Drugs Can you keep your child safe?


Parents Under Pressure 1: Our gross national product has increased, but what has happened to our gross national happiness? Drugs, materialism, as well as housing and time pressures are eroding family life, pushing children towards crime and driving parents to despair, reports Kathryn Holmquist in a three-part series starting today

When we talk about "childcare", "family policy" and "parental responsibility" we usually leave children out of the picture. "The 'child-care debate' has much more to do with employment and gender equality policies than it has about the rights, needs or interests of children," says Owen Keenan, chief executive of Barnardos, the children's charity.

Our focus is just as narrow when we react to seeing children engaging in criminal activity, using drugs and "joyriding". We tend to say "lock them up and throw away the key". Or we blame their parents, when the reality is that we are all culpable, because these children are the products of the society we have created.

"Parents are being blamed for their parenting skills when in fact their children's behaviour is a result of social policy, or the lack of it," says Keenan. "We are working with very vulnerable children and what we find is that usually the parents are very vulnerable as well, and have not had the positive experience of being parented themselves. And yet we expect them to be effective parents when they have no models to emulate," he says.

The State, representing all of us as citizens, has repeatedly failed in its parenting role for children "in care", Keenan points out. One of the more recent examples was a 14-year-old "child prostitute" discovered to be in health-board care.

Parenting gets lip service as "the most important job anyone can ever do", but in practical terms, many parents lack the support they need to fulfil their role. As parents, we are caring for more than one million children under the age of 18, yet the basis on which family life thrives is constantly being eroded. "In spite of our economic progress, there has been a weakening of the environmental supports that were an accepted feature of family life for previous generations of parents, such as the support of the extended family and community and a belief in the safety of children within their communities. Sponge-like, it is as though families have to absorb the pressures . . . and too often they feel wrung out when it comes to the core of their parenting role," writes Keenan in the Barnardos' report, Parents Under Pressure.

Keenan asks: "With all the material success of the economic boom, there's the question of whether we are really better off. Our gross national product has increased, but what has happened to our gross national happiness? What is it that we are chasing as a country? If we truly care about children and childhood, then we must understand the current realities of family life in Ireland and consider how we can support parents in their parenting role." Today, Barnardos launches a postcard campaign as part of its "Parents Under Pressure" awareness project.

PARENTS have been telling Barnardos they feel the family agenda has been dominated by employers, unions and Government, while they have no voice. To redress this, Barnardos is asking parents to answer questions about family life on postcards that will be available in Statoil stations and from Barnardos shops. Parents will be asked to tick which factor is most important in improving their family's quality of life: time, money, or a better place to live. There is also an online poll on www.barnardos.ie. The family with enough money to pay a mortgage may be time-poor - struggling to balance the careers of two parents with the needs of their children. A family without adequate income, may be trapped, living in an environment that is so damaging for children that it counteracts all their parenting skills.

Says Keenan: "We're bringing to the forefront the fact that all families in Ireland experience pressure at some stage and that this pressure is more than we would like to think it is. Pressure is a normal part of parenting and even reasonably well-off families are struggling at various points."

We like to think that our country is a good place for children to grow up, but the statistics tell of the pressure parents are under.

Despite unprecedented economic growth, three out of 10 lone-parent families and two out of 10 two-parent families are living in poverty. Our child poverty ranks sixth highest on a list of 23 OECD countries. Nearly 600 children and young people were homeless in 2000. More than 3 per cent of young people leave school without any qualifications. Conduct disorders and behavioural problems are now the most prevalent disability in childhood. Every year, one in 10 children and adolescents experiences mental illness severe enough to cause impairment.

Barnardos' call to address these problems is supported by a raft of reports, such as the National Children's Strategy, which aims to establish a "whole child" perspective at the centre of policy development and service delivery. Its vision is "an Ireland where children are respected as young citizens with a valued contribution to make and a voice of their own; where all children are cherished and supported by family and the wider society; where they enjoy a fulfilling childhood and realise their potential".

Such reports offer insight, understanding, solid research and recommendations. Celia Keenaghan, project manager of another policy document, Investing in Parenthood, says: "We know what we have to do, what is lacking is the funding to do it."