Judy Bai­ley talks to chil­dren’s cru­sader Dame Les­ley Max

Hav­ing a son with spe­cial needs was the cat­a­lyst for Dame Les­ley Max to start work­ing with New Zealand’s vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. She talks to Judy Bai­ley about the need to help and en­cour­age the role of par­ent­ing.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Dame Les­ley Max has spent the best part of her life try­ing to make life bet­ter for our most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. Hers is a pow­er­ful voice, a voice of rea­son and, most cru­cially, a voice that of­fers hope. Al­ways pre­pared to ask the dif­fi­cult ques­tions, she has from time to time been a thorn in the side of govern­ment.

Her de­vo­tion to the cause is not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. Pas­sion­ate? “I hate the word pas­sion­ate – it makes you sound un­hinged,” she says with a warm laugh. “I pre­fer ‘com­mit­ted’. My mantra is: ‘Ev­ery child, wanted and nur­tured.’”

She has re­ceived a dame­hood for her ser­vices to chil­dren, but Les­ley re­mains re­fresh­ingly down-toearth. We meet at the home she shares with her or­thodon­tic sur­geon hus­band Robert and sec­ond son Jamie on the slopes of Auck­land’s Re­muera. She’s sweep­ing the porch when I ar­rive and promptly takes me for a stroll in the gar­den.

The scent of roses fills the air, a tiny stream trick­les in a cor­ner and cheery orange and yel­low nas­tur­tiums tum­ble down the bank.

“We have to fo­cus on the cir­cum­stances in which a child comes into the world. This means massively pro­mot­ing a con­scious at­ti­tude to­wards cre­at­ing a fam­ily,” she says. “Chil­dren thrive when in a sit­u­a­tion of sta­bil­ity and sen­si­tive nur­ture.”

Les­ley is keen to see sup­port given af­ter birth, which fo­cuses on show­ing the mother and fa­ther how to have pos­i­tive in­ter­ac­tions with their baby, pro­mot­ing pa­tience, gentle­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity. Gaz­ing, singing and sooth­ing are vi­tal at this time, she says.

Com­ment­ing on the sit­u­a­tion of chil­dren be­ing sent to child­care early so moth­ers can get back to work, Les­ley is adamant: “We can out­source many things, but it’s dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory when we out­source the nur­tur­ing of our chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly our ba­bies.”

Les­ley was born in Auck­land as the Sec­ond World War came to an end. The youngest of Mau­rice and Flora Shi­eff’s three daugh­ters, she grew up in the Auck­land sub­urb of Milford.

Flora and Mau­rice were both Rus­sian-born Jews who had em­i­grated here with their par­ents. Flora was a speech and drama teacher, her daugh­ter Les­ley’s beau­ti­fully rounded vow­els a product of her ef­forts. “She coached us in public speak­ing. ‘Throw your voice, dar­ling, throw it like a ball to the back of the room,’” she’d say. It’s a tech­nique that’s no doubt come in handy for the many speeches Les­ley is called on to make.

Les­ley’s fa­ther had a mas­sive heart at­tack when she was just four, which, af­ter en­su­ing com­pli­ca­tions, left him an in­valid for most of her child­hood. He was a man­u­fac­turer and im­porter of menswear, who, like his wife, had a so­cial con­science. “When he died we re­ceived masses of let­ters from peo­ple telling us how he’d helped them,” Les­ley re­mem­bers. “He was qui­etly gen­er­ous. I didn’t have many toys, but I did have one spe­cial doll called Patsy. One day a man came to visit my fa­ther and I re­mem­ber Dad say­ing to me, ‘This man has a lit­tle girl who has no toys; would you mind giv­ing her Patsy?’” Patsy was duly handed over.

The val­ues Flora and Mau­rice passed on to their daugh­ter, she be­lieves, are com­mon to most of us. She quotes Ham­let – “to thine own self be true” – cit­ing the im­por­tance of a good name, hon­esty and fair­ness.

Les­ley met her hus­band Robert when she was four. He was among the kids her dad would pick up and take to the ferry so they could at­tend He­brew school on Sun­days in the city. “I re­mem­ber his beau­ti­ful green eyes,” she smiles fondly. They be­gan dat­ing oc­ca­sion­ally when she was 15 and mar­ried nearly 50 years ago when she was 21.

Her Jewish faith has be­come a big­ger part of her life now than it was in her child­hood. “I think my fa­ther wanted to put much of the nar­row­ness of Ju­daism be­hind him,” she says. Also the syn­a­gogue was in the city – a big trek from Auck­land’s North Shore in the 1940s and 50s.

Now though, Les­ley and Robert and their fam­ily gather at home ev­ery Fri­day for Kid­dush – prayers to usher in the Sab­bath. She de­lights in show­ing me a video on her phone of her eight-year-old grand­son We can out­source many things, but it’s dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory when we out­source the nur­tur­ing of our ba­bies.

(she has six grand­chil­dren) proudly recit­ing the prayers by can­dle­light, ably as­sisted by his grand­fa­ther. It’s a beau­ti­ful, close fam­ily mo­ment.

She ex­plains the im­por­tance of hold­ing onto the faith: “If we take a lax at­ti­tude to our her­itage, then our iden­tity is gone.”

It was while she was try­ing to get help for one of her sons that Les­ley first be­came aware of the level of de­pri­va­tion that ex­isted in New Zealand. She and Robert have four adult chil­dren. David lives in New York, Ger­ard in Mel­bourne, Shoshana has just moved back from Lon­don, and Jamie lives at home with his par­ents.

Jamie was born with Down Syn­drome. “He pre­sented us with a huge chal­lenge,” Les­ley ad­mits. There was not much ex­pec­ta­tion for Down Syn­drome chil­dren in the early 70s. “There was no thought that he could have an ed­u­ca­tion,” she says. But Les­ley knew there had to be some­thing she could do to help her son. “My mother was a fantastic ally in this, search­ing the world for in­for­ma­tion.” A pae­di­a­tri­cian told her, “He will be a very good baby and will be pre­pared to lie in his cot for hour upon hour, but don’t let him do it. He needs stim­u­la­tion.”

Les­ley taught Jamie to read, think­ing that if he learnt to read he might be able to form sen­tences. “We had to en­dure scep­ti­cism and put-downs,” she says, but they doggedly per­se­vered. Even­tu­ally Jamie be­came the first Down Syn­drome stu­dent to at­tend Auck­land Gram­mar and there, Les­ley proudly says, he was awarded a cer­tifi­cate for achieve­ment in His­tory.

Jamie is tes­ta­ment to Les­ley and Robert’s love and com­mit­ment. He joins us for lunch, con­tribut­ing to a lively dis­cus­sion about pol­i­tics, one of his favourite sub­jects. “Jamie has con­tin­ued to con­found us all,” Les­ley says with pride.

It was while Jamie was at­tend­ing a low-decile pri­mary school that Les­ley’s fo­cus be­gan to shift to in­clude other chil­dren in need. “I be­came aware that many chil­dren are so dis­ad­van­taged, not by their chro­mo­somes but by their so­cial sit­u­a­tion,” she tells me.

She went on to write a cover story for Auck­land’s Metro mag­a­zine, which dared to ques­tion the oft-quoted line that “New Zealand is a great place to bring up chil­dren”. Clearly, for many chil­dren, it is not.

Pub­lish­ing com­pany Penguin asked her to write on the sub­ject. And what fol­lowed was her sem­i­nal book, Chil­dren: En­dan­gered Species? (pub­lished in 1990 and now out of print).

Les­ley knew, though, that while it’s one thing to raise is­sues, it’s quite an­other to come up with so­lu­tions. In her metic­u­lous way, she re­searched what was hap­pen­ing else­where in the world that was mak­ing a real dif­fer­ence to the lives of dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren. She came up with two ma­jor pro­grammes. Firstly, a kind of one-stop shop for par­ents – a Fam­ily Ser­vice Cen­tre, based in South Auck­land in Pa­pakura. It’s a place where par­ents can visit a Plun­ket nurse, see coun­sel­lors, so­cial work­ers, get bud­get­ing ad­vice, take their chil­dren for hear­ing and vi­sion checks, at­tend par­ent­ing cour­ses and en­rol their chil­dren in preschool ed­u­ca­tion. It’s a non­threat­en­ing, in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment. “I would have loved to go some­where like that as a young mum,” Les­ley says.

HIPPY is her other brain­child. “The most ef­fec­tive path­way out of poverty is early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion that in­volves the par­ents,” she ex­plains.

The Home In­ter­ac­tion Pro­gramme for Par­ents and Young­sters is a home-based scheme that helps par­ents set their chil­dren on the path to suc­cess in school. Par­ents are men­tored to work with their chil­dren for 15 to 20 min­utes a day for five days a week, 30 weeks of the year, for two years. The changes that oc­cur over that time are huge. It’s not just about read­ing and writ­ing – both chil­dren and par­ents gain self-con­fi­dence, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and, most im­por­tantly, they learn to en­joy spend­ing time with each other.

One of Les­ley’s prime con­cerns is to re­store the mana of par­ent­ing. “We need a so­cial move­ment for that pur­pose,” she says firmly. “This is not a moral judge­ment. It is purely based on what we know from sci­ence and re­search.” She quotes the lat­est re­search on brain de­vel­op­ment, which tells us that emo­tion­ally re­spon­sive nur­ture, par­tic­u­larly from birth to around three, is vi­tal for the healthy de­vel­op­ment of the brain.

“We have a shame­ful level of child abuse and ne­glect here and it’s not go­ing to be solved by fo­cus­ing on those at the most vul­ner­a­ble end, which is cur­rent govern­ment think­ing. Par­ents are be­ing in­creas­ingly side­lined; we can’t re­verse the neg­a­tive sta­tis­tics if par­ents are not in­volved.”

Nearly 30 years ago the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal iden­ti­fied par­ent­ing as the most im­por­tant public health is­sue fac­ing so­ci­ety… not much has changed in the in­ter­ven­ing years.

“I greatly ap­pre­ci­ate the sym­bol­ism of the dame­hood, but it has not re­moved the need to fight bat­tles,” Les­ley says. “Ake ake!” she cries, fist raised. This feisty Dame is not done yet.

Par­ents are be­ing side­lined; we can’t re­verse the neg­a­tive sta­tis­tics if par­ents are not in­volved.

RIGHT: Dame Les­ley Max would like to see par­ents re­ceive coach­ing in how to re­late to their ba­bies..

ABOVE: Restor­ing the mana of par­ent­ing is of pri­mary con­cern to Dame Les­ley.

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