UNICEF’s Study on Children and Happiness

Happiness in Children

Happiness in Children

The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.

I was listening to radio in the car while driving and heard about this report. It caught my interest and I came back and researched about it. This 2011 report from UNICEF and IPSOS Mori seemed to suggest that UK children are the least happy in Europe because of consumer pressures. The report is not about Australia and not about adults, but it may be worth thinking what is our truth as adult Australians? Children in the study clearly seem to know what is good for them. Do we feel trapped like the British parents? And how can one come out of that trap? How are YOU keeping yourself happy and healthy? And what about your children? Would it help to set our inner compass differently? And how does one do it? Would life work better if we know how to fine tune our Inner Instrument?

This 2011 report from UNICEF and IPSOS Mori seemed to suggest that UK children are the least happy in Europe because of consumer pressures. Following on from UNICEF’s report in 2007, which ranked the UK at bottom in child well-being compared to other industrialized nations, this 2011 research gives an in-depth comparison of over 250 children’s experiences across three developed countries: the UK, Sweden and Spain.

Sweden was chosen as an example of quite an egalitarian society, where parental leave is shared, and Spain as a more traditional environment, where extended family often weighs in on childcare. In both cases, children were found to be generally better off because they spent more time with family and friends and running around outdoors. In all three cases, children and adults ranked family time as something they considered highly important to them, and also outdoor activities.

The report itself actually stresses the complexity of consumer pressure in the UK in particular, saying:

“The role of consumer goods in the lives of children is… complex and multi-faceted and not easily reduced to a single notion of greed or acquisitiveness.”

Children in all the countries involved, including the UK, put spending time with family and friends at the top of their priority list. They might be being piled high with guilt-reducing stuff but they know that owning things does not make them happy.

The research has shown that children in the UK feel trapped in a “materialistic culture” and don’t spend enough time with their families.

Children in all three countries told researchers that their happiness is dependent on having time with a stable family and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors, rather than on owning technology or branded clothes.

Despite this, one of the findings is that parents in the UK said they felt tremendous pressure from society to buy goods for their children.

Consumer culture in the UK contrasts with Sweden and Spain, where family time is prioritized, children and families are under less pressure to own material goods and children have greater access to activities out of the home.

Report shows both children and parents in the UK trapped in a cycle of consumerism that is wildly out of kilter with what they really want and know to be of value.

Asked what makes them feel happy, children were quite clear: time with their family, having good friends, and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors. This was also true for kids in Sweden and Spain, which the study compared to the UK. But while parents in the latter countries managed to meet the family and activity needs reasonably well, British parents struggled to give their children time and instead bought them off with the latest iPod, PlayStation or Adidas sports gear.

The report, “Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism”, puts this down to time poverty among British parents, driven by long working hours, low pay at the lower end of the scale, and ultimately to income inequality. But, while this makes sense in comparison with Sweden, where the welfare state smooths the parental path, it does not explain the contrast with Spain, where income inequality is lower than in the UK but still significant, which has been hard hit by the recession, and where long working hours are also common — for fathers.

What is it about Spain that allows parents to spend time with their children and makes its materialism ranking for under-25s the second lowest in Europe? The report itself provides the answer: the strength of the Spanish family.

In Spain, while fathers often work late, time spent together by mothers and children is often quite natural through the course of the day, with sporting or creative activities and mealtimes bringing the family together, while extended family are never far away and tend to play an active role in looking after children. The importance of spending time with children was a dominant theme of the discussions with all the Spanish mothers.

If the Swedish adults saw childhood as preparation for responsible adulthood then in Spain childhood was seen as a cherished, special time which is full of joy. The role of children was mainly to learn: be it to study or to learn an instrument or a language or a sporting skill. Supported by a willing extended family, mothers by and large nurtured the children whilst the father’s role was to provide financially. The allocation of roles in the households we observed was very different from Sweden (with Spanish fathers almost entirely absent from the ethnographies due to work commitments) but just as clearly defined. In the Spanish ethnographies, we saw that the mother was the epicentre of the family, providing stability and structure for children as they grow up. Mothers in Spain saw this role as their primary one, and often sacrificed other areas of their lives, such as socialising, to do this. Mothers in Spain saw time, rather than possessions, as the most important thing they could give their children.

Although the Spanish families studied included some working mothers, as in the other two countries, this did not change the dominant impression of the mother’s role as the key to children’s happiness and general lack of materialism.