Families – Why the Families Commission Chose Function over Form

Sharron Cole
Issue 28, August 2009

In July 2004, the New Zealand Families Commission came into existence and I, along with five others, was appointed as a Commissioner. The interview process was demanding and exhaustive and amongst many questions we were asked our views on marriage and "family form". Interestingly, each of us was a partner in long standing marriages, and all of us were committed to our various faiths. A reasonable inference to be drawn therefore is that we all believed in marriage as an institution and that we all had Christian values. This is ironic given that the Families Commission is strongly criticised by some because it has never defined families as "married father and mother and the children". In fact, it has never defined family form at all. Why not?

There is an "official" definition of a family which may found in the Families Commission Act: "family includes a group of people related by marriage, civil union, blood, or adoption, an extended family, 2 or more persons living together as a family, and a whanau or other culturally recognised family group." [i] The Commission, from this definition in its enabling legislation, recognises a variety of family forms, including "two-parent", "one-parent", "step "and "blended" families. Further, it says that 'two-parent families' may include biological parents, step-families, those living in de facto relationships, married people, same-sex couples and those who have formed a civil union. [ii]

Compare this to the Catholic Church. In a response to the Supreme Court of California decision to overturn the law which prevented homosexuals being recognised as being married, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Forum of Family Associations and the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations, stressing the importance of the traditional family for the good of society. He said "The union of love, based on matrimony between a man and a woman, which makes up the family, represents a good for all society that cannot be substituted by, confused with, or compared to other types of unions," and the rights of the traditional family, "founded on matrimony between a man and a woman, the natural cradle of human life." [iii] Catholic teaching as reflected by the Pope's comments as head of the Catholic Church are also shared by many of the world's religions.

The Families Commission however, is not a Christian organisation but is a Crown Entity in New Zealand, a secular and pluralistic state where there is a clear division between church and state. The Commission must carry out its statutory functions and it has to report to its responsible Minister and to Parliament. Its enabling legislation is straightforward:

S7(1) The Commission's main function is to act as an advocate for the interests of families generally. (3) In performing that function, the Commission must identify and have regard to factors that help to maintain or enhance either or both of the following:

  1. families' resilience:
  2. families' strengths.

An additional function is:

S8 (b) to increase public awareness and promote better understanding of matters relating to the interests of families, for example, the following matters:

(i) the importance of stable family relationships (including those between parties to a marriage, civil union, or a de facto relationship);

The Commission recognised that family demographics and form have evolved in New Zealand and set out to capture the nature of these changes in its 2008 report "The Kiwi Nest. 60 Years of Changes in the New Zealand Family. It gives the following data on the contemporary New Zealand family:

Couples: In 2006, 57 percent of all adults aged 16 years and over were partnered and living together. The majority of those partnered (76 percent) were legally married. Of all households in 2006, 38 percent were couples with at least one dependent child and 19 percent were couples without children. Couples without children are expected to increase faster than couples with children over the next couple of decades. In 2006, about 20 percent of all men and women who were in partnerships were living in a de facto relationship.8 Of partnered people aged 15 to 44 years in 2006, about 40 percent were living in de facto relationships, compared with 10 percent of those aged 45 years and over. Some couples are of the same sex. Some families are blended or step-families. [iv]

The following data compares current family data with earlier decades:

Marriages, civil unions, divorces and remarriages: The marriage rate in 2006 was 13.5 (per 1,000 not-married population aged 16 and over) and the divorce rate 11.9. There were 430 civil unions registered in 2006, of which about 80 percent were same-sex unions. In 2006, 34 percent of all marriages were remarriages. The median age of first marriage for women was 28.2 years. [v] Compare this to 1961: the marriage rate was very high at 38.2 marriages and the divorce rate was 3.2. The median age of marriage for women in 1960 was 22 years. [vi]

Single-parent families: In 2006, 10 percent of all households (and 21 percent of households with dependent children) 12 were single-parent families, of which about 80 percent were headed by women. [vii] There were no comparative figure for 1961 but in 1971, 5% of all households were single parent. [viii]

Children: In June 2007, the median age of women giving birth to their first child was 28 years, while the median age of all women giving birth was 30.1 years and the fertility rate was 2.1 – just on replacement level. The fertility rate subsequently increased slightly to 2.2 by December 2007. [ix] Again there was no comparative figure for 1961 but by the mid to late 1970s, the median age at childbirth was still quite young at around 25 years. In 1961, the peak year for births, New Zealand's fertility rate was 4.3. [x]

Ethnicity: Māori and Pacific children are more likely than other ethnic groups to live as part of a single parent family, while Asian children are the least likely to do so. Some ethnic groups are more likely than others to live in multi-generational households and families. This is a particular characteristic of Asian families, as well as many Māori and Pacific families. In 2006, just over 27 percent of families with dependent children in New Zealand lived in households where there was more than one family. In 1981, this proportion was 17.2 percent. [xi]

The analysis of family form shows that while the traditional nuclear family was the reality for most Pakeha families in 1961, it was not the reality for Maori families. And if the traditional nuclear family was the reality for the majority of Pakeha in 1961, the data shows it is clearly not the reality in contemporary New Zealand, whatever their ethnicity. The challenge for the Commission then is how does it carry out its functions, as stated in the Act, when there is such diversity in family form and huge disagreement over what defines a family?

The answer for the Commission has been to concentrate on what families should do and how all sectors of society can work towards enhancing the capacity of families to carry out these tasks which include:

  • The nurturing, rearing, socialisation and protection of children
  • Maintaining and improving the wellbeing of family members by providing them with material and emotional support
  • The psychological anchorage of adults and children by way of affection, companionship and a sense of belonging and identity
  • Passing on culture, knowledge, values, attitudes, obligations and property from one generation to the next

These tasks expected of families are of course carried out in the environment in which they live – at a family, community, regional and national level. Each exerts a level of influence on the family and it is unrealistic to think that changing any one factor will result in "the" solution to family dysfunction. This is what Urie Bronfenbrenner argued in his Ecological Systems Theory. So what did the Families Commission find were the major factors that prevented families from optimal functioning?

The Commission's first piece of major research with families highlighted that lack of time is one of the most significant challenges to family life, particularly for single-parent families and those on low incomes. The demands of modern life appear to be placing increasing time pressures on families. The expression "work rich, time poor" is often used. In the 2006 Census, 23 percent of the workforce worked 50 or more hours a week, with this representing 29 percent of all full-time workers. People with dependent children did not tend to work less than those without.

While there are financial and other benefits such as career progression to parents working long hours, there are unwelcome effects on all of the family. A Commission study showed that those working long hours experienced fatigue and sleep deprivation, stress and other negative impacts on health and fitness, and reported having less energy to sustain relationships, including parenting. The spouse of the long hours worker could be overloaded with all the parenting and domestic duties, often while simultaneously working. [xii]

Families should be a place where all members are nurtured and protected but this is not the reality for many. Police are called out to more than 70,000 family violence incidents every year, there are more than 50,000 care and protection notifications requiring further action made to the Child, Youth and Family Service each year, more than 14,000 women and 10,000 children are assisted by women's refuges each year as a result of violence and half of all murders each year are family-violence related. The unpalatable truth about New Zealand families was revealed in the1987 Roper Report which noted that 80% of all violence was family based or in the home and identified family violence as 'the cradle for the perpetration of violence and crime in the community'. [xiii]

Unfortunately far too many children have never seen relationships based on love, trust and respect. Theirs is not a childhood where love abounds, where boundaries are set, and the discipline is positive. They in turn go on to live out what was their parents' reality.

Very early on in the life of the Commission, Age Concern New Zealand identified older persons living in different cities or countries from their families as a growing issue, especially as the person became progressively physically and/or mentally unwell. A study into elder abuse and neglect identified this as a risk factor for emotional abuse and neglect. Geographical distance can restrict contact between the older person and their family, which can lead to limited awareness of the older person's changing needs and limited monitoring of the quality of the home help or residential care the older person is receiving: [xiv] Families are also deprived of the wisdom, experience and transmission of memories that can come from having grandparents living in close proximity.

New Zealand will only be a successful society when families are strong and resilient, whatever their form. Families are strong when they care deeply for each other, when they communicate well, when they spend plenty of quality time together, when they connect and have a sense of spiritual wellbeing and when they have coping mechanisms to enable them to deal with stress. These are the very factors that the Catholic Church teaches underpin the covenant a man and woman enter into when they marry. Sadly they are not the reality for many couples, married or not. What the Families Commission wants is that at every level of New Zealand society, the interests of families, in all their diversity, should lie at the heart of decision making, policy formation and service delivery.


[i] Families Commission Act 2003, S10(2)

[ii] The Kiwi Nest – 60 Years of Change in New Zealand Families, June 2008, p 6 http://www.nzfamilies.org.nz/files/kiwi-nest.pdf

[iii] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Forum of Family Associations and the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations, 16 May 2008.

[iv] The Kiwi Nest, p. 17

[v] The Kiwi Nest, p. 27

[vi] The Kiwi Nest, p. 20

[vii] The Kiwi Nest, p. 28

[viii] The Kiwi Nest, p. 21

[ix] The Kiwi Nest, p. 28

[x] The Kiwi Nest, p. 21

[xi] The Kiwi Nest, p. 29

[xii] Finding Time Parents' Long Working Hours and the Impact on Families, May 2009, p 8

[xiii] Report of Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence (Roper report) 198

[xiv] Elder Abuse and Neglect Exploration of Risk and Protective Factors January 2008, p 38


Sharron Cole , a former Deputy Chief Families Commissioner, is currently Director, Wellington Catholic Education Centre