Children and parents in two contrasting European countries, Sweden and Spain, have significantly higher levels of wellbeing than those in a third, the United Kingdom, according to a survey and research by Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The survey examined attitudes towards materialism and inequality and found that parents and children had markedly different attitudes towards material possessions.
It was carried out among some 250 children, ranging in age from eight to 13, from all social backgrounds in the three countries. The findings were further discussed in three steering groups, one each in England, Spain and Sweden, of 14-year-olds. Twenty four families in the three countries were also observed and filmed.
“The message from them all was simple, clear and unanimous,” according to the Unicef report, “their wellbeing centres on time with a happy, stable family, having good friends and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors.”
Given the links, in terms of history, cultural and social policy thinking, between Ireland and the UK, the survey is likely to be of interest in Ireland, in particular to social workers, childcare specialists and policy analysts.
“Family life in the three countries was strikingly different,” says the report. It identified pressure on parental time in the UK, linked to long hours and both parents working outside the home, as having an impact on children, with parents trying to “make up” by buying things for their children.
“In the UK homes, we found parents struggling to give children the time they clearly want to spend with them whilst in Spain and Sweden family time appeared to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. We also noticed that the roles played by mothers, fathers and children within the family and the rules which governed family life were much more clearly defined in Spain and Sweden than in the UK.
“Moreover by the time many British children had reached secondary school, their participation in active and creative pursuits – pursuits that children said made them happy – had in fact dwindled, whilst this occurred less in other countries . . .
“Behind the statistics, we found British families struggling, pushed to find the time their children want, something exacerbated by the uncertainty about the rules and roles operating within the family household. And we found less participation in outdoor and creative activities amongst older and more deprived children.”
On materialism, the survey found that British children and parents both had problems.
For the majority of eight- to 13-year-olds in all three countries, “new toys, fashion items and gadgets were not central to their wellbeing”.
“Rather than wanting to acquire things for their own sake, material objects and consumer goods tended to fulfil a range of purposes in children’s lives: utilitarian, symbolic and social,” says the report.
“However, whilst most children agreed that family time is more important than consumer goods, we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things both for themselves and their children . . .
“We also noticed that UK parents were often buying their children status brands believing that they were protecting them from the kind of bullying they experienced in their own childhood.
“This compulsive acquisition and protective, symbolic brand purchase was largely absent in Spain and Sweden where parents were clearly under much less pressure to consume and displayed greater resilience.”
On inequality, in the UK this tended to be defined in terms of money and material possessions.
“Whilst the links between brands and inequality created tensions and anxieties for children in all three countries to some extent, these feelings were only shared by UK parents. Swedish and Spanish parents seemed not to belong to a “consumer generation” in the same way.
“Deprivation for Swedish parents was understood as living in an area where personal safety was threatened, whilst for Spanish mothers not being able to spend time with your children was seen to confer disadvantage relative to others.
“In the UK, inequality was also seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits.”
Children’s Well-being in the UK, Sweden and Spain: the Role of Inequality and Materialism (Unicef; June 2011) is a qualitative study and may be read online in full at unicef.org.uk/Latest/News/