Our children need time not stuff

Mark Easton
Home editor
@BBCMarkEastonon Twitter

media captionBritish children among the least happy in the developed world

Why are British children so unhappy? Four years after Unicef sparked national soul-searching with analysis showing child well-being in the UK at the bottom of a league of developed nations, the organisation has attempted to explain our problem.

The answer, it seems, is that we put too little store on family time and too much on material goods. Unicef paints a picture of a country that has got its priorities wrong - trading quality time with our children for "cupboards full of expensive toys that aren't used".

"Parents in the UK want to be good parents, but aren't sure how," the research suggests. "They feel they don't have the time, and sometimes the knowledge, and often try to compensate for this by buying their children gadgets and clothes."

The research compares Britain with Sweden and Spain. While the UK languishes in 21st, and last, place in the child well-being table, they come second and fifth respectively.

One reason they perform so much better, according to Unicef, is that in both countries "family time is protected" and children "all have greater access to activities".

"In Sweden their social policy allows family time and their culture massively reinforces it. In Spain fathers do work long hours, but the extended family is still very important and women stay at home to look after their children."

The report argues that the pressure of the working environment and rampant materialism combine to damage the well-being of our children. They want our attention but we give them our money.

"All children interviewed said that material goods did not make them happy, but materialism in the UK seems to be just as much of a problem for parents as children," the research concludes. "Parents in the UK often feel compelled to purchase consumer goods which are often neither wanted or treasured."

It is a profoundly depressing analysis of British life, not least because it rings true.

Time poor

The importance of parents devoting energy and love to the rearing of their children is accepted by political leaders from across the spectrum, but maximising income and encouraging consumption are regarded as vital components for economic growth.

In the UK, the demands of the latter often undermine the former.

Parents work all hours to increase family income but then are too exhausted or too busy to give their children the attention they need and deserve.

Of course the Swedes and the Spanish are materialistic too, but the researchers found parents in these countries more able to defy the consumer society.

"Parents in the UK… don't know how to challenge the materialist culture they see around them. This is in stark contrast to the families the researchers spent time with in Sweden and Spain."

One reason for Britain's poor performance, it is suggested, is that material inequality is much higher here than in other rich countries. The chart above - from another Unicef report card published last November - shows the UK with a far wider gap in material well-being than the OECD average.

The consequence is that poorer families feel they have to struggle even harder to get their children the stuff that is equated to status: the latest computer games, branded trainers and corporate logos.

"Parents and children feel massive external pressure from a materialistic culture, which they know won't bring happiness, but are conforming to none-the-less," the research finds. "Lack of family time and materialism is particularly felt among poorer families in the UK compared to the other countries."

Another problem is that British teenagers do not have enough to do - particularly within the educational arena.

"In the UK, children's time in active creative pursuits diminishes in secondary schools compared to children in Spain and Sweden. This is particularly true among older, deprived children in the UK."

Unicef's remedy is for Britain to look at its priorities. They want politicians to consider specific measures to support families:

  • reform of advertising laws
  • a living wage so that families earn enough to spend more time with each other
  • protection of children's facilities so they have the opportunity to be active

Before the last election, David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that "what matters most to a child's life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting."

Today's Unicef research would seem to concur. If Britain is serious about doing the best for its children, it needs to give them more time not more stuff.