How can we improve our children’s health in the future?

Estimated Reading Time 4 Minutes

Sir Albert Aynsley-Green captivates the audience of health professionals. He
fills them in on how he became a children’s health and wellness advocate as
the first Children’s Commissioner for England and former chair of National
Health Services’ Taskforce for Children. But then he tells the story of the
Bristol Baby Deaths. It starts at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the 1990s,
where it was discovered that in infant open-heart surgeries, the mortality
rate was much higher than that of any cardiac surgical centre in the U.K.
And as “Sir Al” explains, even though an article published these shocking
findings, it was an eruption of parental fury that forced action on the issue.
Parents united and forced the issue to the forefront via an inquiry. “Parents
made the issue overt,” he emphasizes.

As parents, we worry about the everyday issues – does our child have an ear infection? Are they
eating enough? Are they being bullied? What Professor Sir Albert asks of parents, physicians,
politicians and everyone else in the proverbial village raising children, is to look at the bigger picture.
Examine what policies are needed to help our young and vulnerable thrive.

While in Toronto for the 2012 NeuroDevNet conference, Professor Sir Albert spoke
to ParentsCanada about the power of parents in advocating for today’s children.

How do you think children are valued?

There are very stark differences as to how children
are valued around the world. The U.K., for example,
is one of the least child-friendly countries in the
developed world. When we go on holiday to Spain
or Portugal and see how children are welcomed in
restaurants, how the family meets together, how
they interact, it’s very different. So we need to look
critically at how we value our children. Is Canada a
child-friendly country?

We’ve also got hard evidence about how
adolescents are especially disadvantaged, because
over the past 10 years there’s been an unprecedented
demonization of young people.

For example, in many countries there’s a device
on the market called the Mosquito (marketed as the
SonicScreen in Canada and the U.S.). It’s based on
the principal that people older than 25 cannot hear
high-pitched noises and frequencies. So this device
emits a high-pitched, intense, highly irritating noise
that can only be heard by the young. It is being
installed in places to deter kids from gathering
or loitering. We’ve tried very hard to get the U.K.
government to regulate it and they refused. What
does that say about our society? When I tell my
friends in Sweden about this, they say ‘why do you so
hate your children?’

How does family affect children’s health?

In my work as children’s commissioner, one of the
biggest issues kids told me about was fear of their
families falling apart. So families are very important
to them. But then what resources do we put into
preparing young people to be parents? How can we
expect kids to become perfect parents if they haven’t
been given some tools to help them? And that’s been
made worse by our lifestyle, with families dispersed
over vast distances. We don’t have the traditional
nuclear families or a range of extended family close
by. That’s why the Canadian Roots of Empathy
program is so important. It instills in young children
some fundamental principles of parenting.

You believe parents can maximize their
‘Parent Power’ for their children and become their advocates. Why?

Of the two national positions I was appointed to, the
first was very much a result of parent power. Parents
in Bristol were outraged to discover their children
had not received the very best cardiac surgery. These
were motivated parents who organized themselves
and targeted the health secretary in government with
their concerns. He triggered a national inquiry and
then created my post to be ‘responsible’ for children’s
healthcare services. Parents are an under-recognized
force for change. One potential difficulty is there are
so many different parent groups. How they can come
together for concerted advocacy is an important
point to think about. Parents are important, they can
have influence, but they need help and support.

What can children do to become
their own health advocate?

We have a program called Unicef Rights Respecting
Schools and it’s actually a Canadian program that
started in Cape Breton. This is a program where the
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child initiative is
lived every minute in the school with children learning
about three key concepts: their responsibilities
for each other, their respect for each other and
understanding their rights. This program has been
very successful in many schools in the U.K. and it has
transformed behaviours and abilities to communicate.
I visited a school with five-year-olds who were in this
program. They spoke with great maturity about how
they really did care for each other and how they were
concerned for each other.

The Rights Respecting Schools program is hard
evidence that this approach of respecting each other
decreases bullying in the schools. So there are means
in which children can be allowed to recognize that
their views are important, that they can contribute
to decisions and they can benefit from so doing. I’m
afraid some adults don’t like that. They think it could
be subverting the power of the parents.

Astrid Van Den Broek is a Toronto-based freelance writer who
specializes in health and parenting. She’s also still trying to
figure out how to maximize her own parent power without
becoming a helicopter parent.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2013.

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