Arming them with information
"CHILDREN'S Right to I Know" is the some what controversial title of a seminar which takes place at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin's Temple Bar this Friday. Organised by The Youth Library Group, the seminar will focus on the wealth of information available to children through various media, and how to ensure children have access to the information they need.
The onslaught of information today is a constant source of concern to parents who naturally want to protect their children from disturbing information or information which could lead them to harm.
However, organisations like the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children believe children have a right to the information they need to protect themselves.
Teresa Heeney, regional manager for training and policy at the ISPCC, will address the issue of the right to know at the seminar.
"There is an assumption that children, when innocent, are protected. But the consequence of not giving children adequate information is that they aren't properly equipped to make choices and in extreme cases can end up in abusive relationships.
"We believe children have a right to information around their identity, bodily integrity and anything which has an impact on them. They have a right to protection, and they have to be informed on how to keep themselves safe."
But ensuring information is easily accessible to children is a complex issue filled with potential hazards.
"Anyone with a responsibility towards children has to steer a narrow path between over protection and censorship and giving them the information they need to protect themselves," says Valerie Coghlan who is giving a talk entitled "Changing Ways of Knowing" at the seminar.
"The idea of a child's `right to know' is controversial, but there is an urgent need for debate around the whole area," she says.
"Parents are often not aware of the information their children have access to, yet nowadays children do need a significant amount of information to cope with the world. They have to be well informed intellectually and socially."
The issue for parents is no longer how to find a balance between providing children with the information they need and protecting them from disturbing information, it is teaching children information skills, she says.
"Children need to learn how to select from the huge amount of information that is being thrown at and how to discrimination and about what they want to know. They should also be taught information handling skills, they need to learn how to interpret the information they receive, and how to distinguish propaganda and bias."
Insisting on a "childhood innocence" of the evils of the world gives rise to more difficulties.
"Retaining innocence - in the sense of childhood qualities like optimism - and a belief that life is good are very important," says Coghlan, "but the word innocence is often misused. It conveys a certain safe and secure quality, which we are all too aware nowadays is not the case.
"There is a big difference between ignorance and innocence. Trying to cocoon children is harmful. Anyone who is well informed is in a better position than somebody who is ignorant."
SHE also believes that parents have to think in terms of teaching their children how to cope with disturbing information, because it is inevitable they will come across something upsetting.
"There are no hard and fast rules on how to help them cope with this sort of information," she says. "It all depends on the individual child. But parents should make their children aware that they might come across things they will find disturbing, and that they can come and talk to them if they want.
Despite the excess of information available to children, according to Teresa Heeney "the vast majority of children still go to their parents first for information. But there are some things they don't feel able to talk to their parents about, such as problems in the home. Also older children are becoming more independent and should have other avenues for finding out about things."
Given that children have so many avenues today, Valerie Coghlan feels parents have to "become informed on the whole are of information. When we don't know what is going on, we feel resentment and fear. The parent who is informed is in a better position to guide their child."