What traits would you like to pass on to your children? Strength of purpose, determination, respect for others, a love of life?
John Lonergan, the former governor of Mountjoy Prison who is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s top public speakers and social commentators, believes self confidence is the answer. He spoke recently in Ballinasloe at an event organised by the Ballinasloe Substance Misuse Response Group.
Children who believe in themselves can cope with what life throws at them, he says.
“One of the best things you can pass on to your children is self confidence. A child who believes in himself can take knocks.”
He urges parents to identify their children’s strengths and use them as a foundation to help them grow and develop.
“It is important to find whatever they are good at. Often we ruin our children’s lives because we push them in the direction we want. I’m amazed at the stories I hear. There is a huge amount of competition [among parents in relation to children]. You hear comments like ‘Mine is sitting up at five months’. Stupid competition.”
This issue raises its head again when children finish secondary school and are deciding what career path to follow, he says. Sometimes parents try to influence their choice.
“In Ireland education has a social status. This is attached to what jobs you are going for. You may have a family with a tradition in medicine or teaching and there is pressure on the children to continue this. I’d prefer to have a happy child rather than a ‘successful’ unhappy child. The children of some of Galway’s greatest footballers and hurlers have no interest in sport. It’s wonderful they are individuals. It is important to respect the reality of your child, if he/she is never going to be sporting or academic.”
He believes Irish society has failed certain children. “Some get great opportunities but for those unlucky to be born into social deprivation and disadvantage it is different. These are the strugglers in society. During the recession support services for children are being cut back. The most vulnerable pay the biggest price. A lot of children are neglected. There are still children who are getting up without a breakfast and living in hovels.”
Early intervention is crucial, he feels. “It is almost accepted worldwide that the first three to four years in a child’s life are so important. In the period zero to three years so much damage can be done. That’s why early intervention is crucial. A lot of things are taken for granted, such as social skills, the ability to mingle and share. If a child is not helped and supported to develop these they are unable to participate, they are at a disadvantage from their peers. Learning difficulties are often not noticed in time and then [children’s] early lives are disasters. A teacher told me that children born into social deprivation at three or four to five years of age have a vocabulary of only a third or a quarter of what better off children have. Those lacking vocabulary will sit at the back of the class. I’m certain early intervention and early support is crucial if we are to have a balanced playing pitch. Money invested in this area will pay back major dividents.”
He says most of the education system is geared at academic children but not all children are so inclined. “If you are not academic and in an academic school it is very difficult for you. Our system is weak on meeting those children’s needs. There are huge early school leaving figures in socially disadvantaged areas. Many find the transition from primary to secondary very difficult.....from the primary culture where there is no competition and they are allowed be themselves to a system full of competition, full of pace. Children don’t drop out of school, they fade out of it over a period.”
How can they be helped? “By finding things they are good at. The challenge for second level education is to be more flexible, to provide facilities for non academic children. They are inclined to be treated as sub standard but they are not. Some are wonderfully gifted.”
He feels strongly about the importance of giving second chances to young people. “This is hugely important. Another thing is our schools are independent republics. Most I call on have their own control system. Many do not want to be associated with early school leavers, they fear they’ll get the name of ‘second chances’. It is a tough world out there for children who are expelled from school. As they get older they mature. I’m an advocate of giving second, third and fourth chances if necessary.”
He believes individual teachers can make a significant difference in children’s lives. “They can be responsible for several staying on at school. One teacher may be keeping a number of 15/16/17 year-olds at school. In one case they stayed on because they loved sport and the sports teacher.”
Mr Lonergan is concerned that well-meaning parents are structuring their children’s lives too much and allowing them little time for play or to entertain themselves.
“Parents are over organising their children’s lives. They are loading them with too much activity. It’s not good for them. It’s too much pressure. You can’t structure life too much. Too much structure limits their capacity to develop skills, to entertain and occupy themselves. They finish school at three then there are grinds followed by football. They are going from Billy to Jack and Billy again. Everything is done to a timetable. I’d use commonsense. Children need time on their own to look out the window. They need to walk out the field and look for birds’ nests. They must be allowed grow and develop at their own pace.”
He says one of the secrets of effective parenting is listening to children, especially teenagers. “Parents can talk too much but do very little listening. They can dictate too much. It is important to sit down and listen. A huge amount of decisions are being made with the best intentions in parents’ hearts but they can cause havoc for the child. And the end product is he/she stops communicating.
“Parents sometimes over-parent. They are control freaks. It is important to be able to recognise that, to allow children to be individuals. Fathers believe it will toughen their children up but that’s a disastrous policy. Roaring and shouting isn’t the way to go. There is no communication going on then or when the young person is shouting and roaring. If a day arrives and the parents’ communication lines break down you have lost it with your children.”
“Interrogating” as a means of finding out what your children are doing is another unwise “communication style”, according to Mr Lonergan. He instead recommends “constantly chatting” to teenagers.
“On the basis of that parents will get to know what they are at. Armed with that information you can help and support your child. If you [are out of touch with your children] and ignore what’s going on you are helpless. A serious part of the responsibility rests with the parents to keep the communication lines open. It can be very frustrating if the lines of communication break down.”
Being non judgemental, concealing very strong feelings if necessary, and being available to offer a listening ear or talk at any time are some of the secrets of successful parenting, he maintains.
“Being non judgemental is important, even if you are shocked you’ve got to control your shock. Our reactions indicate how we feel about something. If we show children we are shocked or appalled or really condemn particular behaviour we are giving them the signal that this is a hostile environment. This is an opportunity lost. A lot of difficulties arise because young people are afraid to disclose to parents what they are at. It is important to create an environment where children are comfortable talking about issues, such as addiction. Parents have to be available as teenagers will decide re the timing.”
And if that means forgoing Coronation Street - one of John Lonergan’s favourite television programmes - so be it, he says. “Chat, chat, chat I say to parents. As children get bigger, around 11 or 12 years, you can’t do it formally, like [arranging to talk] in the sitting room at night. That would be too stilted. Do it informally over Sunday lunch or Saturday dinner. Sit down, eat a meal, that takes the focus and breaks down tension. Let them give their opinions and use it as an opportunity to listen. Sometimes it might mean turning off the TV and forgoing Coronation Street. Be available when your child is ready to talk or else the moment will pass. You may be up to date with Coronation Street but may have missed it with your child. It is important for parents to realise that communication often comes at inappropriate times.”