Keeping Mum

Dita De Boni looks at the trials and tribulations of being a parent.

Breeding trouble

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For the kind of story that makes you think society is going to hell in a hand basket, check out news out of Australia today.

Apparently charges cannot be laid against a seven-year-old boy who broke into a zoo in Alice Springs and fed several live animals to a crocodile while bashing others to death with a rock.

The boy killed 13 animals in all. The zoo is looking to charge his parents. But charge them with what exactly? Like New Zealand, it seems unlikely that anything in law can bring errant parents to heel.

It seems to be beyond argument that the boy's parents are errant. What the heck is a seven year old boy doing marauding around without supervision? Even if he slipped out of the home unnoticed, what kind of mental state must he be in to kill so many animals with what security camera footage showed to be a "blank expression" on his face?

Most frightening of all is what will happen to this boy as he enters adulthood and who will be left to pick up the tab, whether in dollars, or more likely, in pain, as he inflicts his entrenched psychopathy on partners, children and society at large.

It is, of course, the extreme end of the spectrum and perhaps there is hope if enough resourcing is thrown at this particular problem child. But interestingly, it comes at the end of a week where an Australian child health expert has said some 20 per cent of Australian parents are unfit to raise children because they lack the means or life skills.

Professor Fiona Stanley is an adviser to Kevin Rudd and a former Australian of the Year, and she's also founded the Institute for Child Health Research.

Prof Stanley says one in five Australian parents are financially and socially ill-equipped for child rearing. Mental illness, obesity, asthma and substance abuse are the biggest health risks she's identified, but she also says many, many parents are not devoting enough time to their children because of job commitments.

"There have been incredible changes in the workplace, which might have been good for people's income, but are not good for parenting", she has said.

The Australian Government's paid parental leave policies, which are minimal in law, come in for particular criticism from the Institute for Child Health Research.

But before we pat ourselves on the back, we should remember that even though New Zealand women are paid leave for 14 weeks, it actually works out to about roughly the same as Australian women receive in a lump sum when they have a child.

Furthermore, would any amount of paid parental leave stop a large scale mass exodus of parents of very young children going back to work? Is it actually the problem?

We can be sure that we have the same proportion of unfit parents in this country, if not, perhaps, more. But unfortunately it's unlikely anyone in a position of influence in this country would ever say anything as bold, and as stark, as Prof Stanley has told the Aussies this week.

Pictured above: Prams lined up in Aotea Square in 2001 to signify the need for 14 weeks paid parental leave. Photo / Martin Sykes

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