be excited about the arrival home of their parent, carer and partner. In too many houses they are terrified. What I could see was mum or dad walking through the door and children of all ages would excitedly rush up to them to greet them because they are so pleased they are home. Their loved one is back. Now that's a family!! (OK some realism. The teenagers would look up, grunt and maybe smile to acknowledge their arrival!).

Let's extend it. We know our neighbours. All of them. In your own street and adjoining streets. When I say know them I mean know them as people. Not just enough to politely say hello as you pass each other to of from your daily chores, if you acknowledge them at all. It doesn't mean we live in each others pockets or be best mates but it does mean we stop hiding in our houses and we socialise together and support each other. Now that's community...or is it simply an extended family?

No one would be depressed. No wait. Being sad or depressed on occasion is actually part of a complete human experience. It is often said that you need to experience sadness so you know when you are happy. Perhaps more appropriately then, no one would be so depressed for so long, that they would contemplate taking their own life. If I think about that more, if everyone knew that they were loved and that the important people in their lives loved them and cared about them, I mean really knew and personally felt it, then it would be very unlikely that they would be constantly depressed and take their own lives.

My thoughts and imaginings went on and on but to get to a point I wanted to create a society where:


That was it. If everyone was safe and loved then there would be nothing that could stop us from expressing who we really are in the world. If you can truly express who you are then imagine the impact to your self esteem and also the "esteem" in our society. It is very likely that from this base every one's creativity can flow and all things would be possible for us. We discussed this as a family over several weeks (everyone from our 5 year old up) and yes this is what we wanted to stand for! FANTASTIC - so where to start!!

After much discussion we determined that the right place for us to start was twofold:

Firstly we would open our home and our family to children who needed a place to go so they can be safe and loved. Practically for us this meant becoming a foster family. We have now completed the process to become a foster family and 2 sisters (5 and 8) have joined our family, at least for now while they need us. As an aside, pretty much everybody thinks that we are nuts to do this. Most just think we are nuts period. The rest look at us and go "but you already have 4 children of your own .... why (and how!!) do you do it?". The how is you just do. While six children make for a busy life it's not as different to four as you'd think. Jo answers the why very elegantly - "if they were your brother's or sister's children who needed support would you do it?" Most people acknowledge that they would. "well, it is all just a matter of how you define your family!". Selfishness of wanting the best for your family and selflessness are ultimately the same thing as you cannot separate your family from society!

The second is domestic violence. It didn't seem to matter how I thought about it this had to be the start. I could not get past the notion that everyone had an absolute right to be safe in their own home. Safe and Loved would never be possible if domestic violence was allowed to continue and flourish. So the question then became very simple if somewhat large - how do you stop domestic violence? I had no idea so I began by doing some research. I have documented what I found in my blog entry "causes of violence". I then began to look at solutions and models that could be applied. I documented this in my blog entry "potential solutions to violence". The conclusions I reached from this exercises were:

Causes of Violence

The literature and opinions I have researched suggest there is no easy definitive answer to what causes violence. Many factors correlate but a causal link has proven elusive. In the end however most commentators seem to believe the core causes of violence are likely to be:
  1. Lack of or bad role models
  2. Feeling alone, as if no one cares
  3. Inability to resolve highly charged emotions

As a result, I speculated that the explanation for this is that the critical factor is not what has happened to a person but how the person perceives what has happened and how they react to it. In particular a persons ability to express and "complete" unresolved emotions is critical. If you cannot resolve the emotional state then you tend to suppress the negative energy. If you do this enough it is likely to erupt! With this as a framework the correlations to violence begets violence, poverty etc are reasonably explainable. The more intense the event the harder it is to resolve. Correlated yes but not causal as there is a way to change the outcome through the choices we make as individuals and through completion of the associated emotional reaction. If you then put this in the context of no one cares about me (probably including myself) and a lack of positive role models and therefore probably a lack of any real coping skills then violence is almost inevitable!

Potential Solutions

So what can we do about this. To answer this question I primarily looked to use the vital behaviour framework proposed by the authors of Influencer. Based on this framework I concluded that the following seem like a good place to start:

  1. Make domestic violence unacceptable. Within New Zealand we too often see something going on that doesn't seem right but rather than act we turn away because "it is none of our business!!". While we do not support the behaviour, by doing nothing and "turning a blind eye" we create an environment where we make it acceptable and allow it to continue. I am not advocating that you put yourself into harms way however the message needs to be loud and clear - violence is not acceptable, it cannot be allowed to continue and we need to take action to demonstrate this every time we encounter it so everyone gets the message!
  2. Develop active parenting skills. Various studies have found that for children growing up in very disadvantaged and violent neighbourhoods, the one factor that seems to protect that child from growing up to be violent is having a parent who supervises her child very strictly and who nips misbehaviour in the bud. It appears then that parenting skills and active parenting in particular can help to break the cycle.
  3. Build emotional resilience and self esteem. The literature suggests that violence is usually a result of suppressed emotions bubbling to the surface and lashing out. This is often referred to as the silence / violence cycle. We can break this cycle by teaching people how to positively (or harmlessly) express their emotions.

So there we have it. Three places to start. They are not going to be the total picture but they are good places to start. I looked at them and pondered. I'm no educator and while I'm a parent and I think a reasonable good one I don't hold myself up as an expert. Although psychology fascinates me I am no psychologist and certainly no councilor!! Also there are plenty of great organisations and people working these areas. For me then it seemed that the logical place to start then was to champion the cause of making domestic violence unacceptable in every sense and ensure people actively oppose it whenever they encounter it and in so doing removing the current safe space created by society turning a blind eye.

So that's what I'm up to. I have decided to start close to home in my community, Devonport and we will see what grows from there. Specifically I am initiating a number of projects aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence. Raising awareness that it happens here in Devonport just as much as it does anywhere else and we need to stop kidding ourselves that it doesn't. At the end of the day it is up to all of us to act positively if we want it to stop and we want to progress towards a society as a positive expression of being a place where everyone can and does feel safe and loved.

So, do you want to join me?

1 comment:

Nick MacKechnie said...

Hi Owen, Good post, whole heatly agree with you!