© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2020

Child poverty: Not just about healthy food and adequate clothing

Rachel Das
New Brighton Beach
One of out seven New Zealand children live in material hardship, but it’s not just physical items they’re needing.  Rachel Das

Social workers say children are desperate for the love and attention of adults.

He'd heard it cost money.

Lots of money, that he didn't have.

He'd lived in Christchurch all his teenage life.

No one had ever taken the time….

To take Nick* to the beach.

*not actual name 

Constable Soames Crowther goes by the name of "Spike" and gets straight to the point.

"I don't think anyone’s starving in Phillipstown - I think kids are starving for affection, for a decent role model."

In a world that's quite focused on material possession, Spike and others working with children across Christchurch are united on the topic: children need healthy adult input.

This is the reality for a Christchurch family of nine people.

The teenage daughter wants quality time with her mum. A teenage son is unkempt, with nits and dirty nails, clothes that don’t fit, often hungry and not sleeping at home. He thinks the suburb he lives in the name of the entire city. His development is similar to his younger siblings, as his mum doesn't have the time to give him the attention he needs.    

But what can the mother do?

She is the sole caregiver of eight children. She struggles to get by on the benefit, with no incentive to up-skill and get a job, as her benefit will be penalised if she works more than a few hours a week. There's often not enough milk to last the week and without outside support, the children wouldn't have uniforms and shoes that fit.

Garden path
It's a lonely path for some families. Rachel Das

Bella Aitken is the manager of the Kiwi Family Trust and says the behaviour she sees in children reflects the dysfunction of their family homes.

"Kids don’t care about broken shoes. They're upset about not spending time or having a person engaged with them, that cares for and loves them, someone they can lean on."

The Trust support families in a variety of ways, including helping out with food, clothing and activities, encouraging whanau time and running a weekly youth group.

Aitken says none of the children in their youth group have extra whanau to spend time with, and they're missing out on a huge amount of input.

She believes this is a different kind of poverty: a poverty that means children don’t have enriching experiences with adults or mentors, that would become treasured stories and memories later in life.

"Children aren’t getting the attention they need from a parent, that encouragement and time with parent…. Kids are missing out."

Aitken says they're helping foster connection for children, so they can go on to be capable parents who provide enriching environments for their own children.

"People need connection before they need food."

Playing yahtzee
Child psychologist Jo Doyle says adult input is vital for a child’s growing mental and emotional health. Rachel Das

Echoing this, child psychologist Jo Doyle says studies show children are disconnected and stressed when separated from their primary caregiver, whether they outwardly appear to be so or not.

Doyle says children need a strong connection with an adult who knows them, so they can learn to process their emotions and school problems healthily.

"You can't really replace the neural networking that a close primary care giver can give – it's really vital in terms of ongoing mental health."

She says studies show a child's connection with their parent is the strongest and the parents play the biggest part in helping their child regulate their emotions, from babyhood until around 25 years old when their brain is fully wired.

"Children are better able to learn to cope when in strong connection with adult caregivers – to learn to cope with disappointment at school, frustration in the playground, etc."

When this doesn’t happen, unhealthy habits are formed around how situations are dealt with, often resulting in poor mental health and behavioural problems.

Doyle believes it's challenging when parents are forced to work so much in order to get by, and children land in after school programs or being cared for by older siblings.

"From a mental health perspective, that's why child poverty creates so much more mental health issues when children are not richly connected with their parents or community," Doyle says. 

Paris and Dawn talk about what their friendship through Big Brothers Big Sisters has brought to them.

Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded more than 100 years ago, with the aim of matching up positive mentors with kids who might otherwise get in trouble, or who needed a friend.

Kirsty Newberry believes they create a sense of consistency for a child who may not have any other adult or person that would choose to spend time with them.

"It's that weekly, persistent, stable commitment that is pretty profound for a child."

While mentors commit for a minimum one year and spend time weekly with their young person, Newberry sees the volunteers grow alongside the children, with some "magical" relationships.  

One 11-year-old had never been to a café before and was "just buzzing" over their iced chocolate.

Another child had lived at the base of the Port Hills all their life, but never been taken to see the view. When they first spent time with their mentor, they were taken to the top of the hills and couldn’t stop staring at the view. Now they go rock climbing every week.

In the midst of often unstable homes, changing homes or schools, the mentorships create a thread that connects the different, and often disparate parts of a child’s world.

"We really fill the gap. Not many adults go and hang out with you for no other reason than just to be your friend – there’s a uniqueness of relationship," Newberry says. 

Tree swing
Pastoral care co-ordinator at Grace Vineyard Church, Cathy Richardson, says when children have an older person to talk and spend time with, it creates stability in their lives. Rachel Das

However, while wider adult input and mentorship is all part of a child’s growth, Sandra Talbot from Home and Family believes fostering positive experiences within families themselves is vital.

"Families here have a poverty of existence, they haven't had someone alongside them or give them wise words."

One of the aims of their residential parenting program is to role model family outings, whether that be a walk to the park, a visit to the museum or picnic at the beach. 

"People are so disadvantaged because of poor start… we can learn from what we know now so future generations don't perpetuate this," Talbot says.

Nick made it to the beach one day. 

His social worker took him.

He couldn’t get over it:

"It only cost a bus fare?"

It may as well have been Kaikoura, for all he'd known.

Just a bus fare, to the beach. 

And someone to hang out with.