A Tale of Two Countries
Child Rearing in Northern Ireland and Norway


Katherine van Wormer

Fate took me to Europe twice for two very different work experiences separated by two decades. Three years in one place, two years in the other. Actually, the first experience was more calculated than the second. The year was 1966; the war in Vietnam had precipitated my search for a Utopia, a peaceful kingdom somewhere overseas. When Queen's University of Belfast accepted me into its postgraduate program of English education, Northern Ireland was to become that Utopia for me. In the end, disillusioned and chastened, I was to learn that prejudice is universal. In this paper, I will tell how I learned this lesson the hard way.

The Norway adventure, less planned, really did seem like fate. It was a case of glancing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune one day and seeing an ad like no other. "Come to Norway to counsel alcoholics in the tradition of the Minnesota model." How unlikely it is that I chanced upon that ad, also that I had so suddenly been relieved of my college teaching job only days before. I answered the ad and after many months of bureaucratic hassles, was eventually on my way. Although work conditions would have made any professional blush, especially someone of the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) persuasion, I learned how good life could be in one of the world's most advanced welfare states. This article will touch on one aspect of that experience-how Norway treats its children. As a point of comparison, we will start with Northern Ireland.

Children and Violence in the North of Ireland

Recently I returned to Northern Ireland. The sun was shining, the sky clear blue, and the grinding and grimy poverty that I had seen before were nowhere in evidence. The Catholic/Protestant thing, the religious/political/class divisions, however, were as intansigent as ever.

More appropriately, I should call Northern Ireland, the land that was conquered by Britain by all sorts of ruthless tactics centuries ago and never given back, "the occupied" six countries of Ireland. The trick of populating an area with one's countrymen (and women) (such as we did with Mexico- - now known as Texas, New Mexico, and California) and their claiming it for the dominant country has now come "home to roost." How can Britain turn its back on the million or so citizens who wave the Union Jack and sing God Save the Queen with a patriotic fervor not seen in Britain since the last war?- - This is the question some would ask. How can they keep a country artificially divided?- - This is what other demand to know. I have my thoughts on this, views that would perhaps become clear from a telling of my story, a story that goes back to the mid-sixties.

I saw it right away: the need for a civil rights movement. Because I had been there before. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina-1963-1964. Now the place was Northern Ireland and the segregation was not of black and white but of Catholic and Protestant, the green and the orange, a segregation so complete that from across the life span, from birth until death, Catholic and Protestant might never meet. State schools were religious schools, schools like Orangefield Girls or St. Louis Grammar School. Except maybe sitting beside each other, inadvertently on public transportation or at a doctor's office, all social life was completely separate. This well-paying factory jobs went to Protestants; there were voting irregularities as well. " What they need is an Irish-Catholic Martin Luther King," I thought. And sure enough, scarcely one or two years later, Bernadette Devlin, a fellow student of mine at Queen's University, charismatic and consumed with anger, emerged to fulfill that role. Although her style was more reminiscent of the Black Panthers than of C.O.R.E. (The Congress of Racial Equality), her oratory powers and quick wittedness catapulted her to leadership and fame.

By the time the movement got well underway, I was a teacher of English. " An American teaching English?" some of my colleagues laughed. The humor in that somehow escaped me. After one lovely year as a lone but not lonely Protestant teacher (a temporary position) at the girls' convent school in Ballymena, I landed my first permanent job at a Protestant, co-ed secondary modern school in Portadown. Portadown, I was to find out later was Paisleyite territory. The Reverend Ian Paisley was/is the Northern Irish equivalent of Louisiana's David Duke. A cultlike atmosphere dominated the town life of Portadown. When the students (called pupils) whose ages ranged from 13-15, discovered I had taught at a Catholic school, the previous year, they decorated the classroom with the name Paisley all over the blackboard and desks. When they hooted and hollered about what my religion might be, stubbornly I refused to answer.

You can't talk about the prejudice in Northern Ireland without a description of childhood brutality. One brief scene in Angela's Ashes, the movie, shows the south-of-the-border version of what was still going on in the 1960s on both sides of the dividing line between Ireland and the British occupied "north of Ireland."In both the movie and the book versions, Frank McCourt as narrator and author,captured the essence of the nightmare of the traditional Irish upbringing: 

There are seven masters in Leamy's National School and they all have leather straps, canes, blackthorn sticks. They hit you with the sticks on the shoulders, the back, the legs, and especially, the hands. If they hit you on the hands, it's called a slap. They hit you if you're late, if you have a leaky nib on your pen, if you laugh, if you talk, and if you don't know things.

Such brutality as went on in that Protestant school, physical and psychological, went beyond anything I had ever seen or heard of before. All my complaints, feeble though they were, were immediately suppressed with remarks such as, "If children get the upper hand, they will run wild like in America. We believe in discipline not like the Yanks."

As a pacifist, I was forever on the alert, ready to meet any violence against a child with physical resistance. If it meant my job, so be it. Hitting a child was morally wrong. Unfortunately, I would only hear the caning- - a horrible swishing sound- - through the floor from the assistant headmaster's office below. Never could I have gotten downstairs quick enough to interfere. Feelings of guilt overcame me to the point of absolute obsessiveness. Boys, inured to the violence, proudly showed me their bruised hands on an almost daily basis. When one child misbehaved, the other children would chant, "Cane him, cane him!" "How can you be a teacher not use a cane?" they'd ask, derisively "Because I don't believe in brutality," I'd reply. My use of detention infuriated staff and parents alike. When one boy's mother heard her son would be sent to detention, she exclaimed to the secretary, "I'm going to pull her hair out."

One day one of my pupils was absent. "She had to be rushed to the hospital, Miss, " a child explained. " Mr. Watson cuffed her on the ear and it wouldn't stop bleeding." 
I mention the brutality or what I would consider child abuse-- the word child abuse seemed to refer only to life threatening family situations in Ireland- - as background for my theory of displaced aggression. Based on classical social psychology displaced aggression theory holds that when anger cannot be expressed against the target; it may be displaced elsewhere onto a more vulnerable source. My pupils beat up Catholics on the weekends. " How do you know they're Catholics?" I would ask. " We go to the Fenian neighborhood, Miss, " they would say. As teenagers they would soon no doubt have joined the Ulster Volunteer Force to fight the IRA. (Irish Republican Army) and others whom they thought were disloyal to the state. I, of course, had little sense of loyalty to the state. The fact that I wouldn't sing the words to "God Save the Queen" was widely noted. And then I committed the ultimate act of treason; I took part in the civil rights marches at Newry.

" We shall overcome." The singing was a little off-key and couldn't compare with the Gospel Choir harmonizing of the American struggle. Then there was an undercurrent of violence in the air. Hoodlums ("hooligans") who were even not a part of the movement set police vans on fire and committed acts of vandalism throughout the city center. The protests never took place in the Paisleyite country of Portadown, of course. That territory was considered too dangerous and declared to be off limits. Newry, a border town with a large Catholic population was considered safer. So that's where we marched, sang, and held our sit-ins.

Let me backtrack to the link between childhood expression of feelings and displaced aggression. Catholics subjected to horrendous childhood brutality, by their parents and by priests, at home, and at school-- often grew up, focusing their rage on the police and British soldiers, men in uniform. The displacement seemed to go from clerical robes and habits to the military uniform. As members of the IRA., rebellious youths could legitimately kill male officers who represented the Crown. Instead of expressing their anger against the priests who had brutalized and humiliated them in school, they displaced their anger onto a more ethically acceptable source. My theory was continually reinforced as I listened to endless horror stories of my Catholic friends from Queen's University. The Protestant horrors I learned of first-hand. Male staff members terrorized the children in the classroom. They could be quite frightening in the staff room as well.

Hostile staff members from the men's side of the staff room (yes, male teachers sat on one side, women on the other) chided me for getting involved as an outsider in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, for challenging the status quo in a country whose history I could never understand. "It's just like the American South," I lamely commented one day. You can't see the problems in your own backyard." This remark went over like a lead balloon. I quickly shut up. Later I learned that Mr. Watson informed the older children in the school who informed their parents that I was involved in the protest movement. The children were now at liberty to do as they liked. Paper airplanes flew in my direction as I plowed through the selections of poetry for the day. When I turned my head one way, pencils hit me from the other side of the room. The favorite threat of the older boys was that they'd throw me in the river. Reading poems and stories to children who seemed to have come straight out of Lord of the Flies was becoming a nightmare. At times the headmaster would watch horrified through a peep-hole in the door. Once I saw the chief inspector's eyes peering in as well. How or why I ever finished out the academic year I'll never know.

Two years ago when I returned to Ireland, I found, in many ways, a different country from the one I had left. The air was clean, not full of black soot as before, the slums less evident, and the people healthier looking. Even their teeth were better. But what surprised me the most was the treatment of the children. Adults were actually talking to children, not down at them as before, generally treating them with a respect I had not seen 25 years before. Legally, corporal punishment was abolished in the state schools when Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union. Today a few of the schools in Northern Ireland are integrated; there are long waiting lists to attend these integrated schools. My prediction is that peace will eventually come, but only when the older generation is gone; fighting will lose its attraction for youths who have little psychological need to take out their frustrations on others.


Truthfully, I was attracted to Norway because of the scenery. Also, my husband had never been to Europe, and for the kids, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "You will send them to American schools, won't you?" my sister inquired. Of course not; that would be to miss the whole point, the point being to immerse the children in the culture and the language as only the children can be. 
Family-wise and scenery-wise, the experience was all we could have imagined. As residents of Norway, we were even given a monthly family allowance from the state to support each child. Medical care, which must be among the best in the world, was free; medications were heavily subsidized by the government. Income taxes were not as incredibly high as expected; paycheck deductions sum-total were almost the same as here. The value-added tax on goods and services, over 20 percent, did come as a shock. Clothes, furniture, meals in a restaurant-all became unaffordable. To have driven a car would have been out of the question. Mass transportation, however, filled the gap.

Children and Violence

My theory about the interconnectedness between adult treatment of children and the national social climate was born out in Norway, a country where the way citizens are protected by the state is echoed in the way children are pampered by their parents. Spanking children is against the law, and children are not criminally liable until the age of 15. The biggest national celebration of the year, Independence Day, is the children's march through the streets of every town led by their teachers- - all dressed in their national costumes. Instead of being taught to compete with each other at school, children are taught to help each other learn. To increase the bonds between teacher and child, the teachers are promoted with the class. The child has one teacher through grade school, therefore, and one teacher through the three grades of junior high school.

During his first week of school, our son expressed surprise. A boy of 12 years old had fallen on the playground, cried openly, and been hugged and comforted the other boys. Our son could see that being a boy would be easy here. He was going to like this place.

The same Scandinavian values displayed on the schoolground were evident in the workplace as well. Cooperation over competition and even leadership, modesty, egalitarianism, pressure toward group conformity, and trust in the social system to solve problems are key values seen in the daily life of the alcoholism treatment milieu, which was my place of work. The trainees and therapists whom I supervised were highly unionized, and when conflict arose between them and the direction, they spoke with one voice. The bonding among the clients in their therapy groups and family week programs went beyond anything I had ever seen in my earlier practice in the United States (for details of my rather bizarre adventures see the article "Whistleblowing: A Case of Ethical Violations at a Norwegian Treatment Center" on my web site at www.uni.edu/vanworme/index.html ). 

In summary, to know how children are treated and the kind of life they lead is to grasp the essence of a culture. Generally speaking, a society that is good to its children will be a non-punitive society, and the sense of caring will be strong. Brutality at any level, however, will be generated throughout the entire social system. In this paper, I have explored how in one country torn by strife and in another land where peace and social equality reign the treatment of children, we can find the key to the larger cultural pattern.

Katherine van Wormer, Ph.D., is a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. She is also the author of Alcoholism Treatment and Social Welfare: A World View, published by Wadsworth, and co-author of Social Work with Lesbian, Gays, and Bisexuals and Women and the Criminal Justice System published by Allyn and Bacon.