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Sunday 19 August 2018

difficulty

In a world where nearly every family household seems to have a PlayStation, a Wii, a DS, mobile phones and television in every bedroom, are parents finding it increasingly difficult to deny the demands of their children? If a report about our neighbours across the water is anything to go by, it looks as if we've evolved into parents who can't say no. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone may ply his daughters, Tamara and Petra, with cash to the tune of tens of millions but you don't have to be as extreme as Bernie to fall into the trap of overdoing the pressies when it comes to your children.

The report, recently published by Unicef, found that British parents were locked into a "compulsive consumption cycle" with their children, plying them with expensive toys, gadgets and designer clothes in a guilty attempt to make up for the lack of time spent together.

The report was prompted by another Unicef report from 2007 on child wellbeing in 21 affluent countries, including Ireland. The UK came at the bottom of the table for child wellbeing, while Ireland was halfway down, suggesting that children's experiences in this country differ from those in the UK.

The first results from government research being carried out by the Children's Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin, is looking at two large groups of children, comprised of babies and nine-year-olds and their families. According to Professor Sheila Greene, director of the centre, the nine-year-olds interviewed for the Growing Up In Ireland study, "generally express a high level of closeness to their families, to their mums and dads".

Yet it has also been noted that where children do express difficulty, it's to do with a lack of time spent with their parents, or absent parents.

"It is a source of unhappiness for children who don't see enough of their parents, even if they are living with them," says Greene. "With two working parents and more children who are separated from one or other of their parents, we need to be concerned about what that means in children's lives."

Of the 8,500 families participating in the research, 54pc of the mothers work and 91pc of the fathers. "A lot of the parents feel under pressure because of conflict between the demands of family and work," says Greene.

Combine this with the startling finding that 45pc of children have televisions in their rooms and an equal number have their own mobile phones, and you begin to get a picture that's not so different to the one painted of British families in the new Unicef report, where families often "co-exist" under the same roof, with children in their "media bedsits" where they have their own TV, internet, games consoles and phones.

Ireland sits somewhere between the UK and America in terms of the Unicef-branded 'compulsive consumption cycle', according to psychologist and family therapist Owen Connolly. "During the Celtic Tiger years there was a whole generation who considered getting things for their children that they never had themselves," he says. "That mentality is still very strong in the parents today. You only have to go to a Smyth's toyshop on a weekend and see the children going around selecting the items they want, quite expensive items that the parents feel duty-bound to buy for them."

The root of the problem, Connolly believes, is confusion between what a child wants and what a child needs.

"We live in a 'want' society. In other words we've brought up a lot of our children with this want in them. The things they want, that we buy for them are very short-lived. The box is opened, the item is played with for a while, and then the child wants something else. This want is a substitute for the attention the child needs, the engagement, the social interaction with his or her parents."

Greene is reluctant to say that this is true for a large number of families in Ireland. "I think there is an issue for some parents that they feel they can't say no, but to what extent it's an issue in the same way as it is in the UK is not clear because we haven't done a precise study on it here," she says. But Greene has been part of some discussion looking at changes in modern childhood in the technological age.

"It's not only about the kids spending time on devices like Nintendo DSs and phones, but the parents, too," she says.



bonding

"There has been discussion about mothers who are breastfeeding and using their iPhones at the same time and what this might mean in terms of eye contact with their babies, the smiling and interacting that is needed for bonding.

"For older children, the parents might be on their laptops and smart-phones and not giving the time, encouraging the kids to go off and play their DSs. There is a question mark as to what extent this is happening and to what extent this is a negative thing."

Connolly agrees: "Our phones, laptops, broadband and televisions have us completely occupied. That techno society we have is causing separation anxiety in children. They're not able to engage with their parents because they're all occupied with their various technological items. Often, a child gets a real sense that the machine is more important than themselves, and that would bring about all sorts of bad behaviour."

It's not all bad news, though. In qualitative interviews with 120 nine-year-olds, the Growing Up In Ireland study showed that children talked a lot about spending time with their parents at the weekends and they also spoke a lot about spending time with their grandparents.

"This is something we've noticed within the centre through several of our studies," says Greene. "There seems to be a lot of contact with grandparents in Ireland compared with countries like the UK. We might be a little bit more like Spain in that extended family rolls in when the parents come under pressure, whereas in the UK there seems to be less family cohesiveness. It's something that we should see as very precious and we should try and retain."

Not only that, but according to Connolly, the 'compulsive consumption cycle' has its natural upside.

"We are always going to be anxious about our children," he says. "We get anxious about meeting their needs but what we're actually doing is meeting their wants instead of their needs. But children who grow up having wants met instead of needs often reverse the situation with their own children.

"We have survived for millions of years and the reason for this is that the mistakes of one generation of parents are corrected by the next generation."

Owen Connolly is a psychologist and family therapist at the Connolly Counselling Centre in Dublin, www.counsellor.ie, call 01 210 0600

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