Debate continues as landmark childhood book is published

By staff writers
February 6, 2009

You can buy the report A Good Childhood here

The debate about Britain's children and the impact on them of individualism and consumerism is continuing in the media and among policy makers, parents, teachers and carers, following the publication in book form of the landmark report A Good Childhood, commissioned by The Children’s Society.

Published by Penguin, the report, based on a huge amount of consultation and research, shows that children’s lives have become more difficult than in the past, and the authors trace this to excessive individualism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, a patron of the The Good Childhood Inquiry said: “Our children deserve the best we can give them, and I hope this Report will stir us to action in the wide variety of areas it touches upon. The Report shows something of the energy, the good sense and the vision of so many of our young people."

He added: "There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the well-being of children and young people in this country is far from being the priority it should be, and this Report spells out in carefully researched detail some of the ways in which we are failing them. It is a clarion call for us as a society to do better.”

The report says a selfish culture produces more family discord and conflict; more pressure to own things; excessive competition in schools; and unacceptable income inequality. According to the panel, excessive individualism needs to be replaced by a value system where people seek satisfaction more from helping others rather than pursuing private advantage. Their report is based on detailed evidence and findings, and leads to challenging recommendations.

The findings include:

* The proportion of children experiencing significant emotional or behavioural difficulties rose from 8% in 1974 to 16% in 1999, and has remained at that level.
* Some 70% of children agree “parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children.” By contrast only 30% of parents agree with the statement - a significant difference of perspective.
* Children with step-parents or a single parent are, on average, 50% more likely to suffer short-term problems with academic achievement, self-esteem, behaviour, depression or anxiety.
* Only a quarter of the children who are seriously disturbed by mental health difficulties get any kind of specialist help.
* Increased exposure to TV and Internet increases materialistic desires and reduces mental health.
* Children who spend 18 hours taking a Resilience Programme, which teaches children to manage their own feelings and how to understand and care for others, are half as likely to experience depression over the next three years and also do better academically.
* Britain and the U.S. are more unequal than other advanced countries and have lower average well-being among their children. In Sweden 8% of children live at below 60% of median income. In Britain the number is 22%.

The report makes recommendations to parents, teachers, government, media and society at large. They include:

* People who bring a child into the world should have a long-term commitment to each other and should aim to live harmoniously with each other.
* For children whose birth is not celebrated through a religious ceremony like christening, there should be a civil birth ceremony where parents celebrate the birth of their child and vow to care for the child.
* Support for parents should include free parenting classes available around childbirth, and psychological support if their own relationship falters, or if their child has emotional or behavioural difficulties.
* At least 1,000 more psychological therapists should be trained to support children and families.
* Schools should be “values-based communities” promoting mutual respect between teachers, parents and children. They must develop character as well as competence.
* Personal, social and health education in secondary schools should be taught by specialists trained to teach these difficult subjects.
* Teachers in deprived areas should be paid significantly more than elsewhere to ensure that teaching quality and teacher turnover is no worse in deprived areas than elsewhere.
* School league tables and SATs should be abolished. Testing prior to GCSEs should continue within schools but purely as a guide to the progress of every individual child.
* Advertising aimed at children under 12 should be banned, as should all advertisements for alcohol or unhealthy food on television before 9 p.m.
* The government must achieve its target for the reduction of child poverty.

The report’s author, Lord Richard Layard, said: “Our evidence showed clearly how stressful life has become for many children in all social classes. We identified a common thread in these problems, which is the excessive individualism in our culture. This needs to be reversed, and children to learn that being of use to others is ultimately more satisfying than an endless struggle for status”.

Chair of the inquiry and co-author, Professor Judy Dunn, added: “In the Good Childhood Inquiry we had a great opportunity to see how children today experience their lives within their families, at school, with their friends (and enemies!), their problems and their pleasures. We looked critically at the evidence for and against the beliefs about children today that get media attention. What we learned has lessons for all of us - parents, teachers, and those concerned with policy making and the care of children.”

'A Good Childhood: searching for values in a competitive age’ is published by Penguin on 5 February 2009, priced at £9.99, and available here

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