Swinging between Tupac Shakur and Dr Seuss isn’t for everyone – but “child stutterer” and Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft manages it pretty well.
The former principal Youth Court judge howled a breath of fresh air into New Zealand’s ongoing child poverty debate this week – touching on the possible impact of deprivation on early childhood language development at a language summit in Auckland this week.
“I had a significant stutter as a child, adolescent and as a young lawyer,” Becroft revealed to the Talking Matters crowd.
“It had a big influence on me.”
Becroft, whose efforts to address childhood deprivation stem back to his days as a lawyer in South Auckland in the 1990s, touched on personal and professional experiences which demonstrated the importance of communication and language development.
Regardless of what “measure” was being used to gauge child poverty, Becroft emphasised the immediate need to help the 30 percent of New Zealand children currently struggling.
“At its absolute core, there’s at least 85,000 to 90,000 under-18-year-olds living in severe material disadvantage.
“[Overall], I’d break it down to three percentages: 70 percent do really well, and some do world-leadingly well; 20 percent much less well – they do badly, and that’s a significant concern.
“And 10 percent do as badly, and often worse, than most Western world counterparts that we’d like to compare ourselves with.”
The biggest challenges lay in identifying, and working, with those children.
Why don’t we take the leaders out and depoliticise child poverty … just as we did with Superannuation – if there was a Grey Power equivalent for children, that would happen.
“I guess that’s where my heart is, and that’s a challenge particularly for that group in terms of developing good communication and oral language skills early.”
Becroft, who struggled with a stutter until his early 20s, understood how difficult, and wrong, things could be for a child unable to communicate properly.
He told the summit about one teenager who appeared before him in the Youth Court in a t-shirt with the words “Let the Lord Judge the Criminal” on the front.
Pulling on his own replica of that shirt, Becroft recounted what happened that day.
“He just stood there and just looked at me, clearly wanting a reaction,” Becroft said.
“I said rather lamely, that’s an interesting t-shirt. It’s rather early to call yourself a criminal – you haven’t even been to the Youth Court before, let alone answered the charge today.”
At the time, Becroft had no idea about the inspiration behind the t-shirt – however, he has since taken the famous lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur to heart:
It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact,
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks
I wake up in the mornin’ and I ask myself
Is life worth livin’? Should I blast myself?
I’m tired of being poor and, even worse, I’m black
“The words are quite confronting … in fact some of them are so confronting they don’t get through the MSD firewall,” Becroft told the crowd.
Language development, throughout childhood – but particularly from newborn to age 5 – was crucial. Countless examples of young people in the justice system demonstrated this, he said.
I used to see people speak, and think ‘I’d love to have a go at that’.
“When I look back on it, we often identify what we thought as sullen, defiant, moody, non-cooperation … I think had at its root language competency and communication competency – ironic when we have a Youth Justice system that depends so much on oral language skills.”
From education to access to services like healthcare, as well as navigation of the justice system, good oral and communication skills are essential, he said.
“There were lots of interesting interchanges with young people, always challenging … [but] how do they have their say if they can’t communicate well,” Becroft said.
“It’s enabling them to access what they’re entitled to.”
Becroft also shared his own challenges of having a speech impediment.
“I used to see people speak, and think ‘I’d love to have a go at that’.”
Even his own mother, who had infinite patience for her son, worried about the impact of his stutter – particularly when a young Becroft announced he wanted to go on the former television game show Sale of the Century.
“Mum and Dad always encouraged me, apart from Mum’s helpful comment that you’d be hopeless in Sale of the Century because you’d never get the answer out,” he joked.
Over the years, as he and his family persevered – amidst advice he avoid careers in the church, law and education fields – Becroft eventually found the type of speech therapy he needed.
“I got terrific help with the smooth speech technique. I could say Andrew Becroft in a way that controlled the stutter and gave me enormous confidence.”
Sustained policies that tackled child poverty, and ensured children had a fair chance at developing communication skills from a young age, were crucial.
“I’m thrilled that all [political] parties are now saying we can set targets, because we can now measure child disadvantage … [and] relative income poverty.
“Why don’t we take the leaders out and depoliticise child poverty, and treat it as a cross-party national accord, just as we did with Superannuation. If there was a Grey Power equivalent for children, that would happen.”
To finish, the Commissioner pulled on his second t-shirt of the day, and flawlessly repeated part of Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham tale.
Its significance? According to a group of young kids at a children’s rights conference, the story was about never giving up and trying new things, Becroft said.