06 March 2014
Speech on Sexualisation of Childhood
Seanad Éireann - Private Members Motion on Sexualisation of Childhood
- “Catapulting little girls and boys into a sexuality for which they are neither physically nor cognitively ready is a form of theft. It is the theft of childhood.”
- “I want Ireland to be a cold house for child pageants.”
5th March 2014
I welcome this complex motion because, first of all, it offers an opportunity to examine an unexamined assumption in our lives.
That assumption is about childhood.
First of all, we assume that childhood is a place or state that has always existed, more or less the way it exists today. Secondly, we assume that childhood is a venerated and protected state, right across the world.
Neither is the case.
Childhood is a reasonably recent artefact.
Of course, children were always children, but a separate state, a discrete area constituting childhood, has existed for little more than two hundred years, and in a severely limited geographical area.
In most countries at most periods of time, children were born and if they survived their first year, which was not probable, they would speedily become assistants to their working parents. The concept of childhood, per se, simply did not exist. Mothers took their babies into the fields with them.
Paintings of royal families, down through the ages, showed the offspring of the King and Queen alongside their parents - but they were never portrayed as children. They were dressed, posed and painted as miniature adults, and that portrayal was emblematic of how they were seen. They were assets. Heirs to be married off long before either of the two children involved was capable of meaningful marriage.
Until recent times, then, childhood was not regarded - to use the terms used in this motion - not regarded as a time-specific and unique period in a person's development. Nobody expected parents to dote over newborns.
Mothers were lucky to survive the process of birth, and fathers had no involvement whatever. Fostering arrangements in Ireland meant that children were effectively swopped, which inevitably meant further distancing from the processes we would, today, regard as the norm.
Poor women who had recently given birth were likely to find employment as wet-nurses to the babies of richer women, and the supply of milk to their own babies commensurately reduced.
The fact is that childhood, for most of recorded history, has been invisible to social history because it was disregarded at the time by the people who were writing that history. It was disregarded, as well as being nasty, brutish and in too many cases, grievously short.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, things began to change for the better. With the help of specialists like John Bowlby, the notion emerged of a child as an interesting, if different, human being whose care might usefully be subject to articulated standards.
Then came Dr. Spock. Not the man with the pointy ears in Star Trek. The man who turned everything to do with childhood on its head.
Spock was arguably the first expert to regard the relationship between children and their parents as led by the child's needs rather than the parents' imperatives.
He was the first to set aside rigid schedules for feeding and cleaning babies.
The first to position the baby as a unique individual, rather than as the troublesome latest rendition of a species that so needed to be "bet into shape" through much the same carrot and stick training that might apply to a juvenile donkey.
In many ways, Dr. Spock introduced guilt into parenting. Not only was childhood now a "time specific and unique period in a person's development and a distinct space from adulthood" but it was - as portrayed by the good doctor - a uniquely fragile and delicate period, wherein parents could make mistakes that could mark a child for life.
Up to that point, the odds of survival were so stacked against children that falling in love with your own baby made no sense - if the baby was likely to die, you would experience heartbreak because you involved yourself with him or her in a way your grandparents would never, for a moment, have considered.
Indeed, for the first time, in the mid-twentieth century, we began to appreciate that when babies were not touched, were not hugged, were not carried and talked to, the process of bonding between parent and child which we now know to be crucial, even pivotal, might not happen.
Gradually, over the latter half of the twentieth century, childhood became childhood. It owned its own culture, with books and first radio and then television programmes devoted to it. The decades where mothers were at home all of the time gave rise to a socially-reinforcing reflection provided by TV programmes like the Donna Reed show, Leave it to Beaver and a rake of others.
That social-reinforcement created the illusion of a period of childhood filled with innocence and lasting until at least the age of five. I say "the illusion" because I believe that we sometimes idealise periods from a half-recollected past.
Even the best times in the recent past - within living memory - have yielded up evidence of sizeable numbers of children who, through no fault of their own, have been categorised and sacrificed to contemporary mythology. I cannot put it another way.
The children we lost to reformatories were lost to sustain a myth of a law-abiding Catholic country where an entire family could be damned and downed because of an out of wedlock pregnancy or because a parent was not capable of parenting. Remember, some of those children who were criminalised as toddlers are still with us today. If you were to show them the TV programmes broadcast during the time they were in cold, brutal institutions, they would not recognise the idealised childhood portrayed in those programmes - because they never experienced anything like it.
So, in setting out to create a context for a childhood that is gentle, protected and productive, let us never buy the myth that this has existed in the past, except in lucky pockets, because it has not.
Until this decade, and until this Taoiseach included a Minister for Children around his Cabinet Table, our cherishing of the children of the nation has been at best sporadic and aspirational. To have children represented at Cabinet by a permanent minister, rather than occasionally by a Minister of State, is the most solid statement of intent any Taoiseach could make.
That statement of intent is based on an absolute acceptance of the proposition you have put to us, that "childhood, as a time-specific and unique period in a person's development, is a distinct space from adulthood." It is also based on an appreciation of "the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture."
It is important to underline our acceptance, as a Government, of those difficulties and pressures - and just as important to put that acceptance in context.
Parenting has always been hard, for different reasons at different times.
John Millington Synge, the writer, recorded one kind of tragic parenting in his marvellous play, Riders to the Sea, a poetic account of the life of a mother in one of the islands off the west coast, whose sons go to sea in order to earn a living catching fish. One by one they are drowned. One by one they are identified by the distinctive stitches in their Aran sweaters. One by one she buries them.
"They're all together now," she finally says, "and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me..."
Today, no mother goes through what the mother in Synge's play goes through. But the young deaths happen, still and the grieving is as hard.
No mother in Synge's time ever heard the word "sexualisation." It was not a real concept for people in the early decades of the twentieth century. Now, it is an ever-present reality and a dangerous form of theft.
There is growing concern that the space of childhood is shrinking,
Once upon a time, children became teenagers. Now we have the ‘tween’ culture.
Commercialisation and sexualisation work hand-in-hand to shrink the precious space of childhood;
Downgrading the concept of childhood;
Promoting the attainment of premature adulthood;
Selling a dangerous allure;
De-sensitising innocent minds;
Steering them towards inappropriate, thoughts behaviours and untimely activity.
Catapulting little girls and boys into a sexuality for which they are neither physically nor cognitively ready is a form of theft.
It is the theft of childhood.
And for the theft of childhood, no form of restorative justice exists. Once stolen, it is gone forever. Once stolen, it leaves a great gaping hole in a heart and a life - a hold that can never be fully filled, fully healed.
Before I ever became a Minister, I protested again and again and again about clothing for five and six year olds with slogans or designs suggesting that the little wearer should be in some way sexually provocative.
Some things are not the same for adults and children. Never have been, never will be.
Clothes with suggestive slogans; not the same for adults and children.
Overtly sexual cuts and styles; not the same for adults and children.
Unreal or unbalanced portrayals of an 'ideal' body-image.
Not the same for adults and children.
I heard all the excuses:
It was just a joke.
No harm was meant.
Little girls loved the clothes.
Their mothers approved.
But over time, clothing manufacturers and retailers came out of the dark side and began to recognise the damage such designs were doing.
In 2012, I extended an invitation to the Irish retail sector to respond to increasing concerns about the sexualisation of childrenswear. Retail Ireland, responded to my call and accepted my invitation to bring forward Ireland’s first ever guidelines on the ‘responsible retailing of childrenswear’.
It is important to note that these guidelines are not just about restricting what retailers can sell, but instead provide a more constructive guidance on best practice on a range of issues such as styling, slogans, age-appropriateness, size, labelling and marketing.
I believe this code is now playing an important and constructive role in informing future decision-making by retailers, for example on the appropriateness of new and emerging fashion trends for children while further providing a framework within which retailers can responsibly consider and respond to growing concerns over body-image among children.
To date signatories to the Guidelines include: Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Clerys, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencers, Next, Pennys, Tesco and TK Maxx While Dunnes are not signatories, they have responded directly to me indicating that they comply with best practice.
I am happy to report that the number of complaints regarding inappropriate childrenswear have fallen. However I would urge parents to continue to feedback any concerns or complaints, either in-store or by contacting email@example.com
Retail Ireland is currently working with the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium to draw up a unified strengthened text for the entire island of Ireland and this is due to be published in the Summer and will have even more signatories.
Progress of any kind - when it comes to the protection of children and of childhood - is good. Voluntary progress is twice as good, and that's what the retailers have done and have delivered. Voluntary progress.
This is an example of the culture of cooperation that is possible.
It is often said that it takes a village to rear a child.
If this is true it falls to all of us to contribute – it requires this culture of cooperation.
In the same vein, it falls to all of us; to all of society to make every possible effort, to protect children and to protect childhood against early sexualization and undue gender stereotyping.
Our vigilance must be unremitting.
In that context, one of the most destructive new sources of sexualisation and inappropriate gender stereotyping is the painting of a child's face with makeup. We have seen this happen in the most weirdly strange locations. Some of us here have done a double-take, when watching fleet-footed little Irish dancers in their embroidered uniforms, ringlets hopping. We've done a double-take when we've realised that what we were seeing were mascaraed false eyelashes and lipstick and foundation cream or tinted moisturiser. On little children.
You commend An Coimisium le Rinci Gaelacha, The Irish Dancing Commission, for their introduction of additional rules prohibiting the use of make-up including false eye lashes, the tinted make-up I mentioned, and artificial tanning products for the face. Dancers who are ten years of age or younger may no longer compete using any of these. That's progress.
This is yet another demonstration of voluntary progress; of the culture of cooperation needed to protect children and safeguard childhood.
Of course, there are some activities which demean children where voluntary progress doesn't happen, because money and notoriety go along with those activities.
One of them is the child beauty pageant.
The very words "Child Beauty pageant" leave a coppery taste in the mouth. Most of us believe that it is totally wrong to promote participation, for financial gain, in a contest where little children are judged and turned into winners or losers based, not on skill they have learned or ability they can prove, but on how ‘glammed up’ their parents can make them.
This king of pageantry runs counter to the values set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
But that might not have prevented hotels from hosting such pageants last year - many of those hotels, remember, were under great financial pressure, and a contest like this, involving hundreds of children and their parents and providing lots of photo-opportunities for publicity must have been seriously tempting to many of them.
That's what makes it so encouraging and praiseworthy that each of the hotels approached by Universal Royalty, the company promoting this pageant, back in September of last year declined the opportunity to host the context. In the interests of children, they turned down the opportunity to make money. They have to be congratulated for that, as does the Irish Hotels Federation for opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland.
This is yet another demonstration of voluntary progress; of the culture of cooperation needed.
I hope that public opinion and the responsible position of many players will continue to play a role in ensuring any further attempts to hold such pageants are also dissuaded.
I want Ireland to be a cold house for child pageants.
It doesn’t always take legislation.
It is noted that legislative proposals in France on banning pageants ran into difficulties in light of criticisms regarding the vagueness around the specifics of what types of events were addressed.
I hope we won’t have to go there in Ireland.
However, I have asked the Department to examine options, to commission an international review of other countries' responses to these issues in order to inform the Government's response, and future actions; and this evening I can confirm that my Department has now commissioned the Centre for Effective Services to undertake this review in 2014.
This research project will build on another current research project being conducted by University College Cork; commissioned and funded by my Department through its scholarship programme which is looking at the impact of commercialisation and sexualisation of children in Ireland. This important research is currently undergoing peer review and is expected to be published before the Summer.
In conclusion, I wish to thank Senator Van Turnhout for submitting this motion which I and the Government are happy to support.
Because in standing together, we are reinforcing the culture of cooperation to which I referred, and which we must all together continue to foster… to ensure society similarly stands together: parents, media, retailers, event organiser, businesses and many more players.
Standing together to protect children;
To safeguard the space of childhood.