We’ve put their rights into law but are not taking childhood seriously
A“Their chances of growing into productive, happy, tax-paying adults depend too much on our patronage
TOTAL of 196 children were born in Ireland on November 10, 2012. That’s five years ago this week. Two of the boys were called Jack, and two of the girls Emily — the most popular names that year. I’ve often wondered what life has been like since for Jack, and Emily, and all the other children born that day.
Of course, the numbers I have to use here are averages (according to the Central Statistics Office, a total of 71,624 were born in Ireland in 2012), but those children were all born on a pretty significant day. It was the day we decided, by a substantial enough majority (about 60:40), to recognise in our Constitution that children had rights of their own.
So those 196 children were born into a different country. Not only did we decide that children had rights, but we also inserted into the constitution a provision that in any proceedings brought by the state to protect a child, the best interests of the child would have to be the paramount consideration. And, as far as practicable, the views of the child would have to be taken into consideration.
It was a hard-fought amendment, as these things tend to be in Ireland. Campaigners on the no side, led by Kathy Sinnott and John Waters, among others, argued throughout that this would result in parents’ rights being trampled on, in children being ripped from the bosom of their families, the end of civilisation as we know it.
Their arguments can be seen with the benefit of hindsight to have been entirely spurious, but they did succeed in making a lot of people afraid to vote, so the turnout in the referendum was lower than expected. But, if the fears they tried to instil haven’t been realised, what about the hopes?
We voted the way we did because we wanted to make Ireland a better place for children. A lot of us wanted to ensure that Jack and Emily would grow up in a country where the care of children wasn’t any more an occasion for scandal. We wanted to ensure that Jack and Emily grew up in a country where their voices were heard, and listened to, and respected.
So, what has happened since, to those 196 children? First of all they all celebrated their fifth birthdays this week. At least, I hope they did. For some, it was almost certainly a day like any other, a day to be endured and put up with. Twenty-one of those five-year olds were born that day into consistent poverty. That means they’ve never, in their short lives, been warm enough or nourished enough. It means their parents have struggled to provide them with the basics. It means that when they start school, their families will find it hard to make sure they have everything they need.
And if that happens, there is a good chance that Jack and Emily, if they’re among the 21 kids born into consistent poverty, will stay behind throughout school — for as long as it lasts, because they will want to drop out as soon as they can. If they do, there’s every chance they’ll end up in gangs, or involved in antisocial behaviour, or having their first brush with the criminal law. We can predict that perhaps three of the 196 children born that day will end up in jail.
And another seven or eight of the 196 children born that day were born with a life-affecting disability. Just like poverty, disability brings with it its own kind of second-class citizenship. It sets those children apart. They’re five now too, and the prospects of an enabling and developmental education for them are less even than the children born in poverty.
The system will struggle, even when it wants to, to meet their needs. They will subconsciously, and sometimes overtly, be seen as a burden on the state from the very beginning. Their chances of growing into productive, happy, tax-paying adults depend too much on our patronage, and hardly at all on their rights.
But what about the rest of the children, all the other Jacks and Emilys, (and Jameses and Conors and Sophies and Emmas) born that day? They’re the 166 or so who weren’t born into consistent poverty, and weren’t born with a disability. And of course, very few of them, if any, were born into homelessness. That’s a phenomenon that never even occurred to us when we set about inserting children’s rights into the Constitution.
Well, here’s the thing. All children are extraordinary. If you don’t believe me, watch a Channel 4 series called The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds. It’s fascinating and extremely entertaining. Last week I was lucky enough to meet one of the psychologists behind the programme, Dr Sam Wass, who came to Dublin to contribute to a panel discussion hosted by Barnardos on the subject of the “21st Century Child”.
Studying children is Sam Wass’s specialty. Studying how they grow and change, how they react in all sorts of situations. He is especially interested in how stress affects them, and how sensitive they are to the contest they’re in. Simply by watching children in different situations, he learns more about childhood every day, and listening to him is an education.
But I noticed above all that he prefaced nearly every answer he gave with the phrase “it’s complicated”. And it is, because we’re complicated, and children are us. We have a saying in Barnardos that every childhood lasts a lifetime, and when you get a chance to watch how children react to one another, you can almost see the adult emerge.
In the games they play, in the way they develop relationships, in the reactions they have to anxiety or stress, and in the freedom they’re given to be themselves, to be recognised for their worth and value as children (and not as anyone’s property), their value and potential emerge into the light. And so do the risks they face.
Because of the importance of context, Sam referred to a theory about the orchid child and the dandelion child. Orchids are beautiful delicate plants, which thrive only in the right conditions. Dandelions grow happily anywhere. And there are children who need a decent environment to thrive, just as there are children who can be happy in any surroundings. To realise the potential of every child, it’s important to recognise how individual and unique they are, and how sensitive they are to their surroundings.
Every child born in Ireland on November 10, 2012 was born full of potential. The realisation of that potential will bring joy and fulfilment into their lives — and ours. But about 30 of the 196 children born on the day we inserted children’s rights into the Constitution were children who, in all possibility, will live an entire lifetime where discrimination will be the thing they’re guaranteed.
It’s not their parents or families who discriminate against them, but us — our economy, our bureaucracy, our systems, our attitudes. Because there’s a huge difference between putting their rights into the Constitution, and taking childhood really seriously. And we haven’t even begun to do that yet.