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The days when the height of a child's ambition was to be a fireman, garda, train driver or nurse are gone . . . these kids are shooting for the stars

Katherine Donnelly reports on a major new study into the experiences, hopes and ambitions of Irish children

Published 23/09/2011 | 05:00

SHOWS like 'The X Factor' with a focus on celebrity culture have taken over children's ambitions.

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It seems that 50pc of boys fancy themselves as a big-name soccer or rugby player, while 36pc of girls see a glittering stage or screen career ahead in singing, acting or dancing.

These are among the main findings of new research on the experiences and perceptions of nine-year-olds in Ireland today, launched by Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald yesterday.

It is based on in-depth interviews with children from all socio-economic backgrounds, seeking to get behind the facts and figures from an earlier survey of 8,500 nine-year-olds by the same researchers.

The 'Growing Up in Ireland' study, being carried out at Trinity College Dublin, is the most significant piece of research ever carried out on children in Ireland.

It looks at family life, health and expectations for the future, and its main aim is to understand what factors affect children's well-being and development.

In general, the children interviewed for the study talked readily and happily about their lives and plans for the future, and reported many positive features of their lives at home and in school.

Worries

However, some worries and concerns were expressed, including troubled attitudes to food and their own weight. One in four, or 24pc, of the children interviewed were overweight or obese.

Being overweight was clearly linked by the children to eating unhealthily and not exercising, although many still ate unhealthy food. One girl said she only finished her dinner on a Friday, when it was pizza.

The theme of being "too thin" was prominent, especially in interviews with girls. One girl associated being underweight with being wealthy.

Girls were also more likely to be familiar with the concept of eating disorders and some had detailed knowledge of diseases such as anorexia.

Relationships between children and their parents were broadly positive. Many enjoyed a very close relationship with their mothers, while fathers' involvement was mainly around sporting activities.

Children frequently commented, however, on how they felt less close to parents who worked long hours.

Parental separation also had a considerable impact on children's routines and the research found it made for relationships with non-resident parents that were challenging to sustain, though still valued.

Some children were particularly apprehensive about going to second-level school, with worries about bullying and maintaining friendships in the new school.

Of the 120 families in the in-depth study, 25pc of children were in one-parent households, all headed by mothers.

Among this group, contact with non-resident fathers was very regular with more than 50pc seeing them every week.

However, almost 33pc of children had infrequent contact with their non-resident fathers and for some this was a source of sadness. The study also found that indoor, sedentary activity, such as playing computer games, especially among boys, could be replacing time spent on physical activity.

The children considered both cigarettes and alcohol as "bad for you", and none planned to smoke in the future, while most thought that they would drink in moderation.

The preference of 50pc of boys to be a professional sports player was well ahead of the next closest category, the 15pc who saw a career as a scientist, vet or astronaut, while only 2pc plumped for each of the categories garda, businessman, doctor or lawyer.

For girls, hairdressing, at 11pc, was the second most popular career category, and, by comparison, teaching, nursing and medicine were at a lowly 6pc each.

As well as tracking 8,500 nine-year-olds -- they are now 13 and taking part in follow-up interviews -- the study is also looking at the experiences of 11,500 babies and toddlers.

Irish Independent

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