Stella O’Malley’s new book ‘Cotton Wool Kids: What’s making Irish parents paranoid?’ reveals the media-fuelled madness of paranoid parenting and describes how a more relaxed attitude to raising children can lead to happier, healthier families.
‘Cotton Wool Kids’ gives parents the information and the confidence to free themselves from the treadmill of after-school activities and over-supervision that has become common today. The book provides parents with strategies to learn how to handle the relentless pressure from society and the media to provide a ‘perfect’ childhood, and instead to raise their children with a more relaxed and joyful approach, more in touch with the outdoors and the community around them.
Stella O’Malley is an accredited psychotherapist with over ten years’ experience as a mental health professional. Much of her counselling and teaching work is with parents and young people and she has written a series of articles on over-protective parenting for the ‘Sunday Independent’. She is originally from Dublin, worked for many years in Co. Galway and now lives and works in Birr, Co. Offaly. Stella is mother to two children, age seven and five-years-old. Stella speaks to Mary O’Brien about her what led her to write the book and reveals some of the startling statistics her research revealed.
What led you to write ‘Cotton Wool Kids’?
I had been working as a psychotherapist with parents and children for a number of years but it was only when I felt I was drowning in the complicated waters of raising children myself, that I began to become angry about how much pressure is being put on both parents and children today.
I became pregnant for the first time in 2007, the same year that Madeleine McCann went missing and, like many of us, I soon realised that something weird happened to the Madeleine McCann story. Everyone from the ‘Tapas Seven’ to the cat next door was accused of killing Madeleine and what had begun as a serious news story soon turned into a sick pantomime.
Like many new mothers-to-be, I tried to read nearly every baby book there was so that I’d be ready for my baby’s arrival. However it wasn’t long before I realised that the babycare books were full of solemn warnings about how I could destroy my baby’s life. “They are all contradicting each other,” I wailed to my husband, Henry. “It says in this book if I pick the baby up every time it cries I will create a needy, attention-seeking monster but in this other book it says that if I don’t pick the baby up every time, I will create an insecure and depressed child!” Which would I prefer, I thought to myself pensively: needy and attention seeking or insecure and depressed?
I was convinced by hard-faced sales assistants to buy an array of expensive and unnecessary ‘stuff’ for the baby. I bought a ‘travel system’ instead of a plain old pram, and I bought a cot mattress that was ‘recommended by the Sudden Infant Death Association’ even though there was another option at half the price – and even though we had a perfectly good second hand cot mattress at home already.
Some time later, while writing a thesis on parenting in the twenty-first century, I was startled to discover that in truth, parents and children have never been safer, have never been healthier, and have never have had more opportunities to be happier. But we parents have missed the party; instead we are strung-out by sensationalist stories in the media that convince us that we are living in a dangerous jungle instead of one of the safest countries in the world.
What/who were your sources for the book?
This book began as an academic work on ‘Parenting and Childhood in Ireland’ and my sources were entirely academic journals at this point. When I decided to turn my thesis into a book I expanded a lot of the research by using a lot of the ‘baby books’ and the media. I also feature many case studies from my counselling practice within the book, although of course certain names and details have been changed with the case studies.
What were the most startling facts that your research revealed?
I was shocked when I realised just how much mental health and wellbeing is a much bigger threat to our children’s lives than abduction or child sexual abuse.
There was a massive study done in the USA and out of approximately 72 million children, there are on average 800,000 children reported missing each year – and yet only 115 of these missing children are cases of stranger child abduction – the rest are mostly benign explanations (341,000), runaways and ‘thrownaways’ (this means children who are thrown out of the home) (358,000), lost or injured (62,000) and inter-familial abduction (57,000).
There is approximately one child abduction for every 10,000 missing child reports filed in the US.
If we balance those figures with the fact that there are 30,000 – 40,000 suicides each year in the USA, we can see how stranger child abduction is receiving a disproportionate level of attention compared to other tragedies.
Another fact that surprised me was that suicide is a more frequent cause of death than homicide in the US with, for example, 20,000 of the 30,000 deaths from guns in 2010 being a consequence of suicide.
I was dumbfounded that the rates of child sexual abuse has gone down by 62 pc in the USA since 1992 – even though children today are much more likely to report abuse than in previous years.
There was less research available from Ireland, however I was surprised to see that the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child and less than eight pc of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger.
We seem to be living in an epidemic of misery; there has been an estimated 70 pc increase in emotional problems among young people in the developed world in the last thirty years. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of global disability.
The Growing Up in Ireland shows us that 19 pc of nine-year-old children have significant emotional or behavioural problems.
Between the years 2007 and 2013 there has been a staggering 62 pc increase in prescription drugs to treat ADHD in Ireland (with a similar rate of increase in the UK).
I was amazed to see how much child pornography has grown as technology has grown: in 1990 there were an estimated 7000 unique images worldwide of child pornography but in 2007, Interpol’s child abuse database contains a staggering 500,000 unique images.
On another subject, I was amazed to see that over 80 pc of German nine-year-olds walk to school unaccompanied compared with less than 20 pc of English nine-year-olds, while a hefty 60 pc of Irish nine-year-olds travel to school by car – with one pc of Irish nine-year-olds travelling by bicycle (and 70 pc of Irish children live within one and a half miles from their school!).
When and why did Irish parents become so afraid for their children’s safety?
Irish parents have become afraid for their children’s safety for three main reasons:
1. In the last 30 years or so, big businesses have figured out that new parents are easy targets (In the UK the estimated spend of parents on babycare products before the birth is £1,619 – and this equates to £492 million every year). With the arrival of the Celtic Tiger, Irish parents finally had the money to spend on gadgets that were already commonplace in the US and the UK.
Marketing forces suggest to parents that they must ‘child-proof’ everything so their child doesn’t have an accident and die. For example, ‘Thudguard’ is a helmet that is for two-year-olds to wear so that the toddler won’t knock their head when they are learning to walk (the Thudguard website points out to worried parents that there are 318,575 baby and toddler injuries recorded every year). And the extreme baby monitoring gadgets have an app that can text the parent at set intervals to tell parents the baby’s heart rate, skin temperature, blood oxygen level and sleep quality.
Parents can now buy stuff that protects our children from steps, windows, taps, toilets, doors swinging shut, cupboards swinging open, table corners, containers, drawers and any number of other relatively benign commonplace fixtures in our homes. There are sun tents, sun shades, sun protectors, rain protectors, wind protectors, glass safety-film and elaborate stair gates that no man nor beast can open. There are helmets available for toddlers to wear around the house as they learn to walk, rubber ducks that the adult has to turn over in the bath to gauge the temperature (by which time they will have actually felt the temperature), a harness which hangs your baby on the door safely while you pee in a public toilet, a baby bum fan (instead of leaving the baby’s bum nappy-free for a while, the parent can instead turn on the bum fan), toddler urinals and knee pads for crawling This is way over the top and it creates a heightened sense of danger when, in truth, we live in a very safe country with an extremely low rate of infant mortality.
2. Sky news arrived in 1989 and since then we live in a 24-hour news culture that needs to sensationalise every event so that they can justify their existence. The media have realised that they won’t attract attention by saying “life is pretty ok for most people” and so instead, because of market forces, they are forced to sensationalise stories. For example, one study shows that a new homicide (over 360 in total) was reported by a local paper in Toronto one year, even though there were only 68 homicides in Toronto that year — if there wasn’t a local homicide to report, the paper went outside their area so as to have something sesnational to report.
Horrible events that happen to children sell more copy than nearly anything else and so unfortunately the media are forced to fixate on horrible events that happen to children. Neuroscientists have shown us that the brain is malleable and that the more a person sees an image or reads about a story, the more prevalent they think it is – even if the report states that this is an incredibly rare event. (Grotesque events involving children should be reported only in a serious and responsible way – we have already got a template for this with the way the media reports suicide.)
3. Overprotective parenting has become a weird and unhealthy way for parents to ‘show’ their love for their children. If you point out to the parent that their behaviour is unnecessary, the most common reaction is a garbled “but I love my kids so much and I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to them.” This statement shows that over-protective parenting is not about worry for the children’s safety – it is a self-serving statement that makes the parent feel good and it’s all about the parent and not the child.
Our consumerist culture means that everything is for sale — the perfect nursery, the perfect maternity outfit, the perfect children’s party. Parents have the noble and natural desire to provide their children with a great childhood and the sharp suits in offices are marketing this dream of ‘the perfect childhood’ to parents. Parents feel a failure because no one can provide the ‘perfect childhood’ and then parents tend to over-compensate by overtly demonstrating their love with over-protective parenting.
How do parents ‘unwrap’ their kids…what is your advice in the book?
I believe parents are ‘over-advised’ .and I am reluctant to advise parents. I think most parents are well able to assess their children’s needs and they actually know instinctively what is needed; my book ‘Cotton Wool Kids’ seeks to give parents the confidence to nurture their children as they see fit.
However in my bid to create a backlash against the cult of over-parenting that has swept across Ireland, I engage in a technique within the book known in the counselling context as ‘Socratic Questioning’, which is a method of questioning that encourages people to think deeply and find the answers within themselves. And so I give room within the book for parents to answer questions such as: How can I ensure children will have happy memories of their childhood?; You might slip in the shower today and die, however you can’t live your life thinking like that all the time – but do you think about your children’s life as if there is danger around every corner?; What is the most important factor to think about when assessing risk in your child’s life?; Is your children’s pleasure more important than your happiness?; Can there be too much emphasis on education and performance in children’s lives? And if so, how do you know when that line is crossed?
However I must admit that, because our brains are continuously infected by scary stories in the media, on social media and on TV, I do advise parents to be more selective in the information they choose to follow, as this information can shape their behaviour more than they might realise.
Cotton Wool Kids: What’s making Irish parents paranoid? is published by Mercier Press in paperback at €14.99 and available in eBook format from the usual outlets.