Paying for the sins of your children

paying for the sins of your childrenThe other day I was talking to a teaching colleague about a troublesome student we’d both taught. He’s in Year 10 and notorious for his absenteeism and, when in class, his disruptive behaviour and refusal to do any work. She informed me that his parents had just been fined because of his truancy. When this boy – let’s call him Callum – was informed of the fine in the hope that it might arrest his chronic absenteeism, he laughed. Laughed that his parents had been fined because of him!

I work at a school with a low socio-economic demographic: lots of single parents, casual and part-time workers, and welfare dependent people.

Callum’s mother said she dropped him off at school every day, but he just walked into the school and kept walking to the back of the school and then disappeared into the back streets. She and her husband have three much younger children, are financially struggling, and are unable to control Callum. The thousand dollar fine flattened them, bought tension into what must already be a tense situation.

The fine was part of the NT government’s attempt to reign in the high absenteeism and poor educational outcomes that plague the NT education system in urban and remote schools. It came on the back of the federal government’s decision, as part of the intervention, to withhold a proportion of people’s welfare if their children had an unacceptable and unexplainable level of absenteeism.

Implicit in the federal government’s ‘welfare fine’ is the belief that high levels of absenteeism are the preserve of Indigenous Australians. It’s not. Callum is not Indigenous, and, although I work in a school with one of the highest Indigenous enrolments for an urban school in Australia, a high proportion of chronic waggers in my classes are non-Indigenous.


If any government policy represents the chasm between the lives of politicians and those of their ‘constituents’ this must be it. The idea of financially penalising parents for the behaviour of their teenage children is the most ill-conceived piece of garbage to issue out of Canberra or from the mouth of the NT Chief Minister, Paul Henderson.

No doubt most of these politicians’ children go to well funded (by the government) private schools that are well resourced with small classes. The students want to go there and behave accordingly – because if they don’t they’ll be tossed out onto the scrap heap of the public education system before they can download the next song onto their ipod.

No one’s going to be fining any politician because their children are delivered to the school gate, then piss off to smoke bongs at a mate’s place all day every day for most of the term. The reality of juggling low-paying jobs or welfare with multiple kids with multiple demands in a world in which you’re drowning more than treading water is not one politicians share.

So it’s easy to make a policy that penalises parents for the sins of their children when you have the economic stability, social mobility, community networks and family structures to lessen the chance of the more obvious sins ( such as chronic wagging) to occur. In the eyes of these policy makers, it’s the parent’s fault their children aren’t in school. Inherent in this blame-the-parents discourse is the belief that members of the underclass don’t value education, so they need to be forced to ensure their children get an education.

Yes, I have met some parents who have this view but it’s a very small minority. Most often the phone calls that I and my colleagues make to parents in relation to chronic absenteeism results in the same outcome: parent(s) saying they don’t know what to do with their teenage children, that they have no influence. They’re told to fuck off on a regular basis, their children are out most of the night and they don’t know where. They take them to school but they never get to class and any sort of punishment is useless as they either ignore it or run away and stay at a mate’s place for weeks on end.

Sometimes the parent(s) say they have a young sick child and the older child has to stay home from school to take care of their sibling because they can’t take time off work because they don’t get sick pay. Often the parent(s) go to work well before school starts and leave their children to get to school under their own steam, which they don’t.

These experiences aren’t ones that politicians undersand. To them, blaming parents – and fining them – for the inability of their children to get to school is nice and simple, far simpler that looking at the education system and the economic system and deciding they need a radical overhaul, admitting that things aren’t working for many people in ‘the lucky country.’ For those struggling parent(s) who cop a fine or a deduction from their welfare payment because of the behaviour of their teenage children, it’s a bloody unlucky country and it just got a shitload unluckier because they can’t afford to buy food for the family table.

Rohan Wightman

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is

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  1. totally agree rohan. you see it here in alice too. not sure where the thinking for this policy came from. most of the children that are chronic absent from the middle school here in Alice are disengaged from school and that’s why they are not coming or wagging. until this is addressed the absenteeism will most likely continue.

    good piece glad you wrote it.

  2. thanks for your comment Scott. Yep getting students engaged is half the battle, the other half is getting teachers to create a raport with the disengaged, rather than seeing their disengaged, accepting that and ignoring them. It has been awhile since I’ve written a piece, too busy trying to engage the disengaged:-)

  3. I have a ‘school-refuser’ kind of child. She’s 18 now and working, so it’s no longer an issue, but what a huge almost daily struggle it was: being financially punished on top of the social disapproval and emotional strain of trying to get your child to acquiesce to a situation/system/restraint they can’t abide (and she even loved her teachers and friends, she just found school intolerable)- oh, how demoralising. Such a punitive society. I truly wonder why.

    Thanks for writing, and all good wishes to you with engaging the disengaged.

  4. I too had a child who refused to go to school and TAFE and uni and it caused me untold grief and expense. I felt entirely to blame at the time and cannot imagine how I would have coped emotionally, not to mention financially, had I been hit with a fine.

    Sticks seem to the order of the day – whatever happened to the carrots, or dare I say it, spending money to support families who need all the support they can get.

    And thanks for your post Rohan, and your compassion and insight into those families who do it tougher than most

  5. yeah I can imagine. i’m just working as a tutor at a middle school and ontop of studying for a primary dip ed find it hard to get the time to write pieces too. i wish though that there was more training to get the disengaged engaged. more flexibility in approaches to schooling perhaps is one way to start but with the national curriculum and the emphasis on standard testing its hard to see this happening. it’s a minefield really. the more you get into the layers of education the messy and more complex it becomes.

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