The environments in which our youngest children live, grow and play have changed dramatically over the past century. For the best part of the twentieth century, young children were cared for in the family home and went to school sometime after the age of three. For much of that time, Irish society was largely agrarian based and children worked on the farm; work which had economic value to the family. Families were large, twice as large on average as those in the rest of Europe for most of the century. Children lived in households which frequently comprised members of the extended family. Emigration was a way of life and many children must have grown up in the knowledge that they would leave and not return. The Catholic Church and the State operated a symbiotic relationship in relation to many aspects of Irish life, including education, following Independence. In particular, the Church appears to have had considerable influence in terms of family life, a position consolidated by the 1937 Constitution. Changes began to occur in the 1950s when increasing industrialisation and urbanisation began to have an impact. Around this time, too, family size began to reduce. It was not until the 1970s, though, that substantial numbers of women began to enter – and stay in – the paid workforce. This was partly due to the lifting of the marriage bar in the civil service and the beginnings of movement towards parity of pay and rights for women with their male colleagues following Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Out-of-home care arrangements for children then became a necessity for some families. Contemporary experience
With changes in family patterns, more children are now living in smaller families, one parent families or in disparate families. Young children in contemporary Irish families are experiencing substantially different parenting trends, not least of which is that many now have the more active involvement of their fathers as well as their mothers. Traditionally, parents tended to concentrate more on the physical well-being of their children, whereas now they are increasingly concerned with their children’s holistic development, including their cognitive, emotional and social development. Widespread dissemination of research on child development in popular and accessible media formats, such as television programmes and self-help books on child development and parenting, indicate interest among the population on such issues. Such a media profile for child development also suggests an increased awareness among parents of the importance of this stage of life, and of the importance of supporting children’s optimal development. However, there is also the possibility that such media will exert pressure on parents in suggesting that parenting is a complicated and fraught occupation, with the margins for error being frighteningly wide, and the possibilities for success intimidatingly narrow. In fact, parents get it right even in difficult circumstances.
Impact of socio-economic change
While there is greater sensitivity to children’s needs in the holistic sense, there are depleted resources, notably time, within families and communities to meet them. Many aspects of the socio-economic context, including the organization of work and work/life balance, are not child friendly. House prices have risen enormously and consequently, the difficulty in finding affordable housing in central parts of cities such as Dublin has meant that many people, particularly young couples, have had to move out into the surrounding counties. The road and rail infrastructure is unable to meet the new demand and many people have had to succumb to lengthy hours of commuting. Stress and tiredness caused by parents’ commuting and work is likely to put pressure on children’s quality of life within their families. There is an element of irony in the fact that while children are...