Our 21st Century Kids are ready for school

GETTING children from birth to the school-gate is a major achievement, says psychologist David Coleman in the fourth series of his TV show, 21st Century Child, which begins on RTÉ One on Thursday.

Coleman says parents do not pat themselves on the back for what they’ve achieved. “They go from day to day, month to month. They see the stand-out moments — the first word, the first step, the first tooth cut.

“But some of the other stuff happens so slowly and quietly. In this series, we get to hear the children talking — here they are with their own ideas and opinions.”

RTÉ began documenting the lives of a group of children in 2007 to tell the story of the modern Irish family and its issues. Series four drops into the families’ lives in 2012 and 2013, capturing “the anticipation and trepidation as our children ready themselves for the biggest single change to happen in their young lives since birth” — namely school.

Coleman says that more than 80% of a child’s brain has developed by the age of five, their values are set and so is their emotional stability. “In the first three years of life, children learn the essence of trust, which forms the basis of attachment. A securely attached child can rely on Mum and Dad to be available to meet their needs. They’re confident enough to go out and explore the world.”

Sligo-based Carmel Kennedy Mahon’s son, Richard, features in the series. So does Michelle Clancy’s son, Oscar. Carmel says her little boy is “very bubby, very confident, not at all shy”. Michelle says Oscar is “a little pet, with a great sense of humour and imagination — he loves making up imaginary characters”.

Both mums say it is a huge achievement bringing children from babyhood to junior infants. “You want to send them out in the world right, to have your stamp on them, so they have a good moral basis and know the difference between right and wrong,” says Carmel.

Michelle, a journalist in Waterford, says parents don’t give themselves enough credit. “You spend a lot of time wishing their lives away, as in ‘I can’t wait until they’re out of nappies/ walking/sleeping through the night’. Time flies and you don’t realise the work you’re putting in.”

21st Century Child tracks children growing up in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, a time of austerity and economic uncertainty. This has impacted on family life, but not always for the worse, says Carmel, whose husband, Frank, became a stay-at-home dad after she returned to work, post-maternity leave, in 2008.

Frank’s work as a plasterer had ground to a halt. “We decided the cost of crèche just didn’t make sense — between after-school and full crèche, the fees were nearly €400 a week,” Carmel says.

As a result, Richard was “raised completely different” to his older brothers, Colm, 13, and Stephen, 11. “Richard hasn’t been in a crèche environment at all and it definitely hasn’t been a disadvantage. At home, you can cater for everybody’s needs — crèche can’t do that,” says Carmel, who does not want to return to the frantic Celtic Tiger years, when she’d come home from work at 6pm, having just collected the children from crèche, and then put on dinner. Now, all the children are home by 3.45pm, she’s in at 5.30pm, and the homework’s all done courtesy of Frank’s supervision.

Michelle says women aren’t honest about how hard it is rearing children. She says having Oscar — and to a lesser extent Polly, 4 — was a “complete and utter culture shock. Nothing could have prepared me for the fact that I couldn’t walk to the shop anymore without making it a mission. And there’s nothing natural about being awake three or four times every single night.” Child-rearing is the hardest (“compared to it, going to work is a breeze”), but also the most rewarding experience of her life.

“I work part-time. The biggest challenge is the juggling — constantly keeping all the plates spinning: making sure there’s food in, clean clothes. On one of those plates is the guilt of going out to work, on a day when they have a sniffle and you’d love to stay home, but you can’t,” Michelle says.

In 21st Century Child, the families reflect on the past five years, as they prepare to send their children to school for the very first time. Episode two returns a year later, to see how things have turned out for the children and their families. The parents talk about their expectations and feelings around school, their own educational experience, and their hopes for their children’s future.

* 21st Century Child (RTÉ One, 10.15pm) begins on Thurs, Feb 6 and concludes on Thurs, Feb 13.


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