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Fintan O’Toole: This Christmas, remember what children give to us

They deserve medals from the State for being heroes throughout the pandemic

The most powerful modern Irish Christmas story, Tom Murphy’s great play Bailegangaire, works its way through a lot of trauma. But it ends – because one of the granddaughters is pregnant – with the words “and a new baby to gladden their home”.

It is a little gem of a word, gladden, at once ordinary and wonderful. Children, especially the little ones, gladden the home. They also wreck it and disrupt it and dominate it. But the gladdening is the bit those of us with kids and grandkids anticipate and remember.

Christmas is a religious festival of profound meaning for Christian believers. But it is powerful too because it has at its heart a human reality that can be recognised outside any religious context: the joy of a child.

There's a word we adults like to use about kids because it makes us feel better: resilient. It keeps the wolf of anxiety from our own doors, stops us worrying too much about them

These two notions are not mutually exclusive. They are intertwined. In the great nativity paintings, the divine child is movingly human. In our mundane family photos, our children are at least a little bit divine.

This is why Christmas, as well as being an important date on the liturgical calendar, is – or should be – the festival of childhood. And this year in particular children need and deserve a festival.

Many of us old ones are feeling, as the pandemic goes into a third year, a sense that time has been stolen from us. I was writing something last week and I twice referred to events as having taken place in 2019 that had actually happened in 2020. It is as if years have melted into each other or even disappeared altogether into one long dreary annus horribilis.

But what must this be like for a child? Such a big proportion of a kid’s life has already been lived in Covid time.

We talk of digital natives. But when I think of my three-year-old grandson, the thought occurs to me that he is a pandemic native, that the world in which he has come to consciousness is one in which our strange is his familiar: the masks, the funny way we slalom through the streets, the heightened awareness of others.

Maybe, though, this is easier for a three-year-old than it is if you are, say, 10 or 12. You are not a pandemic native. You grew up in a different country and you have a memory of what it was like.

The Growing Up in Ireland survey asked 12-year-olds about what has changed in their lives. They reported experiencing less time spent with their friends, less playing of sports or taking exercise and a collapse in their participation in cultural activities. Conversely, they have spent a lot more time talking online or on the phone, eating junk food and looking at screens.

There’s a feeling, both in this survey and from talking to parents I know, that children are drawn between enjoyment of more time with their families and getting fed up that they are stuck with them.

Three-quarters of 12-year-olds in Ireland report having less time to themselves. That solitary condition of being lost in inner headspace – reading a book, picking your nose, staring at insects, dissecting navel fluff, daydreaming – is as important to childhood as the periods of intense sociability are, and its loss may be no less keenly felt.

Anyway, it’s been hard for children. It has stayed hard for what is, from a child’s perspective, a very long time. And we adults don’t have a good answer to every kid’s question: are we there yet? We keep telling them that we nearly are and then the road becomes long and winding again.

Children have forced so many adults to keep the show on the road, to hold it together, to face the day

There’s a word we adults like to use about kids because it makes us feel better: resilient. It keeps the wolf of anxiety from our own doors, stops us worrying too much about them.

It is true: kids are durable creatures. What choice do they have after all? And learning to be mentally tough is, in an often harsh world, a necessary survival skill.

But being resilient doesn’t mean not finding it hard going. Or not needing to be thanked and reassured and made much of.

I actually think, mad as it sounds, that the State should give every child in Ireland a medal. Just a token, a tangible gesture, a touchstone of collective recognition, a reminder to the rest of us that the experiences of children are too often left out of the narrative of these times.

In the meantime, though, there’s Christmas. The moment in the year when those of us who have been parents or grandparents get to feel vicariously the wonder of which were once capable.

We think of Christmas as a time when we give things to children. But this year, more than any other, we should think too of what they give to us: the way they renew the world.

They’ve all been heroes in getting up every day, including the dark ones, and starting afresh. They’ve forced so many adults to keep the show on the road, to hold it together, to face the day.

They will, we hope, remember these Christmases with the intensity that we bring in later life to the recollection of strange times. We hope they will remember how grateful we were that they gladdened our homes.