Yesterday’s launch of the Good Childhood report from the Children’s Society has prompted more soul-searching about childhood. Coverage has focused on the report’s finding that half a million of the country’s children aged 8 to 16 – nearly 10 per cent – had a low sense of well-being. This is indeed a troubling finding – even if some of those children will become happier over time. Yet this media focus, while understandable, misses out a far more important message: the crucial value of a taste of freedom and autonomy.
But first, why should we take note of this initiative? Isn’t it just another example of shallow PR-driven ‘research’ being used to smuggle into the public arena its own spiritual values (remember, the Children’s Society is in effect the charitable wing of the Church of England)? Far from it. The Good Childhood programme – launched by the society back in 2006 – is a serious, in-depth, long-term project to gain children’s perspectives about what makes them happy. Using smart statistics alongside thoughtful qualitative studies and engagement work, it aims to tease out their broad concerns in a way that fairly reflects the complexity of their lives, without drowning us in numbers. This latest survey was supported by Prof Jonathan Bradshaw, author of the hugely influential 2007 UNICEF report that ranked the UK bottom of an international league table on child poverty, and a world leader in quantifying what matters to children. It patently is not a vehicle for promoting religious views. Indeed at last night’s launch, one cleric made clear his dissatisfaction at the lack of emphasis on spiritual matters.
Let’s come back to what the report says. At its heart is a strikingly clear progressive message: children hunger for autonomy in their everyday lives. Out of ten factors, this was the one that was most closely related to their sense of well-being. Not family life. Not friends. Not money or material goods (see table).
For those who might wish to dispute this last point, perhaps with last summer’s riots in mind, it is worth emphasizing here that, even in London, well over 99 per cent of the city’s children had nothing to do with those disturbances.
The project also highlights the importance for children of their local area, and of play and recreation. One telling quote from a child gives a simple request: “to be able to go out of the house and have plenty of things to do but don’t have to spend money” (p.53). There are useful policy hooks for play advocates. The society’s report for decision-makers, also published yesterday, lists “a safe and suitable home environment and local area” as one of six priorities for children’s well-being (p.6). Another priority, having the conditions to learn and develop, explicitly mentions play.
At a time when public attitudes to children and young people appear to be growing ever more hostile, we need to make sure that all those in positions of power hear the clear message from the Good Childhood report: children have an appetite for agency, and want be active in, and feel a connection with, their neighbourhoods. Giving children real opportunities to get to grips with the world – knowing what it is like to have some control, make decisions and take responsibility – is central to their sense of living a contented, meaningful life. Thinking of our own lives, and of the tumultuous changes unfolding around the world, is this really so surprising?