Lifting our Sights

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs


Good Evening, and thank you for the invitation to speak to you tonight.

I always take great pleasure in attending Rotary functions. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, I was a Rotary Exchange Student and gained a lot from my experiences learning and living in Australia with another family. Secondly, Rotary does some great work in our communities, especially for young people. It seems to me that Rotary is one of the important spokes in the wheels that keep New Zealand moving.

Tonight there are a couple of issues I'd like to talk about, they are all intertwined as a common theme; lifting the sights of young people. So, I'd like to address the role of parents, the coordination of effort and the attitudes that underpin some of the issues.

Where attitudes are learnt

So, are parents and role models really that important?

The short answer is yes.

New Zealanders have a thirst for bad news - especially when it comes to politicians or young people. Often we see the "appalling attitude of youth and their terrible behaviour" portrayed in the media. But the question has to be asked: if those reports are a reflection of reality, where do youth learn those behaviours, and how does the media contribute to young people's perceptions of themselves and the world around them?

To start with, young people focus on the environment that they know best - their home and community. If they grow up in a negative environment, then that will be the norm that everything is modelled on.

And that's when we see families in which neglect and abuse are passed on to the next generation. Against that backdrop teachers, health professionals, governments, extended family and others try desperately to lift the sights of the most vulnerable members in these families - the children.

Knowing that our children look up to us and that they base their behaviours on ours, it follows that if we don't like the way our children behave, we must look to ourselves to find the solution.

Recent research by the Alcohol Liquor Advisory Council confirmed the influence that parents can have on attitudes towards alcohol consumption.

Amongst the 14-18yr olds surveyed, those that were drinking less, or not at all, were more likely to be getting their alcohol from their parents or drinking with their parents. In so doing, the teenagers were learning how to be responsible.

The heavy drinkers were more likely to say that their parents were heavy drinkers and that they bought their own booze or got it from friends.

There's no denying it: being a parent is a tough job.

And frankly, when you consider the profound impact and influence parents have on their offspring, being the Minister of Youth Affairs is a tough job too.

Having put my hand up and said that certain youth issues are extremely concerning to me and that I want to see some improvements, I am suddenly responsible for what happens in peoples' homes.

But I can't do it alone.

We can all make a difference - and that's why the coordination of effort is so important. Every spoke in the wheel has to be going in the same direction and each one has to be as strong as the others. There is limited time, human resource and financial resource so we've got to work together. The sad thing is that if we don't, the children who grow up feeling as if it's not worth making the effort will pass the very same attitude on to their kids. The result? A generation of young people who can't be bothered and for whom the opportunities are extremely limited.

There are some people in this country who are obviously better placed than others to make a difference. Ministers, both of the Crown and of religion, the business sector, public servants, people who have day-to-day contact with youth, parents, role models (who are often the real heroes) and the media.

I've mentioned the media again because I consider that certain personalities in New Zealand are ideally placed to portray youth issues with the care, sensitivity and respect they deserve, while promoting a positive perception of young people.

In spite of this, there are some who insist on working against those of us who hope to make a genuine difference. And while many young people have only just realised that a Ministry of Youth Affairs exists and that they have their own Minister, the newly acquired profile of the portfolio has brought high expectations. So I'd like to describe for you the role of the Ministry.

As a small policy Ministry it is necessary to be strategic and direct its expertise into policy work and programmes that no other department is capable or willing to pursue. This is the case with the Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. Youth Affairs is taking the lead of a secretariat including the Ministries of Health and Maori Development.

They have convened expert reference groups, consulted with the community and are about to make key recommendations to Government. They have also sought to promote responsible discussion of the issue and, for instance, have provided guidelines to the media to prevent further harm.

It seems to me that the key to success in this area, again, is one that requires every single person in this country with an interest in young people's well-being to work together. It's easy to stand on the side lines criticising. But it's not until each of us, at every level of the community, puts our minds to it that we'll get progress.

All the money in the world won't necessarily mean that we have all the answers. Having said that, and acknowledging the complexity of the issue, resourcing will be vital as we do identify the key priorities for government and community action.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs is the only government agency able to consider the lives of young people as a whole - so we have to consistently work across other portfolios and with the departments responsible for delivering the services, to ensure that youth are the priority.

Likewise, when it comes to making a difference on the street it's important for communities to support a variety of mediums - sport, music and arts. It is in these areas that role models and mentors can be effective. Having spoken to a number of prominent people in these fields I know that the will is there - they want to be involved and give youth something to aim for.

Once more, these people can't do it alone. Without a combined effort, with young people at the hub of the wheel, the vehicle that can take New Zealand into the future will go nowhere.

Setting goals and having aspirations as a youngster is extremely difficult if you perceive that everyone around you expects you and your peers to be suicidal, drug addicts, drunks and criminals. Surely then, we all need to challenge how we think about youth.

They are an extremely diverse group of people and in my observation the majority are doing very well. It seems to me that there is a minority of young people doing significantly worse than others and then there are a few specific areas in which New Zealand is doing worse than other countries : road accidents, youth suicide, sexual health, and drugs and alcohol. Amongst others these are the main areas that the Ministry of Youth Affairs is working on while also seeking to facilitate the input of young people in everything we do.

One thing that has bothered me recently is the issue of bullying.

Many people shrug it off thinking it's just a phase that kids go through. But it's serious. Especially when you consider the longer term impact of continually being harassed, intimidated and made to feel powerless. Unfortunately bullying is a reflection of wider social values. It mirrors violence seen in other contexts throughout the community.

Indications are that bullying is widespread in New Zealand. As many as three quarters of children are bullied. 10% of children are bullied on a weekly basis.

This can result in isolation, loss of self esteem and depression. It may result in physical injury and impact on the ability to learn and develop socially.

Only 13% of bullying is of a physical nature. Therefore, many times we may not even notice it is going on. However once discovered, bullying can be stopped in about 80% of cases.

To solve the problem, like many others, we must involve young people themselves and help them find their own solutions. Young people are far more likely to tell their friends that they are being bullied than they are to tell their parents or teacher. We need to tap into that resource, and encourage peer support and a recognition that bullying is just not acceptable.

In all of these areas, there are a couple of fundamental things we need to do as a nation. Communicate and be tolerant, really listen to each other and be prepared to acknowledge the positive things when they happen. In summary, we have to lift our sights if we expect the children and young people we care for to do the same. And if we're looking forwards as well as sideways at each other perhaps then we'll start to work more effectively together: central government, local government, community groups, the business sector and the heroes - with youth at the centre. That's what will take us into the future.

There are some stunning youth in New Zealand. How often do we tell them?