Hey, leave those kids alone

 

ISSUES FOR THE POSITIVE CHILDHOOD CAMPAIGN:WHEN JILL Holtz’s daughter was about to turn seven recently, all she wanted for her birthday was a Monster High doll – a range of Barbie-type zombie dolls mostly dressed in the customary short skirt and high heels.

“She asked me for that,” says Holtz, who had no major objection. “I had Barbie dolls and it is not that I think they do any harm; you can be too PC about it.”

But she was conscious of roles being reversed – her daughter knew about these dolls before her and the desire for one was firmly planted in her mind. “It wasn’t me as a parent thinking about what is there in the marketplace for a seven year old.”

In the highly consumerised and media-saturated society we live in, it seems there are more influences than ever outside the home competing for children’s attention. They are bombarded with messages and images, which parents sometimes struggle to counteract.

“Just say no,” is easier said than done when successful sportsmen are endorsing “energy drinks” that your seven-year-old son now believes are essential for playing soccer; your nine-year-old daughter is the only one in her class who does not have a mobile phone; your 11-year-old daughter’s friends are all wearing make-up and your son is the only boy in first year who does not have a Facebook account.

Parents may be uncomfortable about how the adult world infiltrates their children’s lives but they feel powerless to do anything about it.

We don’t want our children getting an eyeful of topless “glamour” models when they are searching for their favourite TV tie-in magazine at the newsagents but we are reluctant to take shop staff to task; we wince at the provocative music video we find our five year olds dancing along to but try to convince ourselves it’s harmless fun.

Consumerism puts parents under so much pressure from their children, says Holtz, co-founder of the parents’ information website, Mykidstime.ie, and a mother of two living in Co Galway. “They don’t want to be deemed prudish about stuff.”

Children are also under pressure, to have and to do the same as their peers – and who wants their child to be the odd one out?

“Put parents around a dinner table or parents standing in the playground and these are the things that are worrying us but we feel quite defenceless – what can we do?” asks Sheena Horgan, a consultant on youth/family and social marketing issues, and a mother of four girls.

“But actually we can do things. There are systems in place – good, bad and indifferent – but parents need to know about them and use them. And where there aren’t any, parents need to be able to insist that industry and politicians put them in place.”

She is working with Mykidstime.ieon a Positive Childhood campaign that was launched in Dublin yesterday by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald.

Findings from the Growing Up in Ireland study, according to the Minister, highlight how contemporary Irish childhood has changed, with many new pressures and influences coming to bear on our children’s lives.

“I think it’s important that we do all we can to support parents to support children.”

She welcomed the establishment of the Positive Childhood campaign “as an important new platform to help inform parents on key issues affecting the contemporary childhood and to provide a strong voice for Ireland’s parents on issues of importance to them”.

The campaign’s tagline, “Letting kids be kids”, comes from the title of an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood by Reg Bailey, which was commissioned by the British government and published last June. Many of the issues raised also apply this side of the Irish Sea.

“There are no easy solutions but it is important that we talk about these things as parents and as a society,” says Holtz.

While parents recognise that they should be the ones to set the standards that their children live by, says Bailey, who is chief executive of the Christian charity Mothers’ Union, “they need businesses and others to work with them and not against them”.

“They also want to be able to raise concerns when they think things are going wrong.”

Both Holtz and Horgan believe parents need more of a collective voice in this country. Sometimes it takes a sense of solidarity to empower people to speak up.

This is not about “placing blame or pointing fingers”, stresses Holtz. “It is about looking at what Irish childhood is and how it can be made as positive as possible. “We are in a new society. Things have changed – some things are better, some are not. Is there anything we can do, by discussing things that are not, to make them better?”

An online survey conducted by Mykidstime.iefound that 49 per cent of parents feel that childhood nowadays compares favourably with their own while 30 per cent believe that childhood is less positive today.

Frequently cited positives include how children are listened to more, they are safer and have a wider choice of activities, while common negatives are less freedom, too much emphasis on material goods and less time to spend with parents.

Based on common concerns that emerged in this research, the campaign is focusing on different topics each month through social media and other outlets. Parents’ feedback will be directed to the appropriate bodies.

Holtz says a good outcome of the open-ended campaign would be if stakeholders in children, such as retailers, food manufacturers and restaurants, made changes themselves and also ensure they have ways that parents can get in touch with them.

“A small shift in opinion and debate can be enough to start the building of a movement,” says Horgan.

“It is about creating a voice for parents that politicians and industry will listen to.”

For more information, see mykidstime.ie

Issues being looked at by the Positive Childhood campaign include:

E-SAFETY

Technology is a fantastic learning tool for children but it is one aspect of childhood that scares parents. The internet wasn’t there when we were growing up and we struggle to keep track of how our children are using electronic devices.

Some 83 per cent of parents are concerned about their children seeing inappropriate content, according to a survey released last month to mark Safer Internet Day. And almost half the parents of younger children felt the risks posed by the internet outweighed the benefits.

Despite the high level of anxiety, some parents ignore common sense advice such as keeping computers in open, family spaces rather than allowing them into a child’s bedroom. However, discussing precautions and privacy issues with your child is more effective than policing, now that the internet is accessed through mobile phones and other devices such as iPods.

“It is parents’ job to manage these things,” acknowledges Sheena Horgan but she believes industry could do much more on educating them in how to go about it.

CLOTHING

Tights with inbuilt suspenders for nine year olds, so that they can follow in the fashion footsteps of celebrities such as Rihanna, were spotted in a Dublin shop recently.

Mykidstime.iehas been inviting parents to report any children’s clothing on sale that they consider inappropriate to both its website and Retail Ireland. Some 67 per cent of parents surveyed by Mykidstime.iethink that there is clothing on sale for children that is not age appropriate.

A new code of best practice for the selling of children’s clothes is being prepared by Retail Ireland. Its director, Stephen Lynam, says it is liaising with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and hopes to launch the guidelines in May.

Parents need to be able to object to garments on sale and “to not feel awkward, prudish or in the minority” in doing so, says Horgan.

In keeping with the positive spirit of the campaign, parents are being facilitated by Mykidstime.ienot only to make complaints about inappropriate clothing, but also to commend retailers who offer good choices for children.

FOOD/NUTRITION

For all the anxiety and increased awareness among parents about healthy eating, the percentage of overweight and obese children continues to grow. Why?

“As a society we have normalised the obesity and overweight issue; we need to break that mould by having the conversation as parents – as opposed to political and industry level,” Horgan says.

For instance, are restaurants justified in saying that they don’t offer healthier options on their children’s menu because most parents are still looking for chicken nuggets and chips for their off-spring?

Parents also underestimate their power as consumers – wouldn’t our annoyance at the food industry’s use of TV and film characters to make highly processed products appeal to children be best expressed by choosing not to buy them?

EXERCISE/SPORT

This is another facet of the obesity problem. Our huge interest in sport as a nation is not always translated into participation – especially by teenage girls.

The Positive Childhood campaign is working with the FAI and the GAA to raise the profile of some high-ranking sports women.

“Children need good positive role models in sport, particularly women,” says Horgan, who stresses that parents have to realise they are vital role models when it comes to exercise, yet “we are the ones jumping into our cars to drive our children to schools”. Children need at least 60 minutes’ exercise a day.

The recommended time of one hour’s physical education (PE) a week in our primary schools is the lowest in Europe – and still an Irish Sports Council study in 2010 found that only a third of pupils are getting even that much.

It is so important to get physical education in primary school right because it is easier to engage younger children with a range of activities, she points out, which increases the chances of them continuing some sort of sport through adolescence into adulthood.

PLAY

The lack of free play for today’s children is something that was frequently mentioned in responses to the Mykidstime.iesurvey. Between parental concerns about safety and the need and/or desire to structure our children’s lives, playtime is often reduced to sitting in the corner with an electronic toy.

“Play has changed but the need for it is as fundamentally important as it ever was,” says Horgan.

It is also one area where the pressure on children to grow up is evident. Children nearing double digits are often expected to put “childish” play behind them and knuckle down to more “mind-improving” activities.

COMMERCIALISATION

We live in a highly commercialised world and the “pester power” of children is harnessed by the marketing industry. Children are aided and abetted in influencing how the household budget is spent.

Some 64 per cent of parents surveyed by Mykidstime.iesay their children put them under pressure to buy things they have seen on television or in adverts, while 82 per cent feel there should be no advertising between children’s TV programmes.

Should children be treated as consumers? They undoubtedly are, says Horgan, but their vulnerability needs to be recognised. And using sexist adult imagery to sell products that appeal to children, such as the infamous crisp ads, is irresponsible.

We are not seeking an “overly PC environment”, says Horgan, “because we can’t cosset our kids but we need to be able to protect them”.

She would like to see advertisers here follow a lead from the Bailey review, and make sure bus stop shelters beside schools are not used for ads that are inappropriate for children.

“They will see these things anyway but they don’t need to see them three times a day Monday to Friday.”

She also commends the UK’s “one-stop shop” for parents who have any concerns or complaints relating to advertising and marketing. Seven media regulators got together to establish ParentPort, where people can make a complaint or express a view on all forms of media and it will be forwarded to the appropriate body.