When desert parenting worked


p2324-school-kids-1Children’s doctor John Boulton, during 10 years working in the communities of the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, has seen the most heart-wrenching examples of young people suffering.
The Emeritus Professor at the Newcastle University is one of the attendees in the current Caring for Country Kids conference in Alice Springs. He is soon to publish a book titled Aboriginal Children: History and Health (Routledge).
As a key national figure in the debate about this distressing aspect of contemporary Australia he describes the root causes for child neglect with insight. But he stops well short of being part of any robust political and legal action, advocating merely “much help” for the kids’ parents and communities.
Professor Boulton spoke with ERWIN CHLANDA.
The Western way of bringing up children is in conflict with the fundamental patterns of Aboriginal parenting, he says.
A central difference is in the autonomy of the child: that is, that within Aboriginal society the baby and child is seen as a morally independent person.
In the old times the child’s spirit came from a “totemic site in the landscape. They were owned by the land”.
Therefore a child is seen as morally autonomous: “A little girl will say, I am my own boss.”
By contrast in Western culture “a child is a gift from God, so the parents own the child in a moral and legal sense”. Parents tell the child what to do, and make them do it.
Aboriginal parents encourage children to explore the landscape. In the old days “there were no big animals to hurt children”. Snakes and falling into the camp fire were the main risks for children.
“The trouble is nowadays, with children packed into overcrowded cars and unsupervised children near waterholes and rivers, the risk of serious injury is enormous,” says Professor Boulton.
“The child death rate in the Kimberley is 10 times the national average, and half of those are from trauma that is completely preventable.”
Aboriginal society was disrupted in ways that undermined the ability to parent. Human parenting depends on co-operative caring: “The immature human baby needs lots of people to look after her – sisters, aunties, grannies – regardless of where they are born.”
In contemporary society that role has been commodified by day care for the majority of working mothers who pay a lot of money for the service.
The second disruption was to the continuity of transitional feeding. When breast milk doesn’t supply sufficient calories and food energy for the baby to grow very fast from six months the 12 months, extra food has to be added.
The ancestors of people from north Europe provided this with a milk based diet – for example, fermented milk from reindeer – full of calories, calcium and fat. Now we use formula, yogurt and cheese.
“In the desert such a high fat diet came from snakes and goannas, and for salt water people from turtle and dugong.
“The brain was fed to babies, it is high in fat and protein, and easy for a baby to eat.
“Witchetty grubs, for example, are almost half protein and half fat. A 10 months old baby who is breast fed, all she needs is three witchetty grubs a day in addition to breast milk to supply the additional calories needed.
“When the cattle and sheep came [in the late 1800s] they destroyed the waterholes. That caused the earth to become hard, and destroyed the ability to grow yams and other staple crops.”
p2324-John-Boulton-2Professor Bolton says in Africa and Asia root crops were not destroyed by the colonial invasion: “Aboriginal people are the only people on earth who suffered the double jeopardy of not only their land being taken but their food being taken.”
The third essential criteria of parenting is for the pregnant woman, and then the young mother with a baby, to have an environment in which people look after them and they are not suffering the stress of possible domestic violence.
“And tragically we know because of alcohol the risk to a young woman is very, very high in Central Australia, the Kimberley and the Top End; noise, people fighting and actually being hit and injured.
“These violent disruptions have put at risk the human foundations that are required for the business of being a parent.
“If you ask how can we restore that the first thing [to deal with] is alcohol, to reduce violence” which could be achieved “if senior Aboriginal people were absolutely determined. The decision has to come from senior Aboriginal people.
“For generations Aborigines have been told by white people like myself what to do.”
He refers to ABS statistics that show that in Aboriginal communities up to 50% of the population under 19.
But because of the history of genocide – “a catastrophic holocaust of loss of population” –advice on birth control gets little traction.
It as if the heart of Aboriginal people are saying “We need to make up the numbers because 95% of our people were killed in the first part of the 20th century”.
NEWS: Facilities have existed for decades to help these children but they are not being used.
BOULTON: There is no correct moral answer because every social, political recommendation has a moral dimension and it has to come from both Aboriginal and white people.
NEWS: It is not coming.
BOULTON: I agree, it is not coming. I may say children need enough food to grow properly, enough sleep, undisturbed by loud noise and drunken violence. And clean skin so they don’t get sores and rheumatic fever [that may lead to] renal failure and an early death. [Aboriginal people say to me about these problems] “Dr. John, this is a human rights thing, it’s not a Kartiya [whitefella] or Aboriginal thing”.
NEWS: Do you agree?
BOULTON: Completely. It’s a human rights thing. It’s in the United Nations declaration of the Human Rights of the Child. It is being mixed up with being an Aboriginal thing. And it’s not. Culture versus history and the consequences of oppression in history are two different things. Food, hygiene, sleep undisturbed by drunken violence and noise so the children can go to school, and dress in clean clothes and learn, is the responsibility of parents and grandparents. Every Aboriginal person agrees with that. It’s common, human sense. Exactly why that doesn’t happen is of course open to huge debate and whichever angle you take you are going to be effectively wrong because the fundamental issue is a moral one and no-one is going to say, “I have the answer”.
NEWS: There is a law that says we have to provide the necessities of life for our children. Not doing so is a crime. Imagine you are a witness in a trial of someone who has breached that law. From your experience in this region, what kind of evidence would you be likely to be giving about health issues facing a typical neglected child, of whom we see so many?
BOULTON: That’s a very politically loaded question. When I was in pediatric p2324-mother-&-childpractice that was a point raised every day. This is the tragedy. The number of children whose families are investigated or under surveillance by the Department of Child Protection in WA is enormous. The parents need a lot of help. A partnership with community nurses and the Department for Child Protection is the first easy step in helping parents provide what a child needs. If you compare that with what happened in the early 20th century, when girls got pregnant when they were below 16, or were victims of sexual violence, then they themselves were described as being in moral danger and effectively put into prison. The dark side of the answer to your question is written large in the history of the early part of the 20th century, when the victims were punished. That is the cruel thing which we now profoundly regret.
NEWS: We have learned a lot. We’ve come to grips with these issues decades ago. Our society has made significant efforts, particularly thorough massive public funding. Why are there not benefits kicking in from those efforts on a much broader scale?
BOULTON: I don’t have an answer to that. I am not a politician. I am a caring children’s doctor who wants every child being well fed and much loved. We’re heading into a dangerous area of politics I am not giving an opinion on. What we are seeing now, in a judgmental way, is a long-term echo of the situation from long ago which we should moving right away from. Ted Egan did a calculation of the debt owed by the white population to Aboriginal people, starting from the time of the colonial frontier. What we owe, say at 5% at the bank, is of course hundreds of billions of dollars.
PHOTO at top:  Bradshaw School students took part in the conference yesterday. The student leadership group met Megan Mitchell, the Australian Children’s Commissioner.


  1. Yes. The Western way of bringing up children is in conflict with the fundamental patterns of Aboriginal parenting,
    Aboriginal people have not changed their patterns of parenting and in effect have made a choice to accept the risk.
    Their choice is unacceptable to white society so a lot of money is spent trying to change it.
    Is their choice entirely negative? Not at all.
    Their parenting offers freedom to explore the world in a web of positive relationships.
    Kids on remote communities look a lot happier than their non Aboriginal peers in town.
    Aboriginal parenting mostly raises competent members of their own society.
    Of course child protection is needed where gross neglect and abuse occurs.
    But their right to parent as they see fit needs to be respected.
    Aboriginal people I know disapprove of many Whitefella child rearing practices though of course they are not in a position to make their views known.

  2. “NEWS: We have learned a lot. We’ve come to grips with these issues decades ago.”
    Here the interviewer is coming from a position of moral superiority – ‘we know what we are doing’.
    Note, your moral adviser is trying to teach you about each cultures moral blinkers. He is underlining the perverse outcomes that arise when people are clueless about the others’ motivations.
    Saying “Our society has made significant efforts, particularly thorough massive public funding” … therefore it should have been fixed been fixed, exemplifies the error.
    You can’t fix something if you never bothered learning how it worked.
    In this case, it’s not about fixing at all so much as an obvious pattern to follow, 120 years post colonisation transitions to 220 years post colonisation transitions to 500 years post colonisation. That is the financial investment. That is the mainstream superior morality agenda.
    However, moral conformity has prices other than monetary and we are all a part of the suffering that accompanies colonisation.

  3. @ Ralph: Posted April 19, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Edit
    Aboriginal people are most welcome to “make their views known” through the Alice Springs News Online. Many do.
    Kind regards, Erwin Chlanda, Editor.

  4. A lot of money has been spent trying to deal with some of these issues, but, these are long term issues and the funding is almost always short term. When dealing with these sorts of issues it takes time to build trust understanding and relationships,, then you can get some traction, but then the money runs out and the program stops only for a similar program to start again in a few months and go thru the same process. Often a huge part of the job is trying to find money to continue the program. So not acting on the ground.
    Also as it’s hard to help people deal with trauma and change the patterns of a life time, short term funding is counter productive. You ask someone to invest some hope and you say you will try to assist them to build a better life but then the funding dries up and they are left hanging, making it hard to re-engage in the next promise that comes along.
    We need long term funding for these long term problems. Action research.
    Also how often are the old people consulted and supported to give their views? They and their family members have been directly impacted by the endless procession of policies and programs, they know what worked, what showed promise etc. They all love and care for their children and grannies and greats, great greats. They want a better future for them and could help enormously if given support and respect. You can’t force a change in people’s lives and attitudes but you can support people to change. The powers that be all so obviously need to change the way they operate.

  5. David de Vries: Yes indeed “You can’t fix something if you never bothered learning how it worked”.
    And understanding how it works makes everything that seems easy from one cultural perspective so much more complicated from the other.
    Denying a non Aboriginal child lollies and sugary drinks, getting that child to wash her hands etc etc is normal and supported by the society the child lives in.
    Denying an Aboriginal child can breach the relationship rules for many if not all relatives and could attract the wrath of other relatives as well as the child.
    The child’s parents may well prefer her to eat better food and wash her hands but getting her to do so is far from easy.
    Simply acts of denial have led to suicide because of the breach of the relationship.
    Health education is still important so informed choices can be made but ultimately, resilient cultural differences play a much bigger role than is usually acknowledged by programs seeking to improve health.

  6. I disagree with the statement Aboriginal people are not in the position to make their views known. They can if they choose to do so whether it be through elders, schools, churches, politicians etc.
    I talked to certain Aboriginal parents who believed their children should not be disiplined at all or very mildly. The result – those ones grew up to believe they had the right to destroy others property, steal, hurt, maim. Others who were disciplined well grew up to be decent citizens.
    By the way some talk, there is a belief that white Australians whose families have been here since the 1700s should be chucked out of this country. If the remote community kids look happier than the ones in town maybe it is because they don’t have any rules and very little discipline. Then again when they turn up in schools some are dirty, disheavled, covered in sores, malnourished. This is well hidden by people who desire to make money from them.
    One Aboriginal family I knew lived just out of town – we heard they had no water but young kids were involved. Town camps covered in rubbish – disabled Aboriginal kids left outside overnight. Oldies left to die, young and middle aged Aboriginals taking basics cards from oldies – spending it all and not on food. Food brought in for oldies but stolen by others in extended families. Oldies with dementia etc left in their own filth.
    Yes some are lucky and some are not but the same applies to whites in this country. As for South Africa – droughts take away food supplies, wells dry up, AIDS is still rampant and if it were not for charities some would be really badly off – but again some are really rich and really arrogant so how is South Africa better than Australia?

  7. Also if you want to know about the Aboriginals go to the casino afternoon and nights – watch as they go to charities claiming to be poor and looking like it – watch as they later pull out thousands from wallets and bras. Watch on Centrelink paydays outside the Todd Tavern and Memo Club – watch as they walk down the street too drunk by midday to stand up straight. Watch as they camp out round Centrelink.
    Then go into the hostels and camps where many are hungry – watch as school kids roam the street on school days or at night when gangs roam the streets damaging property or making it unsafe for others.
    Listen when some are murdered just for a minor infringement of their rules. Watch when kids go to school hungry despite Centrelink and basics card.
    If some are badly done by so are some whites. Also note they have their own banks, schools, unis which whites cannot attend but they can attend white schools.
    Watch as they litter, burn cars (not their own) then watch as some really do the right thing and look after their own families.


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