In many ways the old saying "what you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings" sums up the state of modern childhood. While a range of extraordinary opportunities are open to children today, concern is deepening that pressures springing from family breakdown, the pervasiveness of advertising and digital technology as well as our culture of commercialism and individualism are contributing to unhappiness and disconnection among the current generation of children.
In recent research, children across various modern societies have said that material things like brand-name clothes and digital devices do not make them happy. It is the time they have with stable family and friends and the opportunities they have to pursue leisure interests and hobbies that make life worthwhile. These things define who we are as humans and bring about feelings of self-worth, connection and belonging.
In times of rapid change and globalisation we need to help children find a contented place among family, school and communities of interest. Not only will this enhance the enjoyment and experience of childhood, but will protect children from the loneliness and isolation that precipitates mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and self-harm.
Several commentators have called for action to reduce 'screen time' and increase children's participation in social and healthy outdoor play in order to connect them emotionally with family, friends, nature and place.
During this International Children's Week, however, it is worth highlighting those groups of children in our society who face more than ordinary obstacles in developing a positive sense of identity and belonging. These are children who have lost connection with natural family, community and culture, either through forced removal as the result of parental abuse and/or neglect or because theyhave travelled to Australia without their families, seeking asylum as refugees.
Each year Anglicare Victoria provides accommodation and care for well over 1,000 such children. Ensuring each of them enjoys a stable home life and participates fully in cultural and social activities is a crucial part of our duty of care. However, it is not always easy.
Finding alternative homes for children who cannot live safely with their families is an increasingly difficult challenge. Dual earner lifestyles and the complex needs of children are prime reasons why more carers are now leaving foster care than entering it. Finding suitable carers who belong to the culture of children requiring care is a pressing problem. Too many children are currently looked after by people who do not belong to their own culture and speak their first language.
There are also issues with the temporariness of some placements. There can be delays in securing a permanent home or status, leaving too many children in 'limbo' about their place in a family and, in some cases, country. Timeliness in decision-making, planning and intervention as well as the availability of permanent homes are all factors.
While it is widely recognised that school is a significant social community to which most children belong, a proportion of children in care are not fully participating in school or some form of learning. An additional group of children are emotionally disconnected from their school due to social and academic failures.
As well as discontinuity in family and school life, too few out-of-home care children have a wide range of leisure interests and see friends outside school. Some are not developing the skills necessary to participate in employment and adult life. Some are bullied or experience racism because of their status as refugee or foster care child.
Anglicare Victoria and similar agencies who work with these vulnerable children require the support of the whole community to ensure they have access to the things that give life meaning.
This International Children's Week, all of us can think about ways to help. We should be able to care for unaccompanied child asylum seekers on our own soil so they can feel a sense of acceptance and develop a place in a real community. It's also not asking the world to become a foster carer, provide membership in a sporting club, create links with cultural traditions, help with homework and offer friendship. These things can provide an anchor and connection to a changing and challenging world occupied by children on the margins of our society.