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The best place in the world to be a child: Adapting public policy to meet children’s needs

1 November 2019



Little children making circle with hands around each other indoors

Professor Sharon Bessell from the Crawford School of Public Policy offered some insight into her research on children and what makes them happy at an ANZSOG Thought Leadership seminar in Wellington. The event was moderated by Professor Jonathan Boston (Victoria University of Wellington).

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wrote an article following Children’s Day in March in which she observed that: “The way we treat children, the way we look after their wellbeing, and the way we ensure the lives they lead are full of opportunity says so much about what kind of country we are.”

But how can we adapt public policy to support children’s happiness and wellbeing?

Professor Bessell’s research focuses on social policy, social justice and the human rights of children. Important aspects of her research include child inclusive policy and the ways in which policies respond to priority issues for children, which means it is essential to understand what a good place to live looks like from the perspective of children.

She said an enormous amount of research had been done on the socioeconomic and developmental indicators required to help children grow into healthy, well-functioning adults.

“I focused on what is really important to children to live a good life now, based on their own definition of what matters to them,” Professor Bessell said.

“Often as we develop those socio-economic and developmental indicators, we forget that children are living in the here and now, and what the world looks like to them, and the way they experience it, depends on a whole range of factors that adults tend to neglect.”

What matters most to children?

Four central themes emerged during interviews with children – relationships, safety, physical places and resources – but some of the detail was surprising.

For example, safety, unsurprisingly, was critical to children. Less expected was the extent to which adult behaviour within their communities really mattered to children’s experiences.

“Again and again we heard children talk about how much they valued safety and how their sense of safety was undermined by particular types of adult behaviour, particularly around drug and alcohol use.”

The high importance children placed on “casual interactions” with neighbours and people around them also came as a surprise.

“This is the way in which the local shopkeeper, the bus driver, the librarian or the security guard at the mall might interact with children,” Professor Bessell said.

“Children described the way in which those casual interactions, when they’re negative, really undermine their sense of security and their sense of inclusion in the community. When they’re surrounded by people who are friendly, who are supportive, even if they’re just casual interactions, that makes a real difference to children’s lives.”

How can we apply this to public policy?

A key message that emerged from the research was that public policy impacts children well beyond predictable policy areas such as healthcare and education.

“There are a whole range of policy issues that are fundamentally important to children, but we often don’t think about children, or think about those policies from children’s perspective,” Professor Bessell said.

“For example, labour market policy is fundamentally important for children but we often don’t think about that from children’s perspectives,” she said.

“We might think about how childcare allows people to be more productive, but we don’t think about the fact that time with parents is the resource children value most and the one that is in shorter supply.”

The research found children placed very high importance on spending time with their parents, and short amounts of quality time – the adult narrative – weren’t enough.

“Children explained the way their parents’ employment impacted on that time through long hours of work and unsociable hours. This was particularly a problem for what we might call the working poor, where parents just had to take whatever job they can get, under whatever circumstances.”

This could be addressed by revisiting public policy around labour market structure.

What reform would have greatest impact?

Professor Boston also fielded questions at the event, and was asked “Where is the best place in the world to be an Indigenous child?”

He said that this was an excellent question, and that the answer would need to take a range of measures into account, including the importance for Indigenous people of preserving cultural vitality and heritage, along with various health, educational, housing and other social indicators.

He was also asked what was the single measure that would have the most impact on reducing child poverty in New Zealand.

He said that raising benefit rates, followed by major reform of child support and Working for Families payments would have the greatest impact.

“On the non-income side of things, improving access to good quality, affordable, secure housing is vital. But this will take a generation of concerted well-designed policies. Benefit rates could be raised within a few months,” he said.


  • Listen to the interview by Professor Sharon Bessell – The best place in the world to be a child:

Published Date: 1 November 2019