Having a conversation with colleagues about parenting and cultural differences in parenting – I found myself referring back to my experiences in Ireland, both recently and in my own upbringing there.
As one of a dozen children brought up in a small cottage in rural Southern Ireland, before joining the economic migrant trail to the UK, I was very aware that a child was invisible until a job needed to be done or an errand run. Expressions of love and tenderness where not encouraged: I remember my mother’s response when I reported that the some parents kissed their children at the school gate:”Never mind that, that’s the English people – they do that” (she is now a progressive grandmother and great-grandmother to dozens of children who are kissed regularly!)
We were perfectly behaved (probably too oppressed to misbehave!) and played a part in running the household as soon as we could walk it seems: I remember dragging a bag of coal down three flights of stairs aged 7 without complaint.
While in Ireland recently, I purposefully observed children and their parents wherever I went: in shops, in homes, in restaurants and although it is only anecdotal evidence I am offering here – the children were as well behaved as we were 40 years ago but love and affection was included as something that “Irish people do” this time around.
The interaction between the children and parents I observed was a joy: children appeared to be brought up to be resourceful, resilient and to play an important, almost equal role in running the home, just as it was in my day. I saw 5 year olds asking visitors whether they would like a cup of tea; 7 year olds joining their fathers in the fields, 10 year olds holding the fort in small businesses. My favourite experience of this is was when a 11 year old boy, running the Pitch & Putt course asked me whether I was left-handed and when I replied yes, said “Ah, well I will have to seek out a different club for you, take a seat” – there wasn’t an adult in sight.
One incident that stopped me in my tracks was in a small hairdressing salon in Dingle, Co. Kerry where a mother came in with three small children, all under the age of 8: she sat them down and asked them softly to be quite and to wait for her while she had her hair washed. This they did – the only interruption was when the youngest, about four, asked if he could look at the magazine. I listened to the children talking amongst themselves and their interaction was calm and reasonable, with the eldest clearly taking the Loco Parentis role: “No, Brendan – you can have a sweet when we get home“.
In all the restaurants and pubs, children were evident but not once did I witness a tantrum. At the end of the journey, before I was due to head back to the UK, I shared my thoughts with an Irish mother in a shop, accompanied by her four children and her response was “Well that’s great – I do notice the difference meself when I go across to England: the children have everything there don’t they? I’m not saying mine don’t but the English children seem not to have to do anything to help earn the money to have everything – maybe that’s the difference, I don’t know…..”
As I think back to my own childhood and to the childhood of the average Irish child today – I become more and more convinced that a “Plan of Action for Building Independence and Resilience” is as essential for parents to draw up in the UK as is helping a child meet the National Curriculum.