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A happy childhood … ?

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Blog - A happy childhood … ?

Friday 16 September 2011

I was interested this week to hear reports of the Unicef research into the state of childhood across three countries, the UK, Spain and Sweden – the report can be viewed on www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publications/IPSOS_UNICEF_ChildWellBeingreport.pdf . The research was conducted by Unicef and Ipsos-Mori with fourteen year olds in the three countries, which is interesting for us as clearly these are secondary age students.  There are some very telling conclusions which resonated with me and my experience of working with teenagers over many years.

  • Firstly, young people’s “well-being centres on time with a happy, stable family, having good friends and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors.”  Unlike Spain and Sweden, the researchers noted how hard it is for parents in the UK to set aside this time for their children
  • Secondly, it is active and creative pursuits which make young people happy, but the extent to which these are pursued once the teenage years begin dwindles in the UK alarmingly
  • Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially, the report notes that there is less clarity about family roles and rules in the UK than in Spain or Sweden, and this both inhibits parents in their parenting and sometimes confuses children.
  • The final point I wanted to draw out was that the research shows that there is a much stronger tendency for parents to buy large quantities of expensive branded consumer objects, both fashion wear and technological gadgets, for children in the UK, and that parents often felt pressurised to do this; conversely, despite this pressure, young people seem to know that such acquisitions do not contribute to their happiness, but are a poor substitute for other missing aspects of a happy childhood.

There are some really important lessons for our way of parenting and educating children in the UK in this report.  It resonates with what we do already here at Bennett.  Our vision aims directly to counteract some of these negative aspects of British childhood.  We try to support families: our pastoral care provision aims to do both this and also to ‘fill in the gaps’ for young people whose family life is not everything it could be.  We try to offer as much activity and creativity as possible, for example through the Duke of Edinburgh programme, through our now rapidly growing musical activities, and by as many other extra curricular opportunities as possible.  We try to provide structure and predictability by running the school on clear, traditional lines.  And we aim to stand out against raw materialism and greed, emphasising values, community and faith as a much better way to long term happiness and security.

It is also interesting to reflect on this summer’s riots in connection with the way we bring up young people.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made a perceptive comment speaking in the House of Lords on the subject: “Over the past decades, our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist approach that is less and less concerned with the building of virtue, character and citizenship-civic excellence.  A healthy education system in a healthy society is one that builds character and virtue … not just consumers or cogs in an economic system.”

The overlaps between this analysis, based on the appalling events in some cities in the summer, and the conclusions of the Unicef report, are really striking for me.  Building character and virtue needs time with families, it needs constructive and purposeful shared activity, including physical challenge, it needs respect for authority, rules, property and roles, and it leads to a shift away from substituting consumer goods for any of these more meaningful ways to a happy upbringing.  Perhaps we are seeing in these insights the emergence of the agenda for a happier childhood and a stronger society.