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Family values: we still cling to tradition

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Fiona and Jason Byrne with their children, Dylan 7, Megan, 4, and Luca, 9, at their home in Swords.

Fiona and Jason Byrne with their children, Dylan 7, Megan, 4, and Luca, 9, at their home in Swords.

Fiona and Jason Byrne with their children, Dylan 7, Megan, 4, and Luca, 9, at their home in Swords.

THE studio debate was getting heated. It was a live broadcast of The People's Debate with Vincent Browne ahead of the marriage equality referendum in May, and the studio audience were getting the chance to air their views on family values.

But the air of intensity in the studio collapsed into merriment when audience member Michael O'Leary took the microphone.

Speaking against same-sex marriage, he was met with howls of laughter when he accidentally called for a ban on men and women getting married instead.

"We have family values," said an irate Mr O'Leary. "We don't want to see men and women getting married - and that's the holy all of it!"

Should Mr O'Leary have quickly Googled "family values" before taking to his feet, he'd likely have found the Oxford Dictionary definition: "Values held to be traditionally learned or reinforced within a family, such as those of high moral standards and discipline."

Then again, in a world where family can mean two mum or two dads, a single parent or a step-parent, who could blame a man who probably grew up in the vanishing Ireland of the 1950s for getting a bit muddled on the subject?

"Family is changing in Ireland," says Jane Shiels, co-founder of Family Friendly HQ, an online resource for families. "We get a lot more single parents and stepmoms on our site. But that family unit is still really, really strong."

All this week, our Modern Family series has shown how the face of the Irish family has changed, and how the new Children and Family Relationships Bill aims to recognise this.

Back in 1967, for example, 97pc of children born to unmarried mothers here were given up for adoption; today that figure is just 1pc.

In another dramatic turnaround, last year 36pc of children were born outside marriage, compared to just 2pc of children in 1959.

But, perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence to suggest that despite the massive demographic shift in the way families are made up, their core values remain much the same.

"Generally, we found that people continue to articulate very similar values," says Dr Jane Gray, a lecturer in Sociology at NUI Maynooth, who recently carried out qualitative research into the 21st-century Irish family. "Marriage is still very important to people.

"Yes, there are changes - but there are also deep underlying continuities in Irish families and what they value, and the quality of family relationships as well."

Twenty years after Irish voters went to the polls in a referendum on divorce, the institution of marriage remains strong.

After a period of decline in the noughties, marriage is on the rise once again, with more than 20,700 couples tying the knot in 2013, up 4pc on 2011. And we have the lowest divorce rate in Europe at 0.6 per 1000 people.

However, we have dispensed with some of our traditional values.

One poll put weekly Mass attendance here at 18pc - down 72pc since 1984.

"People no longer think religion is a really important thing to instil in their children," says Dr Gray. "On the other hand, parents sort of feel they have to make an effort to go to Mass to give their children maybe an opportunity to make their own minds up."

With the average Irish seven-year-old now owning a smartphone, while their teenage siblings typically check social media 125 times a day, family time often revolves more around video games than board games. "One of the biggest challenges out there for parents is choice," reckons Olivia Willis of www.familyfriendlyhq.ie. "There is so much choice out there for family and kids."

"When we were kids, you went to the cinema, there was one movie; now there's 10. Likewise, on a Saturday, your family might be all in the one room - but you're not necessarily spending time together because everyone has a phone or iPad.

"Parents on our site often say they long for those simpler days of the seventies or eighties when they were growing up. I just think the era of the internet has taken the whole simplicity out of life."

Yet a study by Mary Immaculate College in Limerick last week revealed that parents' biggest fear is not the dangers that lurk online, but the very old-fashioned fear of their child crossing the road.

"That's something parents of any era could be worried about," says Dr Gray.

"To me, what I see is the structure of authority in families has changed. In the past, it might have been more centred on individuals contributing to the family as a whole, whereas in more contemporary times, it's a little bit more oriented towards the well-being of individual family members.

"Sometimes we talk about that idea of increased individual self-fulfilment and freedom as leading to people being more selfish," she adds.

"But the research doesn't show that.

"People are still very committed to their families and looking after one another.

"I suppose what families are trying to achieve is to raise their children to be independent, and at the same time, to be as happy and confident as they possibly can be."

'If they're bold, we just confiscate their iPads'

Entrepeneurs Jason and Fiona Byrne, who run a women's fashion chain, live in Swords with their three children, Luke (10), Dylan (7) and Megan (4).  Dad Jason says:

"Fiona and I have always tried to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong. Our big thing is that no matter what you do, you have to tell the truth.

We have no problem with the kids making mistakes, so long as they're honest about it. When we were growing up, we definitely heard the word 'no' more.

Dylan is on the autism spectrum, and because a lot of time is taken up with him, at first we found ourselves saying 'yes' to everything with Luke and Megan just to compensate.

Recently, we've been making more of an effort to say: 'No, you're not getting this or that'.

Now they have to work up to earning things by helping out around the house. All our kids have iPads. But when they started reaching for it first thing in the morning, I began taking the iPads off them on Sunday night until the following Friday.

If they're bold, we confiscate their iPad or ground them for the weekend. As Luke gets older, you do have to be vigilant about what he's looking at or who he's talking to online.

We haven't broached the topic of sex with him yet, but we'll have to soon. They also do sex education in school from third class upwards.

Although the children have an understanding of God through school, we don't go down the Mass route any more. Dylan is making his First Communion next year and Luke already made his.

Running our own business, striking a work/life balance is probably the most difficult part. But one of us is always home by 4pm every day.

And we're very lucky that we have Fiona's parents and my parents to help out if we're stuck for the school run.

Given we're not always around during the week, Saturday and Sunday is family time. Whether it's football, swimming or a trip to the cinema, there's always something on.

We're not one of these families that sits around doing nothing. Down the line, we would have no problem with the kids having a drink, or whatever, when they're old enough.

The main thing we hope they learn is to respect themselves and other people."

Irish Independent