Teaching sense of right in a world of wrong


At 2 p.m., Margaret Keenan's seven- and nine-year-old boys look out of their livingroom window and see "joyriders" racing through their estate, which is littered with burnt-out cars.

"Isn't that cool?" the little boys say. Margaret tries to convince them: "No, it isn't cool. It's not nice," although she worries her words have little influence. "I can tell my boys that it's wrong, but what do my words mean when my boys see other children getting away with it?" she asks.

There is no place for her four children, aged seven to 11, to play near their home in Parslickstown, Mulhuddart, a rapidly-growing area of 2,000 houses, divided into three estates. A further 600 houses are under construction.

Margaret is wary of letting her children play outside because the family lives on a busy main road. Across this road, there is a green space, strewn with broken bottles, that is taken over at night by gangs of drinking youths. Children have found syringes in the park, and in their own front gardens. In an area where 50 per cent of the residents are under the age of 18, there are no facilities for children and many parents like Margaret are fearful of letting their children play outside.

Margaret, a stay-at-home mother, and her partner Thomas, a builder, are trying to teach their children that the bad language and bullying they hear and see on the streets are unacceptable. "You are constantly on their backs, saying 'that's wrong', 'don't talk to people like that', 'have respect for your teachers'. But they see other children getting away with it," says Margaret.

"I worry about them when they become teenagers. What is out there for them? There is a drugs problem and gangs of youths \ everywhere," she says.

Margaret tries to contribute positively by running a youth club for 10- to 13-year-olds. She is concerned that too many adults are unwilling to take responsibility for monitoring children's behaviour and re-enforcing standards. When she was a child, growing up in Co Meath, "There were adults around telling children what was acceptable and what wasn't. And children accepted that. You were afraid. You had a sense of right and wrong. Children today don't seem to have that."

Adults are afraid to intervene when they witness anti-social behaviour. "As a parent you may see things that you know should be reported, but you can't report them because you could become a victim . . . if you go to a child's parents and say you're concerned that the child is doing something, the parents deny it," says Margaret.

While anything goes with children's behaviour, children and adults alike are ridiculed for not wearing "designer labels", she says. "If children have a rip in the knee of their jeans, people look at them as if they are dirt. People are materialistic and interested in 'things', at the expense of deeper values. It's what you have, not how you behave that matters. People are interested in the house first, the clothes second and children's behaviour third, when children really should come first."