The year of the child
We strengthened children’s rights, finally chose a site for their new hospital and faced up to our recent failure to care for vulnerable kids. This was the year Ireland began to look a little more like a child-centred society
It is one of the most misinterpreted lines of Irish rhetoric. The 1916 Proclamation’s pledge that the Republic will cherish “all the children of the nation equally” is typically seen as a hopeful marker for future generations of Irish children. Except it’s not a reference to children at all. Instead, according to historians, the reference to the nation is that of a mythical mother and the children are her citizens.
The later Constitution didn’t mention children at all. They were invisible. Mother Ireland went on to to ignore the plight of tens of thousands of poor, illegitimate, abused children who were forced to endure the brutalising experience of industrial schools.
The same legacy of indifference was also to blame years later for a new generation of vulnerable children slipping through the cracks of the State’s child-protection system. Yet all the while we deluded ourselves with the empty rhetoric that suggested Ireland was some sort of Utopia of equality for children.
Almost a century later, are we any closer to being a child-centred republic now than we were at the foundation of the State? Well, yes we are, though we still have a long way to go.
Despite the party-political sniping about budget cuts and bailout packages that dominated current affairs during the year, 2012 may well be remembered as something else: as the year Ireland’s citizen children finally took centre stage.
The people voted, albeit in smaller-than-expected numbers, to support a referendum to strengthen children’s rights. It means children must be treated equally, that the voices of young people must be listened to by authorities and that their best interests must prevail at all times.
It was also a year in which the Government faced up to its failure to adequately protect children, publishing a devastating report that showed how dozens of children in contact with the State’s child-protection services died of overdoses, by suicide and of other causes over a 10-year period.
Ministers drafted tough new laws that will force the public and organisations to report abuse of children rather than keeping it hidden, as has so often been the case in the past.
A new national children’s hospital was approved to replace the drab and dilapidated conditions that face many young people and their families. And a new State agency is about to be established that will finally take over responsibility from the sprawling bureaucracy of the Health Service Executive to provide a sharper focus on child and family affairs.
Yet, just as we make such long-awaited progress with our children, are we about to let them down again? Rather than being protected from the worst effects of austerity, children and their families are being exposed to its full force.
Budget spending cuts are hitting young people disproportionately harder through reductions in child benefit and back-to-school allowances. Many young people’s life prospects are likely to be damaged as a result.
The Taoiseach has spoken about reversing decades of past neglect to ensure the State does everything possible to safeguard “our most precious possession of all, children”. It’s a reminder, if one were needed, of the gap between flowery rhetoric and grim reality.
One of the most striking things about childhood in Ireland now is how prevalent it is. There are more than a million under-18s, about a quarter of the population. That proportion is higher than in any other EU state.
There is still a resilient faith in the value of having children.
Despite the economic gloom and uncertainty, the simple pulse of life remains strong at a time when it’s fading in many neighbouring countries.
Our attitudes are changing too. Children these days are precious to us: maybe more so than to any previous generation. We approach parenting with a single-mindedness that can baffle our own parents – and certainly their parents, who sometimes thought children should be seen and not heard.
It’s seen as normal to put kids ahead of careers, relationships and social lives. Even if we aren’t doing so, everyone around us seems to be. We devour research on how to build our children’s self-esteem, to keep them from being bullied and to expand their intellects.
Life in many respects has been improving for children, even at a time of rapid change. One of the best sources of information about what it’s like to be a child in Ireland now is the long-term study Growing Up in Ireland. This longitudinal research has been tracking children as they grow up in a changing Ireland.
One of the most positive changes over the past century is the idea that children enjoy going to school. The education system, especially primary school, used to be a daunting experience for many young people. It involved the ever-present threat of violence or humiliation.
The recent report shows that almost all 13-year-olds who were interviewed were broadly positive about their school and their teachers, although rates of satisfaction and positive interaction with teachers were much higher among higher-income families.
The findings show that the children generally have strong bonds with their parents. Almost half of boys and girls said they had discussed sex and relationships with their mother or father by the age of 13.
The traditional family unit remains remarkably stable. A large majority of children surveyed lived in two-parent families. But modernity also carries a new set of challenges for young people. There are troubling findings relating to obesity, discipline and poor self-image among girls.
The findings suggest girls have lower self-esteem about their appearance and are more likely to feel anxious or to worry about their popularity. Recent suicides and tragic deaths have highlighted how vulnerable some teenage schoolgirls can be.
This year also showed how slowly we’re improving prospects for some of our most vulnerable children. A few years ago the Ryan report into the abuse of children in residential institutions set out in chilling detail the failure of religious orders and the State to protect vulnerable children from abuse. The country was shocked. Never again would children be made to suffer like this.