Irish Bishops' Conference seminar 'Supporting Marriage and Family Life'

Monday 3rd May 2004, Buswells Hotel, Dublin

Speaker: Ms Breda O'Brien, Mother, Teacher and Columnist

Recently, a friend of mine told me about her two little nieces, both of whom have 
been in creche care since they were tiny babies.  They love playing with dolls, 
but not just one or two dolls.  Games might involve a dozen or more dolls.  One 
day she was watching them in the sitting room of their home, which happens to 
have two doors.  They were lining up the dolls on the sofa, and changing their 
nappies very rapidly.  Then one would run out one door, and knock on the other 
door.  When it was opened, a doll was handed over, there was chit-chat about 
“How was your day at work? He was grand today, not a bother on him.”  Then the 
first child would run back in and proceed to change more doll’s nappies, and 
the second would run out to knock at the door.  My friend was struck by two 
things.  Firstly, that the children were playing creche, rather than Mammies 
and Daddies.  Secondly, there was the speed at which everything was conducted.  
She found herself rather sad.  Childrens’ play has quite serious purposes. It 
may seem rather aimless to adults, but child psychologists tell us that one of 
the purposes of play is to practise being adult.  My friend wondered about a 
generation for whom playing creche, has become the way in which you practice 
being adult.  She wondered about the frantic pace of their play, and she 
wondered whether we have really thought through the consequences of rapid 
change in child-rearing practices.

During the past twenty years, we have undergone changes in Ireland which might 
have taken a century elsewhere.  We have achieved a great deal.  We have reduced 
the numbers of long-term unemployed, although we have not eradicated the problem,
**** as some might like us to believe.  We have seen many people benefit from 
an improved standard of living.  Young people today expect to choose whether 
they wish to emigrate, rather than being morosely resigned to the fact that 
they were being reared for export. All of this is good, and to be celebrated, 
and most people if honest, would have no desire to return to the dark days of 

Yet at the same time, it is important to be aware that there are new difficulties 
which have come with our new-found economic prosperity.  In the Irish Catholic 
Bishops’ Pastoral, Prosperity With a Purpose, one such difficulty was summed 
up in this question.  “Do we have more  of everything except time?”  Those of 
us who are fortunate enough to have benefited from the economic boom, are 
keenly aware that it is at the cost of some of the things which keep us sane 
and human.  The majority of us who are caught up in the faster economic flow 
are under pressure – to meet deadlines, to perform, to be available, to grasp 
opportunities, to meet the rising expectations of our families, to compete.  
The mobile phone and the modem mean that we are contact-able all the time.  
The lines between life and work have blurred. The pace of our lives are often 
as frantic as the little girls playing at changing nappies and handing them 
over to exhausted parents.

Some years ago, Gay Byrne came under heavy fire when he repeated a question 
from an audience member to a panel of newly elected women politicians.  “Who 
is minding the children?”  There was outrage because no male politicians would 
have been asked the same question.  However, perhaps it is a question we should 
ask of more than politicians, be they male or female, because the kind of 
pressures once only associated with high profile professions like politics 
have become normal in many walks of life.  We tend to act as if adequate 
childcare is the answer to the pressures which parents face.  Has anyone 
asked the children?  Given a choice, how many small children would choose 
to spend hours a day away from their parents and family.  Irish writer and 
counsellor, Bernie Purcell, in her book, For our own good – childcare issues 
in Ireland, published in 2001, has this to say.

Childcare policies cannot be simply about finding services which will care 
for these children while their parents are free to work: it must take account 
of the children’s needs for their parents and acknowledge that parents exhausted 
from heavy work schedules cannot parent well. (page 43)

I would go one step further.  We also need to take account of parents’ needs 
to be with their children, too.  We have come to a stage when social policy 
seems determined to push every adult, male and female into the paid workplace.  
Almost no thought has been put into the long-term effects of such policies.  
Colm Rapple will deal later with current government policy and its effect on 
family life.  I will say little more than that it is apparent that while the 
idea of all adults being in the paid workforce may suit the economy, it has 
disastrous effects on society.  The question of children keeps recurring, 
and statistics show that people are either delaying having children, or 
reducing the number of children that they have.  This  has enormous implications, 
everything from the increased need for fertility treatments as women delay 
beginning families, and then discover that their fertility has declined to 
the point that it requires medical intervention: to the fact that we are 
facing a situation where there will not be enough working adults to fund 
pensions in a generation or two.

“Who is minding the children?” might be supplemented by another question.  
“Where, and for how long?”  Bernie Purcell quotes  family therapist, Steve 
Biddulph, who upholds the view that long hours of childcare are detrimental 
to the goal of children growing up into healthy adults.  He says,

Children who go into care at two or three months of age, and stay for seven 
or eight hours a day, are basically spending their childhood in care. (Purcell, 
For Our Own Good, page 48.)

This may sound harsh, but it is the reality.  Seven or eight hours would be 
short for some children, dropped off before eight in the morning and collected 
after six.  We all know of parents who see their children for a fractious hour 
before bed, who never do homework with them, because it is done at after-school 
care, and who begin the same routine again the next morning.  In a book called 
The Irreducible Needs of Children, two American authors, Brazelton and Greenspan, 
both distinguished professors of Paediatrics, declared that no child under the 
age of two should spend thirty to forty hours a week in childcare.  They point 
out that factors such as poor wages and high turnover of staff, make it difficult 
to provide (quote) “high quality, nurturing care in those vital early years.”

Steve Biddulph also dismisses the notion that creches actually increase social 
skills.  He says that when children are cared for during long periods every day 
outside the home, such children will be supremely adaptable and high on social 
skills, but asks will they have learned these to compensate for lack of constancy 
and stability?

This damage will be masked by an apparent gain in superficial social skills, 
which actually reflect the child’s strategies for coping with this stressful 
environment, in the long term, these deficits will lead especially to problems 
in forming and keeping long-term relationships.

Early childhood is very short, and the window of opportunity when neural pathways 
are laid down is very short.  Children who do not receive adequate and sustained 
nurture, in the belief of many experts, and I have mentioned just a few of them,
 may gain superficial skills but experience loneliness at a deep level, nonetheless.  
Let's face the question we asked at the beginning - what small child would opt 
for group childcare over being with his or her parents?  And if they did so choose, 
would it not flag major problems in the relationship with their parents?  Years ago, 
I remember a friend of mine being devastated when she took her child to the dentist, 
and the child sobbed afterwards until he was back in the arms of his childminder, 
where he felt safe.

It is not as if women and men are unaware of these problems.  Constant, wearing 
guilt is a feature of many peoples’ lives.  For example, at the Family Fora recently 
conducted as a ‘listening exercise’ by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, 
there was disagreement on how we should define family, but clarity on a number of 
issues.  The Report states ‘Ambivalence, it seems, is the lot of many mothers.  
Many women feel torn between children and work.  One of the most strongly and 
consistently expressed views was that mothers must have more options or choice 
around whether they want to take up paid employment.’  Significantly, lone parents 
feel even more ambivalent about the push to force everyone into the workforce, 
because the presence of the only parent is seen as crucial to the child or children.

This kind of ambivalence is not confined to mothers, as many men want a different 
style of relationship with their children.  Most of us know that the myth of quality 
time covers up the need in children for quantity time, and lots of it.  They will 
tell whoever is there what happened at school immediately after they leave it.  A 
few hours later, a parent will be lucky to get the response, “nothing much” to a 
query about what happened at school.
Because we do not have enough time, we are very susceptible to buying children 
things to compensate.  We are now richer, and we can afford much more.  Our children 
have a huge influence on how we spend our money, on everything from the food we 
buy in a weekly or daily shop, to the kind of television and video we buy.  Marketers 
are more than aware of this, and it is in their interests to exploit the influence 
which children have.   We are all familiar with the famous pester power, where a 
child wears down a parent by whining and nagging until they get what they want.  
This is a phenomenon which is easily seen.  What is not so easily seen is that 
marketers know that in the phrase used in the industry, children are getting 
older, younger.  In other words, childhood is becoming shorter and shorter.  
Apparently, the age at which children lose interest in generic, non-branded 
toys decreases by a year every five years.  Soon we will have one year olds 
demanding Sony playstations – or has that happened already?

The two questions, that of parents’ lack of time, and the eagerness of marketers 
to exploit younger markets are not unrelated.  Parental guilt is a powerful tool 
to exploit.  If you are not giving them enough time, the temptation is to over-
compensate with things.  Ironically, since many of the things we give them are 
practically a culture in themselves, like computer games or Yu-gi-oh cards, we 
end up with children who are even more isolated from their parents, with less 
to talk about in common.  Children always inhabited secret worlds, but they had 
wide swathes of common experience with their parents.  Nowadays, that is less 
likely to be true, and the older they become, the more insidious the marketing 
becomes which tells them that their parents are fuddy-duddy and out of date.  
In fact, anyone over twenty-two is seriously old.  This might be funny if it 
were not for the fact that teenagers need lots of quality time just as much, 
and are even less likely to tell the significant events of the day than a four-
year old.  Marketing, at least some of the time, aims to isolate young people 
in a homogenous group and attempts to shape their tastes so as to provide maximum 
access to their disposable income.  It is necessary to keep them dissatisfied 
with their bodies, possessions and lives so that they will keep on buying 
products to fill the void.  This is a profound challenge to families, and yet 
is much more invisible than problems with, for example, consumption of alcohol 
among young people.  

There is likely to be little dispute about the reality of our lives.  The 
question is, what can be done?  Colm Rapple is going to look at the vital 
level of government policy, but perhaps we need something else going on at 
the same time.  Perhaps we need to really query our priorities, and to see 
if we really want to live our lives in a way that is dictated by the market.  
Sadly, the ones who are going to be least likely to be able to do that, are 
parents of young children, who are struggling to buy houses just at the time 
when their children need them most.  Perhaps we need people to shout stop!  
From a church point of view, we also need to move from rhetoric about families 
to providing real support for families in our parishes.  We talk about families 
being the domestic Church, but if a family with young children need support 
in raising children, where do they go to in their local parish or the wider
Church?  We need to move beyond rhetoric about the importance of the family, 
to really supporting parents in the difficult task of raising children today.

3rd May 2004

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