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A Good Childhood

April 15, 2009

A few weeks ago there was a brief flutter of media attention around the Children’s Society and their ‘landmark report’ on childhood in the UK. In 2007, a UNICEF study ranked 21 developed countries and found that the UK came last for child welfare, with the US second worst. The Good Childhood Inquiry set out to find out why, and this book represents their conclusions.

On one level, it’s a good time to be a child. Children in the UK enjoy good health and can look forward to long lives. They have foreign holidays, and a wealth of consumer goods. 90% of children over 11 have their own mobile phone, 80% of 5-16 year olds have their own television. Despite the good life promised to them, this generation of children is more stressed, more violent, and less happy than the children of the seventies or eighties. Alcohol use and teenage pregnancy are among the worst in Europe.

What is fascinating about the report’s conclusions is that while there are many factors at play, at the heart of the matter is a consumer culture that promotes ‘excessive individualism’. Some individualism is good of course, a sense of ambition and self worth. The problem is that “individuals will never lead satisfying lives except in a society where people care for each other, and promote each other’s good as well as their own. The pursuit of personal success relative to others cannot create a happy society, since one person’s success necessarily involves another’s failure.”

Our consumer culture encourages us to put ourselves first, so we do. In a Children’s Society survey, 66% of adult respondents agreed that ‘nowadays parents aren’t able to spend enough time with their children’, and almost half agreed that many people had to put their careers ahead of their family. Of course there are pressures on us, but this remains a choice. You can choose a different career, work part time, and spend more time with your children. The problem is that you would need to buy a smaller house, holiday more locally, buy a secondhand car, and spend less money on luxuries. But those things are unacceptable to us or sound like failures, so we choose differently, and our children suffer.

Unpopular though it may be to talk about it, the report also mentions family break-up. Research repeatedly links quality of life and family breakdown. Children with absent fathers do worse at school, are more likely to be involved in crime, and are more likely to see their own marriages fail. In a consumer culture, marriage is a lifestyle choice, and divorce is simply another. “Nothing is more important for children than this” says the report of family conflict. “If parents gave more priority to maintaining their feelings for each other, this would do more for children than much of the rest of what they do for their children.”

There are numerous fascinating aspects to this report, including the role of the media, and the erosion of trust. (The two are linked – statistically it’s no more dangerous to let your children go out and play unsupervised than it has been, but big murder or abduction cases make it seem like it is.) There are implications for government, in allowing more flexible working. There are lessons for town planners, making more open spaces and areas where traffic is limited. There should be less testing in schools, and better provision of apprenticeships for those leaving school early.

Overall however, the problem lies in culture. This culture of individualism, of putting ourselves first, is passed on to our children, who grow up believing that “to be happy you have to be wealthy and beautiful.” The internet and the television constantly reinforced a consumer dream, giving young people celebrity “role models far removed from their own existence”. By the age of three, children will prefer a branded product to another that tastes exactly the same. 45% of 9-13 year old agree with the statement “the only kind of job that I want when I grow up is one that gives me a lot of money.”

The tragedy of course is that the consumer society doesn’t make us happy. It relies on huge inequality, and it’s destroying the environment.

What’s the solution? The report has to return to that difficult word ‘values’ – children need to empathise and understand the need to share, and to put others first. They need friends, teachers who believe in them, and parents who love them and love each other. In the end, love is a key word.

“One major theme of this report is the need a more caring ethic and for less aggression – for, to put it bluntly, a society more based on the law of love” say the authors in the introduction, and they return to this at the end. “We want our children to discover that caring for others and contributing to a common good is ultimately more satisfying than either wealth, beauty or personal success. This will require a radical shift away from the excessively individualistic ethos which now prevails, to an ethos where the constant question is ‘what would we do if our aim was a world based on love?’”

A Good Childhood is a thoroughly researched and thought provoking read, and I recommend it.

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