I have been thinking about the horribly high youth suicide rate in New Zealand and made a connection in my mind with the kindness of the environment here.
In New Zealand, children are commonly encouraged to “go and play outside” in a way that seems quite different to my experience in other parts of the world.
Here, “outside” is seen as a kind, friendly and nurturing place since we are blessed with wide open spaces, beautiful bush and beaches, almost no poisonous creatures, mainly quiet streets, and not many people about. There are of course lots of natural hazards, such as rivers, tidal rips, and precipices, but every ‘kiwi kid’ learns early on how to avoid falling and drowning!
The problem is that being told to ‘go and play outside’ often constitutes a subtle form of abandonment or neglect in a country that is by its nature riddled with attachment difficulties. Most people in New Zealand don’t have to go very far back to connect to an ancestor who left home and family to travel to a new land.
In being sent to play outside, there is often an unconscious acceptance of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – “the kids are alright, they are playing outside”, that just is not true! Children need to know they are held in our minds so they can grow a sense of holding themselves as adults.
When the big “go and play outside” comes at the end of adolescence and our children leave home, some New Zealand kids experience this as traumatic, in the sense that all the little ‘go and play outsides’ they experienced growing up are suddenly unmanageable.
A colleague of mine often reminds me that suicide is always a case of mistaken identity; but it is not always easy to identify who they really wanted to kill. Perhaps as parents in New Zealand we need to think twice before sending our kids to play outside.