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DAVID ZARB

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‘Where are the Statistics on Kindness?’ asks Playgroup WA CEO, David Zarb.

I recently read a report from the US which described how a young father was so impressed with how a single mother with three children managed during dinner that he anonymously paid her restaurant bill and left her a gift card and congratulatory note.

My first reaction was how unusual it was to hear something nice in the news but then I had dark thoughts along the lines of ‘have things got that bad in our world that a simple act of kindness is now news?’

Probably because I spend so much time looking at research the next obvious question was ‘how would you know if kindness was going up or down’. There are probably people out there studying this very subject but I haven’t seen any charts or graphs. I have seen plenty of reports on rates of murder, burglary, police crime clearances, cancer, obesity levels, school test results. In fact just about anything you can think of except the nice things we do for each other.

‘Well so what?’ you might say, everyone knows that most news is bad news and the last thing we need is more statistics.

Since we all care about our children, it actually matters very much as there is a lot of research that suggests that the life outcomes of children are significantly impacted by how their broader community is going. Whilst we are now used to all the reports telling us that family is the single biggest influence on children’s lives (not that many of these explain why), the idea that the whole community around children is also a big factor, can be scary. After all I can’t control the community, can I?

Before you rush off to increase the mortgage to move to a better suburb, social capital has nothing to do with money.

Social capital is a term that was developed to describe the social relationships between people and families and institutions such as schools within communities. Researchers use a number of measures to come up with an overall score. These measures include participation and volunteering in the local community; feelings of trust and safety; and social support networks.

Now I’m thinking that all of that connection implies some quality kindness somewhere but what is really interesting is that these community qualities have been shown in many studies to have a strong influence on things such as education outcomes, developmental and behavioural outcomes for pre-school children, crime rates, youth employment rates and youth crime. What is even more compelling is that even in wealthy communities, those who have higher social capital will produce better outcomes for children. In disadvantaged communities the gains for children are even higher.

The most worrying thing about the social capital research is that there is general agreement in the research that social capital is in decline. There is less volunteering and people don’t spend as much time with neighbours or family for that matter.

There are plenty of reasons for the decline including increased working hours and longer travel times and, in WA in particular, we live further from family and friends than ever before.To all those who buck the trend and keep your local playgroup and sports club going you are heroes.

To all those who keep the school Parents and Citizens group and Surf Lifesaving clubs going, your work and your commitment are amazing. To all those who go the local council meeting to talk about the local parks and playgrounds, we need you.

Still we might not all be able to be on a committee but there a million other things we can do. We can say hello to people who share our community, we can say something nice to people we see doing good things, we can talk to parents and children and help make our streets a friendlier place.

Even the couple in Fremantle that told me how great it was to see a grandfather out with his grandchildren as I was walking with my Jordan and Millie one day, how refreshing to be acknowledged, even if they were my children not grandchildren. I must have been looking a bit tired after the trip to the park! The simple reality is that the community is us and we are the community and we all have a part to play in our children’s future. Every little bit counts!

 

Did you know that parents have more of an influence on their children than we probably realise. From reading bedtime stories from a young age to sitting down to eat a family meal together it can further children’s development immensely.

It might be a scary thought for parents (including me) but there is a mountain of evidence indicating what parents do is the single biggest determinant of healthy child development and wellbeing. In a recent speech, Dr Lance Emerson, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Youth Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), suggested parenting was such a significant public health issue that it was the “modern day equivalent to safe drinking water.

The good news is that the evidence shows that parents can make a big difference through some simple things. Firstly, reading to children from a very early age is positively linked to future literacy and attachment. Just talking to your children is a critical part of developing their vocabulary. Long before they can talk children are learning words, the more words they hear the more they learn.

“No matter how wealthy the family background, children would still struggle if they did not get the basic positive home environment.”

Now you might think that is all very obvious and I must be talking about disadvantaged families. The facts are that whilst there is less reading and conversation in disadvantaged families, in our most advantaged families 15-20 per cent of children are not read to regularly.

Other evidence shows that simply having shared family mealtimes is linked to better school outcomes, better social skills and having more school motivation in young people.

Even better news was found in a long term study in the United Kingdom. The Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) study has been tracking large numbers of children since 1997. The research explored the sorts of environments that families provided by looking at things such as reading, songs, nursery rhymes, painting, drawing, teaching numbers, going to libraries and making play opportunities with other children. The results were clear. The amount of these activities present in the child’s home environment was the most significant factor in longer term outcomes for children. Whilst high quality early childhood care and education and high quality school helped children catch up, what happened at home was the biggest predictor of long term school performance.

“What parents do is more important than who they are.”

The really big finding was that these types of family behaviours could significantly make a difference even if children were economically disadvantaged. As the EPPE said ‘what parents do is more important than who they are”. The flipside was more sobering. No matter how wealthy the family background, children would still struggle if they did not get the basic positive home environment. The simple fact was that the sorts of positive things that parents did were not dependent on money or a parent’s level of education. They were about attitude and spending time with children.

I know we’ve all got a million other things to do and things to worry about but next time you make a choice about spending time with your children, about eating meals in front of the TV, about how long you really need to stay in the office (note to fathers in particular) try and remember that parents do matter.