New Zealand’s Dark Secret

A child needs love and a sense of being valued to create a happy life.

Once upon a time a little boy excitedly pulled at my hand saying, “Mummy, come with me…” and he took me into a new world he had created from sheets, and cushions and furniture.

“This is the path,” he said, walking me around the furniture. “Over there are some trees. There’s a bird watching us.”

“I see it,” I said, surprised at how real this make-believe world was to him.

“It’s dark under the trees… Our house is right here,” he said, stopping in front of two chairs covered in sheets. “Go inside and I’ll bring you some tea.” He disappeared while I crawled underneath the sheets and sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Here it is,” he said, returning with a tray upon which a plastic plate, a cup and saucer, and a spoon were neatly arranged.

“What do I have on the plate?” I asked.

“Some cake,” he said, clapping his hands together and smiling happily at me.”

“Thank you.” I pretended to eat the cake and sip imaginary tea. “Mmm, it’s good.”

The joy of watching my son develop through the various stages of human growth was a gift mere words could never adequately, nor accurately describe. What I gave came back to me, often in surprising ways. The day I rested my head at the end of his bed while I was in the middle of making it, he came up and asked, “Are you tired, Mummy.” When I answered yes, he walked away and returned, saying as he tried to lift my head, “Here’s my pillow…”

My son was then just two years old. The precious times we shared are with me still as if it was yesterday, so clear are these memories in my mind—and it was over thirty years ago.

I therefore read with shock and disgust and a sickening feeling in my stomach today about another two-year-old boy—one whose mother’s boyfriend kicked him to death. The little boy had been sleeping on a couch and awoke to discover that he had wet it. The boyfriend, 24, saw him trying to rub the wet patch away and sent him to the toilet. When the boy returned ten minutes later with a roll of toilet paper in his hand, he “round-house” kicked him across the room. While the boy lay in the doorway, his mother’s boyfriend delivered a second kick, which killed him.

My son at two still wore a nappy during the day, as most two-year-olds do.

Instead of inviting this man into his make-believe-world, this child had learned to become terrified of the consequences of wetting his pants and anything else he was lying on. What does this say about other things he was developmentally unable to do? And how much was his imagination and wonder at life robbed by fear?

What does it say about this man’s own upbringing and toilet training? After all, adults who abuse children were most likely abused as children themselves, often unconsciously acting out the harm and abuse they suffered? And what does it say about the degree of self-hate he had, for self-hate is often the driving force behind such irrational and out-of-control abuse, where a child becomes a scapegoat or punching bag for whatever goes wrong, or has gone wrong, in their caregivers’  lives.

I recall the many Sundays I spent sitting at a restaurant in Tutukaka writing in my journal, unaware that it troubled the young Maori waiter so much he finally asked me why I was always alone. When I said that I was writing a book to heal from the violence I had grown up with in my family, he confided that he had also grown up in violence and was struggling to come to terms with it.

Many months later we talked until the early hours one morning about the long journey to heal the abuse and trauma of childhood. He said he knew that he also had to take the same journey into the darkness and pain to heal his soul, and he wanted to know what I had learned along the way. For the first time I heard him laugh out loud–as if I had suddenly found his hiding place–when I said that not loving yourself (which includes developing self-respect, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, the courage to face fears, and treating yourself as a best friend) was like trying to fill a bath without a plug.

Just imagine, if we could all learn to love ourselves this way and stay grounded in that love, do you think for one moment we could ever intentionally harm another?

Hey, this is “clean, green New Zealand” where we are so mired in the horrible muck of child abuse, desperately trying to keep it secret, that we have intimidated politicians into doing nothing about it for fear voters will again call this a “nanny state” and not vote them back into power—like they did with the Labour Government after passing the ‘anti-smacking’ bill.

Well, it really wasn’t about ‘smacking,’ but about hitting a child with a stick or strap or other object–even with a closed fist as a method of ‘correcting’ their behaviour.

Well, it really wasn’t about that either, but more about losing the right to maintain sovereignty in their own homes—even at the expense of creating great harm through their ignorance about how children need to be treated.

Thousands signed a petition against this “anti-smacking” bill. The Green Party M.P. who introduced it for debate received death threats. After the bill became law, it stirred the ire of so many people a protest march “for democracy” took place in November, 2009 to make the government listen to the “voice of the people.”

In her story Mill, Janis Freegard, a Katherine Mansfield Award winner, referred to this dark secret when she wrote: “There’s a dangerous undercurrent to this country… Children grow up in poverty seeing things that children never should. Beneath the veneer of pikelets and lolly scrambles, there is something in this country not altogether nice.” She repeats herself again and again through the main character’s struggle to escape her past. “There’s a shadow over this country, something unsavoury, something sinister…”

In January this year the UN questioned why New Zealand does not have a department or ministry responsible for children’s issues, stating that it was concerned over the “staggering” infant and child mortality rates that had not changed over the past ten years, and a lack representation for children in legislation.”

Something like this is long overdue. It could also look into what can be done to reduce the current rate of child poverty that now afflicts 20 percent of children. This figure, incidentally, is the same percentage as the “tail” in our education system that falls below the standards the government wants to raise with “National Standards.” I can’t help but think that by tackling the child poverty and abuse issues first, that tail will begin to diminish on its own.

Retiring Governor-General, Dame Sylvia Cartwright, said in her farewell speech in 2006, “Sometimes, when I listen to a foreign leader praise our efforts in the environment or our willingness to assist those in war-ravaged countries, I hope that our dark secrets–for they remain hidden to the rest of the world–will never become known internationally.

“I am concerned that these countries that so admire us might soon learn that we have a terrible rate of family and other violence, that although we have one of the finest, least corrupt police forces and court systems in the world, this violence remains unacceptably high.”

But why wait for some brave politician who has the courage to tackle this against certain vilification? We can all make a difference in children’s lives (and our own) right now by learning how to put the ‘plug’ (of self-love) in the ‘bath’ so it can fill to overflowing. Then we will know how to treat others with love and respect so their imagination can soar and flourish unimpeded, enriching us all.

The 4 Most Important R’s

November 11, 2011
We have all been taught what the three most important R’s are in school, but have you ever considered that there are other R’s that might be more important? I used four of them to very good effect while teaching, and they had nothing to do with reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

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Sexual Abuse: The Ripple Effect of Doing Nothing

August 18, 2013
The harm done by dismissing what children say about someone sexually abusing them – through our disbelief – can be incalculable. We need to ask tough questions and have the courage to confront the unthinkable…