Tuesday 18 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: How can we explain the Eighth Amendment referendum debate to our young children?

Pro-Choice and Pro-Life campaigners at a rally last year Photo: Fergal Phillips
Pro-Choice and Pro-Life campaigners at a rally last year Photo: Fergal Phillips
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. We have four children under the age of nine. While we do our best to not have them exposed to the news on radio and TV, we feel that talk of the Eighth Amendment is everywhere. Our older kids will be well aware of a vote coming up once posters start appearing. Can you advise how best to explain what it is about? They were very inquisitive about the same-sex marriage referendum, which we found easy to explain. This next referendum topic feels like a massive challenge - how to find the words to explain a very sensitive topic to kids?

David replies: The decision for you, as any parent, is about whether to try to explain the complexity of the debate about the Eighth Amendment or not. With younger children, you may well decide not to explain anything, on the basis that they may not understand it, and don't need to know about it.

If this is the case, then do let them know that you will explain it when they are older and better able to understand, rather than simply not responding to them.

If you decide to talk with them about the impending referendum, you may find it hard to discuss the nuances of the Eighth Amendment with them unless you are clear, in your own head, what the amendment says, and what it means. I also think you will struggle to talk about this amendment unless you are willing to discuss abortion and your understanding of what abortion is and what it means.

I think you are right to recognise that this is a "sensitive topic". I think its sensitivity lies in the fact that the issue of abortion is so very value-laden and forces us to really question and then be clear about our own values, morals and beliefs.

Potentially, one of the best sources of information, to guide you in explaining the complexity of the issue, should you choose to discuss it with your children, will be the guide to the referendum that will be published by the referendum commission.

The benefit of that document is that it will have to be written in a neutral and unbiased way, explaining what it is that we are being asked to vote on, and what the effect of a "yes" or "no" vote will be.

This then might give you the facts that you need to translate into language or concepts that you think your child will understand. When discussing any complex issue with our children, I think we always need to approach the conversation as part of a process of explaining things to them, rather than a once-off event.

So, depending on what you say to your children, they may have further questions, or need further clarification. You may want to check what sense they are making of things they are seeing or hearing. Your willingness to continue to discuss things with them is important. This is often hardest when we feel uncomfortable about the topic, or when the topic distresses us.

There is little point in my suggesting words or language that I feel might be "digestible" or understandable to children, because, inevitably, I will colour those words, or use phrasing, that will reflect my values, opinions and beliefs about both the Eighth Amendment and abortion.

It is far more important that it is your values, your beliefs and your opinions that you pass on to your children. Whatever position you hold, in the debate, is the one that you can describe for your children. You get to apply the filter for them.

Indeed, it is important for parents to be that filter for their children. It is your job to try to contextualise the information that they are receiving, through news media, leafleting, posters and so on, so that they can make some sense of it. They don't need a perfect understanding, just enough understanding to assuage their curiosity or reassure any upset they may have if they are faced with commentary or images that disturbs them.

It is good that you are proactively considering the public commentary and debate that there will be in the lead up to the referendum, because it means you can take the time to prepare and clarify your own position and find the right words to be able to explain that to them.

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