Sunday 23 October 2016

Are we over protecting our children?

In our desire to keep children safe, are we sucking some of the joy of growing up from their experience?

Carol with her daughter Sophie and son Oscar (11)
Carol with her daughter Sophie and son Oscar (11)
Climbing trees is one of the joys of childhood
Carol Hunt
Carol Hunt and her daughter Sophie (14)
Psychologist Fergus Heffernan

Climbing trees has got to be one of the great joys of childhood. It certainly was one of mine. Yet, as Irish counselling psychologist and family therapist Fergus Heffernan notes, the vast majority of children today have never, ever, enjoyed that simple pleasure.

Why not? Have the trees all suddenly become extinct? Have children lost the ability to be as nimble and agile as little monkeys?

Nope. It's the parents, stupid.

At home, we have become so neurotic about keeping our little darlings from harm that we ban them from enjoying the most basic of pleasures.

And when they're at school or on trips without us, those caring for them are so scared of litigation from parents should the precious mites even scrape their knees, that they barely allow them to run, let alone climb or indulge in the more boisterous horseplay that every kid should enjoy.

Climbing trees is one of the joys of childhood

Being squashed between two brothers as a child, I tried not just to keep up, but to outdo them in the running, climbing and horseplay stakes, with the result that I was a regular attender at our local accident and emergency centre.

Every other week, I'd arrive in with a split head, a sprained ankle, a broken arm or a knee requiring multiple stitches. All gained by doing normal, healthy kid stuff. The nurses knew my name and would joke with me about my boisterous lifestyle.

Today, myself and my mother agree, they'd probably call social services and insist that I be removed from the care of my parents.

Times have changed. We no longer treat children like the robust, bounce-back creatures that they are, instead preferring to wrap them in cotton wool like fragile porcelain possessions.

Carol Hunt and her daughter Sophie (14)

And in doing so, we are creating a fear and anxiety within them that makes them more - rather than less - vulnerable to the normal stresses and strife of life.

For myself, I always thought I was a fairly cool, "hands-off" type of parent. I'm well into the tree climbing and playing the eejit and always encouraged both my children to walk or get the bus to school themselves.

But recently, I was pulled up sharply when my 14-year-old daughter - a lovely dependable girl, with rather more sense than her parents - noted that I was a "bit paranoid" when it came to knowing where she was and what she was doing. She also thought that I was getting her home at a time that was unfair for her age.

We had a chat about it. I remembered how much more freedom I had enjoyed at her age and reluctantly had to agree with her - I was being overly protective.

Then, my 11-year-old asked if he could cycle to school from next September and my knee-jerk reaction was to say, "absolutely not".

"It's too dangerous," I told him, despite the fact that there's a cycle lane for most of the journey there and back.

I was fast becoming what I had always scoffed at: a helicopter parent.

Psychologist Fergus Heffernan

It's easier to fall into this trap than you think. Every time you chat to another mother who raises an eyebrow and says disapprovingly: "Well, of course, I'd never allow my little Johhny/Sinead/Mary do that," you immediately feel as if your own parenting skills are being judged and found wanting.

Competitive parenting is a majority sport these days. Who wants to be the mammy who doesn't care about her kids? And that's before we even come to the increasingly stressful impact that school and exams have on our children. And on us.

Last week, my daughter informed me that she was regularly seeing girls in third year (the year ahead of her) coming out of their Junior Cert exams in tears. Why?

Because they were terrified that they hadn't done as well as they thought they should on their papers.

This isn't even the Leaving Cert we're talking here, with all the horror of the ultra-competitive points system - it was the "baby cert", the exam which replaced the Intermediate Certificate.

Remember the Inter Cert?

In my day, it was considered a bit of a joke exam - you did a bit of extra study for it maybe (but never admitted that to any of your peers), but if you failed a subject, it wasn't considered to be the end of the world - there would be lots of chances to catch up or do something different.

Family therapist, Heffernan, thinks we've "lost the plot" where our state exams are concerned. And I can't say that I disagree with him.

Self-harming is more widespread because of the appalling stress some students feel they are under.

So, what's changed since we were kids and faced exams with a bit of an extra study and a shrug of the shoulders? As Heffernan says, the difference in our day was that we had choices; choices that are not available to kids today. Yes, some children went on to third-level college or university, but many others did apprenticeships, went into the family business, joined the guards, or even the priesthood. "Everyone had a place," he said, "regardless of their exam results."

But 40 years later: "We have lumped everything into college… 90pc of students now take grinds. If you don't go to college you're viewed as a failure."

Heffernan has a point. Recently, I visited Austria, where I was surprised to discover that at least half of students leave academic school at the age of 15 or so to get apprenticeships in areas like hotel management and waitering, as well as the usual trades.

Here, increasingly though, we push all our students through the narrow points system, and into college, regardless of the fact that it is simply not suitable for many of them.

So, what do we end up with? Stressed-out, self-harming kids, hugely expensive grind schools making hefty profits out of their misery, and colleges that churn out economic units instead of rounded human beings.


As Heffernan says, education is now an industry - one which doesn't serve the best needs of our kids, and consequently, we have a "tsunami of mental health problems" facing our children when they get to third level. Today, we only measure excellence, he says: the 500-points kids, rather than the one who faces a challenge in just getting to school each day and sticking it out in spite of the obstacles.

We have become obsessed with universities, and in modern society, even high-class degrees aren't enough - we want masters and PhDs.

Heffernan gives the example of his own daughter, who was devastated when she didn't get enough points to do the course she wanted, so she repeated her Leaving Cert. Second time round, she still didn't get the points, but she took a post-Leaving Cert course instead.

Heffernan makes the valid point that these days, PLCs are often viewed with snobbish disdain - it's assumed that they are only fit for lower-socioeconomic groups. However, his own daughter blossomed while doing her PLC and was able to develop her creative and intuitive talents. She realised her passion was for social care and was able to get into that area through her PLC.

And, as he noted, she then had "grafting" in abundance - she was mature enough not to be heading off to the Heineken promotions.

I had similar experience myself. At 18, I studied a college course purely for the sake of doing it, but didn't actually go back to college to study what I really wanted until years later - as a mature student.

Consequently, I advise both my children not to get too hung up on exam results or the points system. All they can do is their best.

But there are many ways to get to where you want to go in life - and through the points system may not be the best or the healthiest way of going about it.

Personally, I tell them they may be better off getting to see a bit of the world before they settle down to a specific job or course of study - or getting a job and learning how to manage their own finances and bills - as well as cooking and cleaning!

Kids depend on their parents far too much these days.


We all make choices in life. We need to take responsibility for them instead of always blaming the system. Heffernan advises that we "get back to basics in our homes".

We need to focus on honesty, hard work, and parents need to know how to manage their own anxiety first, become a gentle presence in the background and let our kids know that "whatever happens, they'll be okay".

We also need to tell our children that it's ok to fail sometimes. There will always be winners and losers (the new fad for telling everybody that they're a winner and handing out medals to all is utter PC nonsense) - the important thing is how we deal with winning and failing.

Yesterday, my 11-year-old came home distraught after losing a relay race he had invested huge energy in training for.

I let him enjoy his sorrow for a while and then told him it was over.

He must look forward not behind. Most importantly, he had done his best. Sh*t happens.

In the words of the master Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

There is no better advice.

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