‘Child Talks’ online event a huge success: our children show us they are stronger than they seem

Inspiration. Hope. Empowerment. Perseverance. Belief.

These are the words that were at the forefront of the minds of all the speakers at this year’s Child Talks event with The Ombudsman for Children’s Office. Now in their thirtieth year of the unique and insightful event, the format looked just a little different this year.

Where last year, on World Children’s Day, four to five hundred people crowded into Dublin Castle for the event, this year the stage was virtual. But this added challenge only fit in with the theme of many of the speeches from the speakers this year; Overcoming adversity.

The event opened with an introduction from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, emphasising the importance of values like self-esteem, kindness, tolerance and social conscience in worrying times like these. He called to children to be a message of hope for the future, announcing the theme of this year’s talks to be ‘A Day in My Life’.

Over the course of the hour, we heard from seven speakers, their ages ranging from 8 to 18 on a variety of issues, including identity, climate and social activism. And what stands out most about this event is the impact these children are already having on the world around them.

In these turbulent times, everyone is looking to blame someone for the unfair hand they feel they have been dealt, and as a result, generational divides have become more pronounced than ever. But the children and teens that appeared on the virtual stage Friday were not the mythologized youths roaming the streets in gangs, not moving over on the path, nor were they ‘snowflakes’ preaching and emphatic about important identity politics that older generations relish dismissing.

The speakers were steady and surprisingly serious, even at eight years old. Covid has been kind to few, but its effect on our youth is a strangely bittersweet one. They spoke about missing friends and school and how the return to routine was almost as difficult as the loss of it. How they worried for friends and family and how their education and day to day was affected. But they also spoke of the unexpected outcomes of living in this strange new world.

India, a seventeen-year-old from Donegal, shared how lockdown inspired her to create a mental health manual for secondary students. The now Leaving Cert student describes how at the start of her fifth year in 2019, outwardly, everything seemed like it was going well for her, being elected to the student council and getting along well with peers. But inwardly, she felt lost, emotional and overwhelmed, these distressing feelings only increasing as the year went on. She shared that she had experienced bullying in previous school years and how the effects of that continued to surface years later. She approached her GP and was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. When Covid arrived and life was thrown into further turmoil, India sought help that would change her mindset and help her to overcome the distressing period in her life.

Now India has written a guide that has been distributed to every school in the country, with tips about how to recognise symptoms of mental health issues within yourself, where and how to seek help about them and how to maintain overall good mental health.

Cuan (10) spoke about the challenges he faced during the disruptive time. Diagnosed with autism, he gave helpful advice about finding ways to cope in this new, strange, pandemic time. He shared that, when he found certain things in his environment to be overwhelming, like loud sounds or uncomfortable clothes, he found things like swimming, drawing and company helped him. He explained how everyone gets overwhelmed from time to time, especially in these difficult moments and how important it is for people to find their own ways of coping with them, so as not to meltdown.

Eight-year-old (adorable) Charlie from Cork also spoke about his experience of Covid, but he came at it from an angle few of us have considered, amongst all the different devastating impacts of the pandemic. Charlie describes his local reservoir that he and his family walk every day. They only people or cars they would meet there would be close neighbours and friends.

But when the pandemic struck, he was initially delighted to see people out enjoying their usual walk, but this quickly turned to dismay as the area became covered in litter. He grew very concerned about the local animals and birds eating the discarded objects and dying, so he decided to take matters into his own hands, recruiting his sister and parents to make signs. ‘You came here because it’s beautiful so leave it beautiful’ his sign placed at the reservoir’s entrance read. Within days, the rubbish had disappeared and Charlie urged the audience to remember ‘no matter how young you are, you can make a difference’.

Other speakers included Evan, from Cork who advised young people on how to equip themselves with self-belief to have the confidence to speak about issues that they are passionate about and seventeen-year-old Emer who stood up for her right to article 13 – the right to freedom of expression - when she was threatened with suspension for dyeing her hair pink.

Sixteen-year-old Katherine identified the importance of learning about and embracing her own culture, even when it seems impossible. She describes the shame she felt of her Nigerian food and hairstyles when her school friends did not share her enthusiasm for them. But a trip to Nigeria gave her the pride and understanding of her culture to educate her friends back at home and teach about tolerance, acceptance and openness to each other, a theme more important now than ever. The sense of divisiveness cannot be productive to reconstructing and improving Irish society. In all the talk of ‘going back to normal’, it is important to consider that ‘normal’ was not always an inclusive or tolerant state.

Sisters, Maria (16) and Afaf (13) can attest to that. Their volunteer work with Muslim Sisters of Eire led to their involvement in combatting the homelessness crisis in Dublin and elsewhere around Ireland. Maria describes seeing a young homeless man shivering in a thin jacket in December several years ago and how their interaction spurred her to make a change in her own attitudes. She and Afaf prepare meals and goody bags to be handed out outside the GPO every Friday night. While Covid has complicated things, they have continued to do this inspirational work, urging people not to paint all the homeless with the same brush. They appealed for help, sharing how small steps as individuals makes much more difference than simply blaming authorities.

The theme ‘A day in the life’ seemed a little misleading at first, as I had expected to hear testimonies from the speakers about the personal impact of such a strange and difficult year on their lives. But as one speaker after another impressed and inspired me, I realised, a day in the lives of these children is a day spent in service to a greater good. This was not an event of wallowing in things taken away, but a celebration of things achieved in the face of adversity. The message that we all have the capacity to make a change rings out from every story. These are quiet, personal rebellions, taken on day by day to make a difference to the problems that they see around them.

The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon said “The format for Child Talks 2020 may have changed quite dramatically but the stories and experiences are more powerful than ever. Here at the Ombudsman’s Office we were absolutely committed to ensuring we could give children and young people a voice in this year of upheaval. Our commitment was met each step of the way with the enthusiasm and passion of the participants. Child Talks 2020 is testament to both the resilience and enterprising nature of young people during the Covid- 19 pandemic.”

A genuinely inspiring event that shows us exactly what this country’s children are capable of, I would encourage every parent, teacher and childminder to watch and show their children this hour-long event. If not for you then for your child, to show them exactly what they can do, at any age. A huge well done to the entire team behind this truly impressive event.