TERRY PRONE: Nurturing of our children has been a casualty of Celtic Tiger living

BETTER gigs may come along, this year.

Who knows? But the best, thus far, has been judging the Dublin heat of the Granny of the Year contest run in aid of the Special Olympics.

The finalists were noisily supported by glamorous offspring, by their grandchildren and in some cases by their great-grandchildren, many of them carrying banners publicising the virtues of their particular Gran.

Some of the women sang, danced and gave stick to the Master of Ceremonies. One of them recited a poem, The Papisher and The Prod, which goes on for several years, involves birth, death, bigotry, abiding love and St Peter at the Pearly Gates, and evokes those sentimental tears you despise yourself for.

Interestingly, though, the contestants, with their contrasting backgrounds, were ad idem on one topic. Every last one of them felt their grandchildren, and the entire pre-teen generation have way too much of everything. Now, admittedly, they were a bit conflicted, not to say positively confused, about what precisely they meant by this. On the one hand, they all bought into the belief that the function of a good granny is to over-ride parental rules and give grandchildren whatever they want, whenever they want it. On the other hand, they all agreed that kids today get far too much of what they want. And, while they talked of their own childhood as having been one long self-propelled journey — “three miles to school and three miles home, walking, every day” — and as toy-poor, they clearly thought they had the better deal. They seemed sorry for their grandkids who get a lift to school and have enough toys to require dedicated trunks for their storage.

Sue Palmer sees the generational contrast rather more negatively. Ms Palmer is an educational consultant who spoke, this weekend, at the 40th annual conference of the IPPA (the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association.) Her message: that while the changes of the last half-century have been great for adults, their side effects have been enormously damaging for children, creating what she calls a “toxic childhood.”

At the conference in Dublin Castle, Palmer drew attention to something many parents have observed in their children, and most have smilingly shrugged off: their capacity to faithfully reproduce the advertising jingle for products aimed at them. Palmer suggested that a child who can sing the song advertising a brand of children’s shoe is undoubtedly going to pressure their parent to buy that particular shoe (even if it’s more expensive and less suitable) because marketers have pumped money into reaching the child directly with a message which suggests the child will be less cool and less acceptable to her peers if she doesn’t wear that particular shoe.

The children are sitting targets for such advertising. Literally. Kids spend more time sitting than any earlier generation did, which is, of course, a good reason why we have an obesity epidemic and that being fat will soon beat smoking as the main killer of humans at a relatively young age.

While they’re sitting, they tend to do three things. Eat. Watch TV. Play videogames. The IPPA conference was told that, on average, children now spend 18 hours a week watching television. Of particular concern to speakers like Professor Tom Collins, head of the education department and dean of teaching and learning at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, is that, increasingly, children are watching TV on their own in their bedrooms. That means what they view goes from the screen into their brain cells unmediated by any parental discussion. It means that they select precisely what they want to view, rather than what parents might fondly hope they’d choose to view.

According to the experts at the conference, putting a TV in a child’s bedroom is a dire decision on the part of any parent, because, while it may prevent family fights about which programme is going to be watched at any particular time, its inevitable consequence is the isolation of the child. Not a good thing, that isolation, even if a child at the onset of adolescence believes it is. Sue Palmer quoted one pre-teen she interviewed in the course of her research, who believed his bedroom life was idyllic, because he had his own TV, his own video game console, and if he got hungry, all he had to do was text his mother and she’d bring him up some pizza.

Isolated eating is just one of the ways in which the time-poor, cash-rich Celtic Tiger years shortchanged not just children, but families as a unit, according to Tom Collins, who talked of “the collective endeavour of preparing and sharing a meal” as now almost totally lost to family life, with all the downsides implicit in that loss.

One of the key downsides is lack of interaction with other children and with adults. Conversation. Questioning. Listening. Arguing. Learning. None of these are provided by the consumption of a triangle of pizza in front of a bedroom television. The electronic babysitter does not interact. It’s a one-way conduit of entertainment and advertising, which throughout those 18 hours a week, gives children the means of self-evaluation and socialisation. In earlier times, they’d have worked these out for themselves, through exploration, play, real (rather than vicarious) experience, and interaction with others.

Today’s children may have much more in the way of toys, brand name clothes, TV programme choice and opportunities to learn everything from ballet to Tai Chi, but the most striking impression from the IPPA conference was of a generation imprisoned by fear and scheduling. Whereas it was possible for earlier generations to play in the street or in a local playground, neither is now perceived as safe, with some playgrounds carrying paradoxical instructions that children within the playground are not permitted to run. Well, what’s a playground for? Play is now something that has to be “diaried” into the family schedule as a “playdate” and suburban streets, even those humped with speed bumps to calm the traffic to a non-lethal pace, are deserted and silent in the afternoons, while mothers ferry their offspring to soccer workshops, violin lessons and drama classes. Or while the children sit in their bedrooms pouring their energy into the manipulation of a PlayStation joystick.

Irene Gunning, IPPA CEO, suggests that old style street play had a lot going for it. It allowed a child to learn resilience and socialisation while coming to terms with their own physical abilities, getting the measure of other children and — crucially — learning to manage their own time.

“If every moment of a child’s time is scheduled, when are they going to learn to manage their own time?” she asks. “Boredom can be a good thing — children have to find their own things to do.”

The bottom line seems to be that too many children are being hardwired to be passive consumers, not active participants in life.


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