Psychologist, author and maker of television, Nigel Latta has been the entertaining voice of reason for a generation of parents. His new six-part
series, Kids: An Instruction Manual with Nigel Latta, screens on Mondays at
8pm, TVNZ 1.
I grew up in Ōamaru where Dad was a builder during one of the worst times in New Zealand history to be a builder, and my mother was a stay-at-home mum. It was a conventional childhood and I completely took it for granted. It wasn't until years later, when I was working with families that were nothing like the one I grew up in, that I realised I had a really good mum and dad. Money was always a thing - we just never had any – but we still lived in a warm house, we always had food, they turned up to events, and I never doubted that they cared for me. Only later I realised that's the best start you can hope for, to live in a house where it's a given that your parents love you and will look after you and keep you safe.
Mum and Dad were really into country and western music. Their friends would practise in the garage and it drove me mad. One of my worst memories from childhood was before a sixth-form field trip. We were going to Mt Cook and Dad dropped me off on his way to his country and western club. He was wearing a green shirt with gold tassels, it had cowboy things on the front and he was wearing a cowboy hat with a feather in it and cowboy boots.
When he dropped me off, I told him it was fine for him to just go, but he said no and went and stood with the other dads. Looking out from the bus, it was farmer, farmer, accountant, farmer, gay cowboy, farmer, farmer. I almost died of embarrassment, but now it's one of my best memories of Dad, because he didn't give a f*** what people thought and I still have that shirt hanging in my wardrobe today.
I went to Otago to study zoology, but I discovered that science is hard work with a lot of repetition. Then, when I was two weeks away from joining the police and was about to sit the fitness test, my girlfriend, who's now my wife, said, "I don't know about the police. I've talked it over with Dad and we think psychology would be better for you." She'd put more thought into it than I had, so I came up to Auckland and did psychology.
When I was at Otago I was in a busking band, skiffle with ukuleles and tea chest basses. It was jolly good fun and we used the profits to buy beer. Our first gig busking was in Twizel's main square. We were pretty drunk and we discovered that getting drunk and playing musical instruments doesn't really work, so the next day we went back sober and made enough for two jugs. We also won The Gold Guitar busking competition, but the final gig was a bit uncomfortable. We'd been busking in Nelson and the guy who owned the local strip club invited us to play that night, so we went along. But strip clubs are sad places, and it was a strange night with a weird vibe.
I swear a lot. I like it. I like the words, although my mum struggles with it. Sometimes I work with pretty difficult adolescents, so I swear strategically, because people don't expect you to swear when you're working clinically, with families, but I do it for a reason and in a particular way. I also swear when I give talks. A lot. It's funny and I like it. On tele they don't really let you swear, and I do f***ing swear, they just edit it out. Television is not how I talk, that's the cleaned-up version of me. I get that not everyone likes to swear, but getting all offended when other people do makes me think, "for f***'s sake". A large part of me is still very adolescent. I have a total potty sailor mouth, but I can reel it in when I need to.
I like to dabble in things and tele is amazing for that. Also, even though we make documentaries about big issues, no one is expecting us to solve the economy or inequality, yet there's still a beginning, a middle and an end, whereas clinical work doesn't have any of those things. Making tele is a lot of sitting in front of a screen typing, and 13-hour days, and running late and getting lunch at three when everything is closed and racing to catch planes, and hot days carrying s*** up and down stairs but there are also lots of moments that are magical.
I have seen and heard terrible things over my clinical career, but overwhelmingly, I've worked with people who are f***ing amazing. Some people may have been given really s***ty lives, and the fact that they get out of bed and get dressed and move into their day is a stunning achievement. Generally, most people are good. The world can be a s***ty place and it treats certain people in s***ty ways. Rogernomics chucked a lot of people away. It said, "You don't matter. You're poor because you're lazy," yet most of those people work far harder than any of us do, just to live their lives and feed their kids. So it's never been hard for me to have hope because the work I've done has given me boundless hope for people, even people who've done bad things. They're not monsters. There are a whole lot of reasons a person ends up where they are. They're just people and they're still human.
Covid restrictions felt psychologically a lot harder this time. The first time it was all new, like a once-in-a-lifetime event and we all got through it together. Then we got sloppy, we got slack and complacent, not following the rules and it came back. I stopped using the Covid app as well, but now I use it obsessively. It's just a really tricky virus, even when you do take the best precautions. I'm just incredibly thankful that the New Zealand response has been led by experts and by data. What we've done here is amazing.
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My hope is, after this big thing we're all going through together, that we will think differently about who we want to be as a society, and not choose a dog-eat-dog, f*** everyone else world. As more people have found themselves closer to the edge of the cliff, maybe they'll think that safety nets aren't such a bad thing, that a Government that shows compassion is what we need the most right now. Look at the polls. People are thinking more deeply about collective responsibility. But I do worry that we'll get sucked back into the old life, the old narratives. We like to believe we live in this egalitarian society where everyone has the same chances, but that just isn't true. We need to look after each other much better than we have been.
Sometimes I give talks on the psychology of success and I say, "If you want to be successful you have to join the right club. And I literally joined the best club in the world - the white, heterosexual, man club. It's a f***ing great club. It gets you so far ahead in so many ways. Some people say, "Nigel, you're so woke," but there is a tonne of data and research, which shows that if you're in this club, everything is so much easier. And what I f***ing hate, is people like me, public figures like me, who think they got here because of their own f***ing natural brilliance. That's not what got them there. To say that your gender and your ethnicity and all that doesn't make a difference, well it does, it shouldn't, but it totally does. For me, one of the useful things about having a public profile - being on the tele, which is kind of empty and meaningless in and of itself - is you can sometimes use that profile to achieve something useful. And that's how I can live with the vacuousness of being tele guy, because sometimes tele guy can open doors and get in front of people.