Children, well-being and leadership

I was alarmed to read in the Times on 14 February 2007 that Britain’s children are the least happy in the Western World . This is the conclusion of a UNICEF study across 21 industrialised nations in Western Europe.

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York, one of the authors of the report, links these results to child poverty.Between 1979 -1999 child poverty in the UK rose rapidly (from 14% to 33%) , the numbers of children living with unemployed parents/carers rose rapidly and the numbers of children not in education and training also rose.

In March 99, the government set a target to eradicate child poverty by 2020, and to reduce child poverty by one million (i.e. 25%) between 1998 and 2005; however it missed this target by 300,000, achieving only a 17% reduction. In 2007, child poverty in the UK is still double the rate it was in 1979 (27% vs 14%). For further details, see this report by the Child Poverty Action Group.

Professor Bradshaw goes on to say that the main reason for Britain’s overall well-being rating, which is lower than relatively poorer / less developed countries like the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland and Hungary is inequality; he states that ‘the more unequal a society, the relatively deprived people will feel’. In other words, it’s the comparison effect. There is plenty of research (e.g. Michalos (1985), Myers (1992), Wood (1996), Buss (2000)) on the effect of comparison, and in particular how comparing yourself with others less fortunate (downward comparison) can make you feel good, whereas comparing yourself with others more fortunate (upward comparison) has a negative effect on your well-being.

Vital though it is to eradicate child poverty, I don’t believe that the answer is that simple –  for a start there is plenty of research which shows that, above a level to meet basic needs, more money really doesn’t make you happier.

In commenting on this UNICEF study, Dr Tony Sewell, director of the charity Generating Genius, wrote in the Independent on Sunday (18 February 2007) , that ‘one of the major problems is a lack of sympathetic adults, whether they are role models or just sounding boards’. There is definitely some truth in what he is saying, and I know that Jenny, who has experience of mentoring young people for Oxfordshire County Council, agrees.

My own view, based on casual observation of adult/parent/child relationships in the 13 Western European countries I have visited, is that it has a great deal to do with the culture of the country and societal norms and values with respect to parenting, family life and having children. In the UK generally we seem to have a different relationship with our children than other WE countries, and furthermore, parenting is not a highly valued activity in our society. Has the UK attitude really moved on from the time when children should be seen and not heard? It would seem that children are not, generally speaking, treated as individuals in their own right and included in adult life in the UK; instead they are treated as belongings, things which can be and should be controlled by adults. I’m not an advocate for allowing children unrestrained freedom of choice, however; there is considerable research (e.g. Schwartz 2000) that finds this is equally damaging to well-being.

In the countries I’ve visited, children tend to be better integrated into adult life, are given consideration and guidance by other adults, and are frequently encouraged to engage in a positive way with adults, including those other than their parents/carers, for example teachers, youth leaders, mentors, neighbours and so on.

So if we want to increase child wellbeing in the UK, getting rid of poverty is only part of the answer. There is also an important question about whether our culture and societal norms and values about parenting and children need to change too. And in the words of Tony Sewell, perhaps we need to ‘show our children some leadership.

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