There are few parents who do not want to do the best for their children. But what is the best? A new report suggests that British parents are getting the answer wrong.

The report written by Unicef, the United Nations’ children’s agency, and jointly funded by the Department for Education, finds that British parents spend too little time with their children because they are working too hard, and then try to compensate by showering their kids with toys and designer-labelled clothes. But this, the report says, is pointless because such consumer goods are not what make children happy.

This new research was commissioned after an earlier Unicef report concluded that Britain was the worst country among twenty one developed countries for children to grow up in. That 2007 report rated Britain as third from the bottom for educational standards, second from bottom for teenage pregnancies and bottom for self-esteem. The Government wanted to know why and the new report attempts to provide the answer.

Researchers interviewed hundreds of children in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Spain. They discovered that Swedish and Spanish children are significantly happier than British children. This is because children from all three countries rated two things above all as making them happy, but only in Sweden and Spain were they readily available. What all the children rated most highly was time spent with their family and friends and plenty to do outdoors.

It is the first of these that British parents seem to find so difficult to provide. Anita Tiessen, deputy director of Unicef UK, said that the root of the problem is the 'long working hours of British families'. She said: 'Parents have a much greater pressure in fulfilling the commitment to their children. They try to make up for this by buying their children branded clothes, trainers, technology.'

The obvious problem is that this approach to child-rearing creates a vicious circle. Parents who think that giving their children more consumer goods is the way to make them happy then have to work longer to earn the money to pay for them.

Dr Agnes Nairn, the author of the report, said: 'Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.' In this, she said, there was an 'enormous difference' with the other two countries. She added: 'While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.'

The notion of Britain being in the grip of a compulsive consumerism will come as no surprise to many people in the week in which Westfield Stratford City, Europe’s biggest shopping centre, on the edge of the Olympic park, opened its doors to hordes of rushing consumers.

In Spain and Sweden, however, family time is given much higher priority. In Sweden childcare tasks are more equally shared between parents and in Spain women are more likely to stay at home and look after their children rather than go out to work. There is much greater reliance too on the extended family to provide the sort of contact with family that children value.

The report makes clear that its findings about British children cover the whole spectrum of society, irrespective of class or race. Only with regard to the second thing that children themselves say is important for their happiness – having plenty to do outside – does class difference emerge. Children in poorer British families are less likely to engage in outdoor activities than are children from similar backgrounds in other countries. Here they are more likely to be stuck indoors watching television or playing computer games.

David Bull, the director of Unicef UK, linked the findings with this summer’s riots. He said: 'Politicians are grappling with the aftermath of the riots and what they say about our society, culture and families. The research findings provide important insights into the pressures children and their families are facing and may speak to some of the underlying issues relating to the disturbances.' Many commentators on the riots have made the point that a large proportion of the rioters were young and that their main aim was simply to loot shops for the goods they wanted but probably couldn’t afford.

So what can be done? The report makes several suggestions. First, it recommends that the Government should ban advertising directed at children under twelve, as is the case in Sweden. Secondly, it argues for a culture in which adults feel they can work fewer hours and to this end it argues in favour of a living wage being set higher than the minimum wage. And thirdly, it says that councils should keep open playgrounds and other facilities for children.

But it is not hard to identify the objections that will be raised to these recommendations. For the very reasons that the report lays out, the children’s market is lucrative: those involved in it are bound to resist any attempt to reduce it by banning advertising and, at a time when the Government is anxious to promote almost anything that will boost economic growth, their objections may succeed.

For the same reason, many people will argue that however desirable it might be in the long-run for parents to work less hard and spend more time with their children, now is not the moment to raise costs by imposing higher minimum wage rates on the economy which could only be harmful to growth. Equally, however much councils can see the value of playgrounds and other children’s services, they are under severe financial constraints and needing to make cuts in spending. Playgrounds may not be their top priority. Indeed some councils are even thinking of starting to charge for the use of their playgrounds.

The long-term, however, may bring about its own changes. Some economists are predicting that our current very low rate of economic growth will prove to be not a temporary slump but the way things will be for the next ten or fifteen years. If that’s so, then British parents will face a choice about how to respond. As living standards stagnate or fall further, they could redouble their work effort to keep their incomes and their spending up but at a cost to their children’s welfare. Or they could take the view that the consumerist treadmill is a snare and that life would be better for their children if their parents were poorer but more caring. It is obvious what this report recommends.

What’s your view?

  • Do you find the conclusions of the Unicef report convincing?
  • If you are a parent, do you feel under pressure to work and spend rather than provide time for your children?
  • If so, do you think it possible to resist the pressure?
  • What do you make of the report’s recommendations for improving the situation British children find themselves in?
  • Should advertising to children under twelve be banned?
  • Should the Government raise the minimum wage so that parents don’t have to work so hard?
  • Should councils prioritise children’s facilities, like playgrounds? Do you have any other ideas?
  • Do you think the findings of this report shed any light on the riots over the summer?
  • And if the next decade is going to prove to be a period of very low growth, do you think our 'compulsive consumerism' will be shaken off, or get worse?
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