The experience of childhood in Ireland has changed much over the last few decades. Where once Irish rural life and even the rural towns offered an adventure land fuelled by the vivid imagination that comes only with childhood, modern Ireland offers not a playground, but an arena of protection, insecurity and fear.
In my childhood growing up in Ballinrobe,, children were fed, watered and then scooted out the door to find their own adventure — an independence that brought with it an air of growing self confidence but also a recognition by our parents that the only dangers that existed then were crossing the road and falling into a river.
Such a freedom brought its own share of bumps and bruises, but the openness of it seems a million miles away from modern childhood where adventure is packaged into pre-arranged playdates, lacking in spontaneity and full of protective caveats about duration, supervision, diet, clothing, weather.
In summer time, we left the house after breakfast, only returning when hungry and then disappeared again until darkness fell. We would battle boredom with creativity, daydreaming. We would make our way through crumbling ruins, overgrown briars, climbing trees, crossing streams with a self-made pathway of rocks.
The alleged incident in the Midlands that so shocked a nation last weekend has brought all of this sharply into focus. Charges have been brought in that case, so I focus instead on the damage such events have on the psyche of Irish parents who will use this to bolster the belief that it no longer safe to let our children run free.
Children should be allowed to roam free to play because the lessons learnt in the freedom of self-created playtime are ones that stay with you for life, a lot longer than any lessons learned in the classroom where the structure is authoritarian and lacking in the democracy of the natural play arena of the great outdoors.
Most parents are aware of this, but the fear still exists that play cannot be unsupervised, it must be structured and protected.
It is a sad fact of modern life that children can no longer experience adventure except on a video screen or in a an artificial playground in an industrial warehouse. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. However, finding the happy medium of freedom and security has never been more difficult.