I have been a primary school principal for more than 30 years and I find it confirms many of my worst fears. Over that time I have seen parenting change dramatically from, at one end of the scale, a “do as you are told and ask no questions” approach to, at the opposite end, a “keep children happy at all costs” approach.

While the majority of parents were never at either extreme of this scale, I have noticed, in recent years, a growing number veering towards the idea that their child’s short-term happiness, regardless of future consequences, is paramount.

The concept of delayed gratification seems to be virtually redundant. Ten years ago the majority of parents who came to speak to me in the office at school would have come with academic concerns about their offspring.

That is no longer the case. The main reason why parents call to see me nowadays is because their child has been made unhappy, either by a teacher or by schoolmates.

I suspect that the pressures of modern day child-rearing are causing parents to give in very easily to their children’s whims.

This is possibly caused by the fact that many parents, because of long working hours and commuting to and from work, are seeing less and less of their children and so feel a need to compensate them in some way.

How else to explain the folly of nearly half of all nine year olds (there were 8,500 of them in the study) having a TV in their bedrooms?

Surely parents are not so naive as to believe that they have any control over their children’s TV viewing in such a set-up? Furthermore, if that many nine year olds have a TV in their bedroom, what must the percentage be like for 10, 11 and 12 year olds?

From a school perspective, some of my staff report to me that certain children in their classes are frequently so tired that they have difficulty keeping their eyes open. Also, no matter how shocking or explicit a late-night programme, the sixth class teachers will tell me that, inevitably, at least some of their pupils have mentioned seeing it.

One can only wonder where they watched it.

Then there is the actual amount of time spent TV viewing. According to the study, two-thirds of nine year olds spend one to three hours a day watching TV. Not so bad you might say, but what about the 9 per cent (that’s almost one in 10) who spend between three and five hours daily in front of the box? Five hours equates to a full school day.

One of the phone companies a few years ago coined the slogan, “It’s good to talk” but I’m not sure that even they foresaw 45 per cent of parents going out and buying a mobile phone for their nine year olds.

Is there any genuine reason why nearly half of the nine year olds in the country need a mobile phone? Speaking from experience, I have dealt with some quite serious cases of text bullying among primary school children, some of a quite overtly sexual nature between boys and girls.

I have yet to come across Bebo being used on the mobiles, but I’m sure it is only a matter of time.

Prof James Williams, principal investigator and co-ordinator of the Growing up in Ireland study, said the fact that so many nine year olds had TVs and mobile phones illustrated the way the world was moving. Indeed it does.

Now let us move on to the state of our children’s fitness. Eamon de Valera, as far back as 1943, envisaged a country “whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens”.

His vision, overly idealistic as perhaps it was, has certainly not come to pass. The 2009 reality: the study cites that one in five nine year olds is overweight and a further 7 per cent are obese, putting them at risk of disease now and in the future.

As for the comely maidens the girls fare worse than the boys, with 22 per cent of them being overweight as opposed to 17 per cent of the boys, and 8 per cent of them being obese compared with 6 per cent of boys. I suspect that there are several contributory causes.

To begin with, very few children now walk or cycle to school. This is probably largely due to the fact that traffic volumes have grown and, consequently, the roads are less safe. This in turn points to the need for town planners to give consideration to the provision of cycle lanes and safer footpaths in the vicinity of schools.

More significantly though, children do not tend to run around and play outdoors as much as they did before. Today’s parents have a tendency to organise a lot of their children’s leisure activities for them, driving them to and from tennis/swimming/dancing etc (all of which are, of course, good in themselves) rather than allowing them to find their own outdoor amusements.

The result is that, unless being programmed for specific leisure activities, many children spend their free time in very sedentary pursuits, TV viewing being chief among them.

It is good to see though that parents’ expectations of their children are high. According to the study, 76 per cent of parents expect their child to achieve at least degree level.

When it comes to rating children’s ability though, teachers unfortunately do not share the parents’ high opinion of the children’s ability: 39 per cent of teachers as opposed to 60 per cent of parents rate children as being “above average” with the corresponding figures for maths being 33 and 52 per cent respectively.

Only 6 per cent of children list reading as among their favourite leisure activities.

This longitudinal study is one of the most comprehensive ever carried out on Irish schoolchildren. It is being funded by the Department of Health in association with the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Central Statistics Office with researchers from ERSI and Trinity College Dublin. The 8,500 children surveyed will be followed up at age 13. It will be most interesting to see how they mature into adolescence.

  • Brendan McCabe is principal of St Colmcilles BNS, Kells, Co Meath
  • Source: Irish Times – http://tinyurl.com/ln6nz2