Guru of growing up ready to call it a day

 

Sheila Greene has given us a bigger picture of the lives of children today and, on her retirement, she sees positives – though they are built on fragile supports, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

THE CUSTODIAN of the first-floor office in the Children’s Research Centre, housed in Dublin’s Temple Bar, is clearly on the move. The walls have been stripped and, in the middle of the room, a table and two chairs sit like an island in a sea of cardboard boxes.

It is a week before Trinity College professor Sheila Greene retires and she has agreed to do a final interview as director of the centre that she co-founded with Prof Robbie Gilligan in 1995. Their vision was for a place of multi-disciplinary research into children’s lives, in an outreach service by the university into the community.

There are few people better positioned than Greene to reflect on the state of Irish childhood and the Government’s commitment to, in the words of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, “ensure that growing up in Ireland means that you have the best start in life available anywhere in the world”.

The fact that we have a bigger picture of the lives of children in Ireland today is thanks in no small part to Greene and the research she has led and inspired over the past two decades.

She is also co-director of Growing Up in Ireland, a national longitudinal study set up in 2006 to track the progress and well-being of two large, representative groups of children, from the age of nine months and from the age of nine years.

On the morning we met, newspapers reported on the first findings of the qualitative research on the nine-year-olds and their parents. Broadly, it presented a picture of happy, active, optimistic children developing well across a range of areas. The majority talked warmly of their relationships with their parents.

A lot of what is coming out of Growing Up in Ireland is positive, Greene acknowledges, and it is very important that we focus on the positives. However, “we have to look carefully at the good news and see what it is that is supporting it because it may be quite fragile,” she warns. “We could be on the trajectory the UK has gone.”

She refers to research Unicef in the UK published last month that showed children there feel trapped in a materialistic culture and don’t have enough time with their families.

In comparison, the study found that in Sweden and Spain, where family time is prioritised, there is much less pressure to own material goods, and children have greater access to activities outside the home.

“We are rather more like Spain, in extended family and family events and family closeness than the UK,” she suggests. “But this is something that, unless you explicitly value it, could disappear.”

One of the negatives in Ireland is a “fanaticism” about spending time at work – either having to or being expected to, says Greene. “People who have jobs are working crazy hours and have anxiety about it, and can’t be seen to take time off to take the children to the dentist.”

Whereas in Sweden, which is very work-orientated, they “still hang on to the value of family time and have more family-friendly policies in term of work-practices. People don’t feel they have to sit at their desks until seven o’clock at night”.

Growing Up in Ireland reports that the nine-year-olds frequently commented on how they felt less close to parents who worked long hours and were less available.

If, arguably, the lives of most children in Ireland have never been better than during the past couple of decades, the question is what impact will the continuing economic crisis have?

“Of course you have to be concerned that things we were getting right in terms of support of children with disabilities in schools, in terms of investment in play facilities, is that all going to stop? Are we going to continue to support kids and teenagers in terms of projects and youth cafes or is all that going to grind to a halt?”

She believes many of these initiatives are an easy target for cuts. “You can identify and value the things we are doing well, but you also need to realise that these could all be threatened by the economy, or just by social change.”

As somebody who has always been motivated by a sense of injustice at inequality of opportunities, she is also very conscious of those children for whom life has not been better.

“We have been a very unequal society,” she points out. “We haven’t managed to eliminate the levels of child poverty that we should have done.” In 2009, one child in 11 was living in consistent poverty in Ireland and it can only have worsened since then.

“Some children, just from an accident of birth, have everything showered on them and every opportunity given to them, and other children get so much less. I feel strongly, for example, about fee-paying schools.”

She and her husband, fellow Trinity academic Dr Paul O’Mahony, sent their two children to Mount Temple Comprehensive School, rather than a fee-paying alternative.

“I think children of the middle classes get plenty of advantages anyway and it is a pity more middle-class people don’t invest in the State system, just in terms of their energies and knowledge.

“There will be injustices and inequalities anyway, you don’t have to reinforce them.”

Greene’s career, starting as a student in Trinity in the 1960s, spans a time of huge change in Ireland – socially, culturally and within her own profession. On graduation, she had to go to London to qualify as a clinical psychologist because there was no clinical training here.

From there she went to Boston, where she became head psychologist on a children’s longitudinal study, similar to the one she was to help establish in Ireland many decades later.

In “a moment of madness”, she decided to return to Trinity in 1973 and join a “very small and under-resourced” psychology department. She and Maureen Gaffney, who was working for the Eastern Health Board at the time, went on to set up the first clinical training programme for psychology students.

“I came back thinking I would stay for a few years, and if someone had said then that you are going to be retiring from Trinity in 2011, I would have said, ‘Well, shoot me now’. At that point I saw myself as a sort of person who moved on.”

Moving on had been a constant feature of her childhood; she lived in 17 different houses before the age of 18. (It was not something she inflicted on her children, as she and her husband have owned the same house in Clontarf for the past 27 years.)

Her parents came from a Protestant community in south Donegal and her father ran away at the age of 17 to join the British army. Although Greene was reared on army bases in Britain and overseas, “Ireland was always home and we came home whenever we could”.

Despite finishing her schooling in England, she had a long-held ambition to go to Trinity College. It was an opportunity denied to her mother, who should have done a final year there as part of her course at the Church of Ireland teacher-training college but her family could not afford it.

Trinity in the 1960s was “quite an experience”, she remarks, “party central”. But one of her abiding memories is, as a student journalist, writing about corporal punishment and finding a place that made leather straps with little iron bars running through them to sell to teachers and parents.

“It was shocking to me. I remember being hit as a child at school and the sense of outrage. It has kind of remained with me. I hate the idea of children being hit.”

Although corporal punishment was banned in Irish schools in 1982, it is still not illegal for parents to physically chastise their children. Greene recalls a study she did in the late 1980s, which found that 80 per cent of people had smacked their 18-month-old children.

“I hope that is much less now, and some of the work done by colleagues here seems to indicate that it is.”

She believes that, generally, there is more emotional closeness between parents and children, and that fathers, in particular, are more involved with their children than they used to be.

However, for a minority of children, home will continue to be a place of fear, she points out, and some parents just don’t know how to cope with their children. Yet she is wary of interventions that focus on “parenting classes” and imply that working-class mothers need to be told how to be parents.

“A lot of that is quite disrespectful to people. There are a lot of assumptions that need to be questioned.” It is very easy to blame parents for everything.

“Very often the parents are doing their very best in the circumstances they are in and a lot of the root causes of these problems parents may have is inequality and lack of jobs and lack of facilities in their neighbourhoods. You really have to look beyond the parent.”

Visiting areas of social deprivation in Dublin, she has seen families who have created “beautiful little havens” within flat complexes that are littered with glass and the “smell of piss”.

“You think, ‘I couldn’t keep my life going in these circumstances. How do they not just sit there in a depressed heap?’ Then you have the others who are not coping and you think, ‘I am not surprised’.

“It is hard enough as a middle-class parent to keep your kid on the straight and narrow, the drugs are everywhere, and the drink – the excessive drinking culture for young teenagers is very worrying.”

As a font of wisdom and clear-sighted, compassionate commentary, informed both by her work and life experience, she undoubtedly observes with wryness some of the current middle-class angst about parenting.

“There was no such word as ‘parenting’ when I was a student,” she points out. She is of the generation of working women who had the guilt trip of “taking men’s jobs” laid on them, never mind that of “abandoning their children”, which came later.

However, she is concerned at a widespread sense of parenting being more of a chore than a pleasure. “It is terrible for children to get the impression that they are a burden”, and there is evidence in Growing Up in Ireland that some feel that, she explains.

“A lot of people seem to have difficulty spending time with their kids, being relaxed about it and enjoying it. That’s a pity.”

She hears of people plotting to take two weeks’ holidays without their children – “why would you do that?”

That is not to say children are not going to drive you nuts sometimes, she stresses, which is why parents’ networks within the community are so important, allowing people to support each other.

With both her and her husband, a senior lecturer in psychology, having retired on the same day, last Friday, liberty beckons. “I just don’t want to be responsible for anything more,” she says.

“It is an interesting phase of life, if you can arrive at this point reasonably healthy and family around you and good friends. It is interesting to find out what parts of yourself you can discover that you haven’t had time to think about or explore.”

She has things she wants to write about; she intends to do a little teaching and will continue to serve on the board of the children’s charity Barnardos.

At one point in the interview, she remarks: “I am full of opinions – I need to be shut up.” For the sake of Irish children and their parents, let’s hope not.

INSIDE EUDCATION: SHEILA GREENE ON...

Modern parenting: “I do think the sense that parenting is more of a chore than a pleasure seems to be quite strong.”

Narrow criteria for educational “success”: “I have seen kids who have first-class honours degrees, are scholars of Trinity College, Dublin, and they can’t tie their own shoelaces. They can’t form relationships, and they can’t manage themselves, so they can’t function in the workplace.”

Gender inequality:“It is still the woman who takes most of the brunt of managing the children and the childcare, and it is still women who people think of first when we talk about working parents.”

Current emigration: “I look at the generation of my kids’ age going abroad – we won’t have them here to be the bedrock of our society in years to come, that’s terrible.”