The Age

The heartbreak of the unwanted child

The Age (Melbourne)
2000-10-26 00:06:23

Report by the Committee on Factory Children's Labor (1831-32), inquiring into the labor of children aged between four and eight:

What time did you get them up in the morning?

In general, me or my mistress got them up at two o'clock to dress them.

So they had not above four hours' sleep at this time?

No, they had not.

Were the children excessively fatigued by this labor?

Many times; we have cried often when we have given them the little victualling we had to give them; we have had to shake them, and they have fallen to sleep with the victuals in their mouths many a time.

Did this excessive term of labor occasion much cruelty also?

Yes, with being so much fatigued the strap was very frequently used.

I OWE the above, tragic extract to Dr Sue Richardson, of Flinders University, who quoted it in a recent paper, Society's Investment in Children, to the Annual Conference of Economists.

The paper concluded that the status of most children in Australia today is good: they have good nutrition, health, education and housing; most are in well-off families (two-thirds live in the 40 per cent of families with the highest gross income levels); 94 per cent live with their birth mother and 74 per cent live with both their birth parents; most have a substantial amount of parental time available to them (surveys of time use show parents in paid work give up time spent watching television, sleeping, and in leisure to spend time with their children).

How happy children are is some-thing we can't be sure of, because while there are various studies on adults' reported happiness levels, there aren't any on children's. The focus is usually on how their upbringing might affect the way they eventually turn out. (Isn't it seen as important that children are happy when they are children? Or must they always be, as one person quoted in the paper says, "reduced to human becomings"?)

Nevertheless, if reasonable levels of material welfare and parental commitment are enough, we may expect that most Australian children are happy. Most children have such support. It's the ones who don't who break your heart.

Like seven-year-old "Clara", whose story was told in last week's Age Insight report, who spent the whole time during a rare access visit with her mother clinging to her mother's hand, or wrapping her arm around her mother's waist, while her mother ignored her. Or the two-year-olds who had been moved from carer to carer 10 times, partly because of a shortage of foster parents and partly because of the current ideology that children should not be permanently removed from their birth parents. Or children sent back to abusive parents, to suffer further injuries, or death.

Among the many jobs I've had was one, years ago in the country, coordinating a program in which children who had been judged to be in need of emergency care were placed with volunteers. People put their names down as carers but, when the time came, it was hard to find one. One day, as I drove three children to a woman who had agreed to have them for a few days, the eldest, a girl about seven, asked anxiously, "Are you sure this lady wants us?" "Yes, she really does," I lied.

Those three children had been in emergency care many times. Their father was absent and their mother couldn't cope. But, like Clara, they loved their mother and wanted only to be with her. This mother might have been a "good enough" parent if she had had support.

Clearly, some people should not have children. Just as clearly, there is no way of stopping them. Would it help if, at least, every child were a wanted child? You would think so. Recent, very controversial research in the United States has linked the legalisation of abortion with a big drop in the crime rate 20 years later. One conclusion drawn was that women forced to have children they don't want make poor parents.

Yet in days gone by women often had children they didn't want. My mother didn't want seven children and neither, I think, did my mother-in-law, yet both had seven, and loved them all. These were "good enough" parents.

My mother once, when she discovered she was pregnant again, went outside and chopped up a load of wood. She used to joke to my sister, who was the result of that pregnancy, "Shows you can't kill you with an axe." My sister would laugh, could laugh, because she knew she was loved. (This is not an argument against abortion; or for it.)

Children are born to all sorts of people. And children are often more resilient than they are given credit for. I suppose all the wider society can do is to make sure there is sufficient support for those parents who are capable of becoming "good enough".

But children's rights must come first. Parents who have shown themselves to be a danger to their children should have the children removed - while they are still young enough to bond with others capable of loving them. Just because children were taken wrongly in the past does not mean none should be taken now.

Pamela Bone is a staff writer. E-mail: This story was found at:

Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.