Why are we all so shocked that Britain’s baby-faced Alfie may have fathered a child at the age of 13?

Why are we all so shocked that Britain’s baby-faced Alfie may have fathered a child at the age of 13? We had outraged politicians, sniggering journalists and upset Mums, in short; the whole media hoopla, but could someone please tell me why this is suddenly a story?

I suppose teenage pregnancy is no novelty if you’ve been living in Whangarei the last 7 years.

A 17 year old sharing the maternity ward with me sparked my mid-life crisis at 35 when she asked me what ‘number’ this child was. When I told her it was my first, she looked at me like I had fertility issues and answered; “Seriously?! This is my third!! What have you been doing?!”

She was right. Sure. There’d been all that education, travelling, and working in other countries, but if you really added it up I was now back working in a provincial New Zealand town and not earning any more than if I’d left school at 15 and had 3 kids on the DPB.

So where was the incentive for doing anything different and taking the tough road out by hitting the books and working hard before making the decision to start a family? I could see it but it was proving hard to explain to the 17 year old.

The numbers certainly didn’t add up once you’d taken childcare costs out of the equation and neither did the high stress levels of maintaining a family home and raising a child while spending most of the day working – outside of the home. In short – the management of a 5 ring circus with a variety of wildlife, potential fire risks and acrobatic acts that most working Mums pull off on a daily basis. If it hadn’t been for the tax breaks and childcare introduced by Labour in the Working for Families programme many of us who had become the main breadwinners on teachers’ or nurses’ salaries would have been far better off financially (and psychologically!) chucking our jobs, having another baby and signing up for the DPB. It doesn’t take an economist to know that taken from a global perspective that this - is, well, nuts.

Every year in New Zealand thousands of teenage girls have babies. Over the last 5 years, on average, 34 kiwi children a year are born to mothers between the ages of 11 and 14.

That’s not the total number of pregnancies – that’s the number of live births. I don’t see anyone getting terribly outraged by that. Once you hit the 14 to 19 bracket the numbers just skyrocket.

13 year old Alfie might have caught the attention of the press but the effort required to create a child for a boy/bloke is minimal whereas the physical strain of carrying a pregnancy to full term for a still growing child is potentially horrific, let alone the greater social costs of having children raising children.

Whether or not it’s due to the sexualising of our culture from the High School Musical end of the spectrum to the Pussy Cat Dolls – is hard to say.

Most of us old girls know that no one got a law degree or finished med school by rolling round on the floor in tanning oil and French knickers all day but if you got your general knowledge from watching TV it would be difficult to know this. Neither is sex education the answer.

Teenagers know about sex like they know about pencils. Anyone who has ever taught teenage boys – will know that just because they are familiar with the concept of ‘pencil’ doesn’t mean they will ever bring one to class – much less put them in a pencil case. This logic extends I’m afraid to condoms. Teenage Dads have nothing to worry about – they’ll be off playing Grand Theft Auto and skate-boarding with their mates by the end of the week.

It’s the girls that we’ve got to worry about.

While Alfie might not have understood the word ‘financially’, any young girl watching her Mum work as a caregiver in a nursing home (about $13 an hour before tax), or working in restaurants in small town NZ is able to do the maths and work out where her best financial options lie. Can we really blame them?

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Go Outside and Play!

It’s over. The school holidays that is.

Navigating the white water rapids of Christmas is one thing – coasting down the long river of January in a small canoe with a 5 year old is bound to highlight some uncomfortable truths about your parenting skills long suspected but hidden in the rush of the busy school year.

Parenting, it seems, used to be a walk in the park, whereas now it’s more like a Scot-like polar expedition.

It’s part of the combination of being older parents and changing times – the baby boomers bred not long after their own birth and were therefore about as clueless as their offspring when it came to any lofty ideals about raising a family.

Twenty –five year old blokes and 6 year old kids have a lot in common when it comes to their risk management skills and concerns for health and safety.

While it may be true that we generation Xers wrap our kids up in cotton wool and spend far too much quality time with them that could in part be due to our own distant childhood memories of driving tractors in cyclones without the benefit of brakes (or driving lessons for that matter) and being used as a temporary Taranaki gate between two fighting bulls while Dad tried to fix the broken fence. The happy days of childhood indentured labour on New Zealand farms are sadly over and with them many fulfilling avenues for occupying kids’ time.

Apparently we’re not allowed to tell our kids to ‘Just Go Outside and Play!’ anymore either, because the world is full of dangerous strangers and places.

In the days before childhood obesity, telling the kids to bugger off for a bit had nothing to do with encouraging a bit of fresh air and exercise and everything to do with keeping women out of the loony bin at a time when most blokes thought ‘active fatherhood’ meant getting creative at conception. Mums were allowed a bit of time and space.

I’ve only just broken it to my Mum that playpens were designed to keep babies in, not, as I had always assumed to keep kids out while Mums rolled up the kaftan and hopped inside to have another Harvey Wallbanger and read the next chapter of ‘Valley of the Dolls’. Like David Bowie I don’t remember the early seventies but man, do I miss them.

Neither is it ok to tell your kids to shut up. The five year old, hands planted on the hips, informed me of this(loudly in the middle of town) and that I had now hurt her feelings!! I looked scandalised at another dazed and confused mother next to me hoping everyone would think she was the feelings hurter.

I probably should have listened to the 500 millionth knock knock joke.

Ian Grant would have sat down with her and examined what her particular random variations of the knock knock joke told me about her character and how I could build a loving community of people around her by sharing these knock knock jokes with them – on scented cards perhaps.

Instead I wondered why small children aren’t born with remotes or removable batteries.

In a vain attempt to keep some kind of order over the holidays by insisting on brushed hair, clean teeth and wearing undies, the five year old then invoked the awesome powers of ‘Constable Marnie’ against me. Constable Marnie, the incarnation of all that is cool and who exists in the 5 year old’s pantheon of authority figures somewhere between Santa and the Virgin Mary, apparently had been instructing the kids of Room 3 about how to keep their bodies safe. Which is great – except that instead of saying ‘Yes Mum!’ when asked to clean her teeth I got:
‘Constable Marnie says; ‘It’s my body and I am the boss of it’!’ The serious danger posed to a stranger trying anything on against the combined forces of Room 3 is inspiring.

These kids are scary – which is why I’m beginning to think those million dollar bonuses for CEOs of failing companies should be going to the nation’s primary school teachers.

Why? Because they are SO worth it.

Without them, the government would have to start issuing all mothers with play pens and a bottle of Galliano.

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You learn a lot serving coffee

You learn a lot serving coffee. For one thing – people hardly ever suspect you might be really listening, which means they quite often say what they really think. Like publicans, baristas are used as a sounding board for opinion – a satellite dish of thought amplified by caffeine.

This year I had the privilege of serving coffee on the Treaty Grounds on Waitangi Day and there was a definite buzz in the air that had absolutely nothing to do with the espresso.

It was a very different day to the one, 19 years ago when a group of us, young university students, had left Wellington and driven all night to take part in the 1990 ‘celebrations’.

It’s funny how history remembers things - in the official pages of NZ history online Waitangi Day 1990 is remembered for the British Queen’s speech where she conceded that perhaps neither the letter nor the spirit of the Treaty had been adhered to by the crown and that perhaps it was time to take an honest look at it. The site also rather glibly mentions that ‘protesters were not absent.’ This would have to win the understatement of the year award as I remember Liz’s speech being drowned out at times by shouts of ‘Go Home’ and earlier in the day a black wet t-shirt splatting somewhere nearby as it was aimed with some force at Queenie’s head as she sped past and we struggled to keep our footing.

19 years ago the air had fair crackled with anger the kind that can either be the catalyst for profound change or could just as easily have boiled over into racial hatred. We never got to see or hear the Maori Queen, the white-gloved hand of the British monarch waved eerily from behind black glass. We finished the day dispirited and confused playing ‘spot the undercover cop’– of which there were literally hundreds in the crowd. We were Alice lost in a fractured nation where the undercurrents of past injustice had suddenly boiled to the surface and no one knew where it would carry us.

Waitangi Day 2009 and it’s a very different story; a few groups of uniformed police wander the grounds but the thick blue lines that bordered the roads all that time ago are absent. Then, I don’t remember many people speaking Te Reo apart from the formal pre-written speeches. This time I heard Maori spoken by many as they ordered lunch and joked with friends and many of the speakers were young.

A few try to provoke some form of protest but no one is taking the bait. A guy in a tee shirt with ‘Colonisation is Beautiful’ wanders round like the kid with the ‘kick me’ sign stuck to his bum.
I ask a customer what he thinks. “I don’t know – he could be right. Could be worse, if it wasn’t the English it could have been the French aye?” Another young bloke in full combat gear with goggles on and a black bandana with a skull round his face carries a flag with the words; “Support it or F#%k off!” Putting lids on coffee cups I ask another guy what the flag represents. “I think it’s the official F%@$K off Flag!” he jokes. Everyone laughs.

An Aussie tourist, noting the happy groups of families picnicking insists;” There’s a lot of in-fighting between Maori – isn’t there? I mean they’re not really very unified…” he trails off. I look around, uncomfortable. The three other customers – all Maori could have been Ngapuhi, Tainui, Ngati Porou, all strangers, all silently greeting each other with warmth, smiling and pretending no one had heard what the guy had said. Stopped in his tracks by magnificent indifference the tourist eventually melts back into the crowd while the other three sip their espressos and just keep chatting, enjoying the company and the glorious view.

If there was any disharmony I wasn’t feeling it. What I could sense was a quiet confident strength in a fledgling unity on many different levels.

The fact that two political leaders prayed at the service rather than using it for posturing was a sign to many not of a new-found religious fervour but that the road ahead may be undertaken in a spirit of humility and sincerity.

How far we’ve come.

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