Is a taste of freedom the key to a good childhood?

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.

Table from Good Childhood reportLet’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?

6 responses to “Is a taste of freedom the key to a good childhood?

  1. Tim,
    I caught Leanore Skenazy’s `Worlds Worst Moms’ tv show on satellite this week and it not only reflected exactly the issues around establishing a sense of autonomy for older (I think around 8-9 yrs old is when it should gradually start, in sensible steps) children in your article, it also reminded me of when I saw first-hand what it means to have a risk-averse helecopter mum, or whatever you want to call it. When I think of the poor 10 year-old boy on holiday, unable to move further than 2 yards from his mother’s side without her reaching for him, it makes me sad for the both of them, son and mother. She needed real help, and he needed to have his freedom to play like the other children on the beach.

    Might I also suggest another subject for an article? This announcement of £1billion for sports development to make more children do something they clearly don’t want to do, while the physically, mentally and socially healthy things children do want to do if given the chance, i.e. play, continually gets underfunded by the government of the day.
    Should the play and sports worlds be teaming up on this in some sort of constructive long-term programme to do what’s in the best interests of all children, or is it just about the money that goes to the sector that shouts the loudest in the halls of Westminster?
    What happens after the Games this summer? If it fails to achieve the promised numbers quickly, does grass-roots sport funding get dropped by MPs?


  2. “is it just about the money that goes to the sector that shouts the loudest in the halls of Westminster?”

    Shouts most effectively, perhaps.

    Having said that, I can’t help but think there is something strange about a world in which children playing require a government subsidy.

  3. Again the contrast between our adopted half-siblings illuminates things a little… Mechanical snafu with bikes meant we drove/walked to school this morning, the walk segment being a few hundred meters. Leaving the car, younger (8.5) asks can she run on ahead to go by herself (yes, she can, and does), older (10) is given that opportunity but wants me with him, though it’s familiar streets with familiar people heading along them. Over the weekend, younger decided to go out exploring the neighbourhood on her own and making a map of it, older decided to stay within very well known bounds… You can lead a horse to water but you can’t always make them drink! But the opportunity and encouragement to drink does need to be there so when they’re ready they can start learning to fly.

  4. Neil and Peter – thanks for taking the time to comment. Neil – lucky you for catching Lenore’s show, I’d love to have seen it. I’m a big fan of her website and book, and she’s a real live wire in the flesh too. Peter – yes, it’s the risk thermostat thing again (as per my comment on my next post).
    ad – I’m struggling to relate your comment to my post.

  5. Pingback: A child is taught to ride a bike – and see how many people are helping her | Rethinking Childhood

  6. Pingback: The Chinese educational revolution with outdoor play as its beating heart | Rethinking Childhood

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