What makes a child happy?

Heretic TOC readers, thoughtful and Kind in all senses, as I believe you generally are, will see this as an important question. So it should trouble us that a recent Children’s Society report found a decline in children’s happiness in the UK over the last decade as judged by a range of factors affecting their sense of wellbeing, such as whether they are being bullied at school, or neglected at home, or even whether, in food bank Britain, they are going hungry.

Not a care in the world… for now

Anxiety about their job prospects, the state of the environment and their own future mental health were also raised as issues in the survey of children aged 10-17, published as The Good Childhood Report 2019. Over the last 14 years around 67,000 young people have been involved in the society’s research programme, which comprises quantitative surveys alongside classroom consultations, focus groups and interviews.

It may be recalled that H-TOC took its own in-depth look at children’s mental health in a three-part blog under the “driving kids crazy” heading three years ago. See here, here and here. Key themes from that trilogy will be touched on below but first let’s take a look at this latest survey. For a broad overview of the statistics there is perfectly adequate coverage in the Guardian. Rather than reviewing the whole survey, though, I think it will be more illuminating to focus on a single aspect for what it says about the approach taken, which I will argue is sophisticated and has produced important results to which political attention should certainly be paid, but…

There are important matters on which the report is utterly silent.

Let’s start, though, by giving credit where it’s due. For instance, the survey has an in-depth analysis of children’s worries about the future, part of which is detailed in Figure 9 of the summary report. The anxieties listed in this chart, notably worrying about the future state of the environment, will probably strike us as entirely rational. Far from showing there is anything wrong with the kids, the extensive concern over this topic (over three quarters being at least a little worried) shows they are intelligently alert to the real dangers of climate change, plastic pollution and so on – an alertness increasingly witnessed in mass demonstrations such as we saw just a couple of days ago.

If there is any misplaced anxiety it appears to be not the children’s but the Children’s Society’s. The report says “it is the extent of children’s worry that is of most concern” and “It is important that we acknowledge these worries, monitor them and respond to them in order to reduce the amount of worry children are experiencing and promote positive well-being.” What we should all be worried about, surely, is tackling and solving the problems in question, not worrying about whether kids worry about them.

A separate chart (Figure 8: see below) sets out the children’s anxieties about their own futures, including their school grades, university admission, jobs, having enough money and somewhere to live, mental health and physical well being. What the survey very usefully did in this regard was to look beyond the overall figures. There was an additional focus on the minority of children (1 in 9 of them) whose other survey responses indicated they had low life satisfaction. These were significantly more worried about all seven aspects of their future than other children.

This sub-analysis revealed that the largest gap in worries was for future mental health. Children who currently had low life satisfaction were almost three times as likely to be quite or very worried about their future mental health as other children. Now that really is a worry, especially in relation to other studies – previously discussed, as I say, in Heretic TOC – that disclose real reasons to be concerned over children’s actual rather than just future mental health, as shown in findings of extensive self-harming, depression and suicidality.

Again to their credit, the Children’s Society does go on to address the implications of its findings for society at large, pointing out, for instance:

Record investment in NHS mental health services for children is accompanied by massive cuts to children’s social care. More children go to outstanding schools than ever before at the same time as unprecedented food bank use by families struggling to put meals on the table. We are not seeing children and young people in the round.

Also, the Children’s Society has focused this time solely on children’s own views and feelings rather than letting parents or others speak for them. They say:

…young people need to be heard, but without them being able to vote how do we ensure that their views are taken seriously and acted upon? There are lots of approaches in policy-making that could be used to achieve this – from more passive options like advisory boards and impact assessments, to more active ones like participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, and co-production in service design.

All good stuff. Sensible, imaginative suggestions, although a reduction in the voting age should be considered as well.

So much for the good news. But now we need to put our radical, critical, hat on and start thinking in earnest. The sense I get from the report is that it has successfully located a problem – children’s increasing unhappiness – but that the questions it is posing are too limited, with the result that the data the survey has come up with tell us more about symptoms than causes.

For instance, the “cyber” factor (see Figure 9, summary report) focused on children’s worries about personal information being shared online. This is unquestionably a serious issue, especially for teenagers in connection with cyber-bullying, which can have devastating consequences, not least when intimate photos intended for just one recipient are put on general view by that person, whether to show off or as an act of revenge following rejection in a relationship.

So the problem is well known. It did not take a survey for us to hear about it. The problems to which the online world has given rise tend to be the focus of intense scrutiny and (often justified) anxiety simply because the technology is so new and constantly changing. The temptation in these circumstances in to blame the tech and overlook the deeper reasons why kids might be behaving viciously towards each other. Same with the fear of crime that features so strongly in these figures, being right up there with environmental worries as a major concern. While many British children live in reasonably safe circumstances, others do not, especially those suffering multiple disadvantages in areas of squalid, run-down housing, low incomes, and a drugs and gang culture increasingly associated with a spectacular increase in knife attacks.

Now the observation that children – or anyone – stuck in a bad environment will behave badly is hardly a great revelation either. There is actually a long tradition, going back well over a hundred years, of social surveys linking deprivation to depravity in one form or another, with Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth as early pioneers focusing on the poor of London in Victorian times.

Interestingly, the Children’s Society has always been a part of that tradition, having been founded by Sunday School teacher Edward Rudolf as the Church of England Central Home for Waifs and Strays, in 1881, after he had seen for himself “the brutal effects of poverty on the lives of children”. Over the years, the society appears to have made commendable efforts to keep up with the times in identifying and meeting the needs of disadvantaged children, starting with children’s homes, then going on to become a major adoption agency and now offering a wide range of support services.

But then, in the society’s online history, we find a hint that heretics here might not see entirely eye to eye with them:

The charity’s direct practice now focuses on vulnerable children and young people aged 10 to 18 – including children who have been sexually exploited, children in care and young refugees.

It is, of course, the focus on “sexual exploitation” that will raise our suspicions. Yes, some children are sexually exploited and, yes, their needs should be addressed. But what we have reason to suspect is that this churchy outfit has a long history of attitudes shared with the prudish, sexually restrictive social purity movement that succeeded in pushing for an increased age of consent in the same decade as the Children’s Society had its beginnings.

Accordingly, we need not be surprised when we find – as we do – that asking the children about their feelings and opinions, and ensuring that “their views are taken seriously and acted upon” does not extend to putting any questions in the survey about how happy or unhappy they are over their sexual desires and frustrations.

Nor are the children asked any questions that might seem to encourage them to aspire to real freedom and choice in their lives in ways that might imperil the timid, over-protective, health and safety culture of our times – even though, as I believe, along with such thoughtful commentators as sociologist Frank Furedi and Free Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy, the most profound underlying reason for children’s unhappiness as they grow beyond dependent infancy is the restrictions unreasonably placed on them these days.

Indulgence: not the same as happiness. With thanks to a Guardian Weekend magazine cover for a feature titled “A greedy person’s guide to summer”

Not that children are necessarily aware of what they are missing. They are not like ardent Brexiteers who feel they have lost out and demand to Take Back Control. Parents, teachers and other adults have always been firmly in charge of these young lives. So 10-year-olds, or even most teenagers, will be unaware of earlier eras when kids could venture far and wide on their own, or with their mates. They won’t realise that being held prisoners in their own bedrooms with only a virtual reality world for comfort denies their birthright to grow and mature through interaction with real reality – a reality that includes nature in all its wonder and also teeming, exciting urban life, with its people of all ages, all genders (more than two these days!), and all sorts of characters, a few of whom will be downright dangerous to mix or mess with, but most will prove friendly, interesting, helpful and educative.

Accordingly, because youngsters largely don’t know what they are missing, and how much fuller life could be, they are unlikely to notice that the Children’s Society, and others such as the Children’s Commissioner, make great play of the need to listen to the views of the young but tend to avoid asking kids anything that might tempt them to make an escape bid from their virtual prisons.

Steering clear of such questions might seem the responsible thing to do. After all, as the conventional wisdom has it, kids need to be protected from their own naivety and from falling into bad company. But how well is that going right now? Cocooned in their sedentary domestic cells, youngsters are getting fat and unfit, which brings its own serious risks of diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening ills. Meanwhile, drug lords run rings around the “protective” system anyway, recruiting the most vulnerable teenagers and even younger kids to do their dirty work for them as “county lines” dealers.

There is a case to be made that the best protection policy would be two-fold: (1) focus on reducing the child poverty and other forms of deprivation that make some children very open to exploitation; this should be very do-able in our fundamentally wealthy but very unequal society; (2) allow kids to become streetwise – or, rather, to become shrewd judges of character and life’s pitfalls –  through gradual exposure to the world beyond their home in such places as youth clubs. There used to be far more of them in the UK, before all the “austerity” of recent years. And they did a good job.

None of these observations of mine will come as a surprise to heretics here, so let me end with something a bit more intellectually challenging, that could take us all out of our comfort zone.

Do children need to be happy? Or, rather, do they need to think about their own happiness? The pursuit of happiness is famously written into the US Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. But whether we become happy by pursuing happiness is a very doubtful proposition. Arguably, many adults in our consumer society are encouraged to worship a false god, hoping to make themselves happy through buying ever more “stuff” – material goods we do not really need. So to encourage children to fuss over their own happiness, by asking them to rate it, might just be gratuitously making them self-centred and potentially greedy. Even kids’ excessive agonising over their own appearance, leading to such problems as anorexia and other manifestations of “body dysmorphia”, might be part of a related problem.

I came across a fascinating article the other day by Peter Stearns, a specialist in the history of emotions. “Happy Children: A Modern Emotional Commitment”, reveals, as the title suggests, that focusing on children’s happiness is really a very recent concern, and is still not a feature of all cultures. Children’s birthday parties, for instance, were a mid-19th-century innovation. As for birthday gifts, when they first started the birthday boy or girl was expected to give the presents, not receive them! In his opening paragraph the author says, “Explaining the intensification of the happiness commitment also reveals some of the downsides of this aspect of popular emotional culture, for example in measurably complicating reactions to childish unhappiness.”

While I make no recommendation that we should return to an era of indifference towards children’s happiness, it may be that we should be more concerned with their wider well being, including such factors as whether they are developing worthwhile goals in life. What do you think?

 

BURSTING WITH AMBITION

A lighter note to end on now. A young research psychologist had occasion to mention an amusing encounter in his childhood online recently. I’ll leave him to tell the story in his own words:

My grandmother used to take me to Pride every year. We’d sit on two little blue-green chairs together, enjoying the spectacle. One of my favourite things was picking up the condoms that would be tossed by some of the floats, and then filling them with water, and then dropping them from the third floor of my grandmother’s building. You’d be surprised how much water a condom can contain before it BURSTS.

As I was gathering up as many condoms as my little hands could carry, I have a memory of a well muscled shirtless man handing me a few more condoms and warmly saying, “Well aren’t you ambitious!”