Are British children really the unhappiest in the world?

A recent report suggests that British children are among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in the developed world. But is childhood really in crisis?
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The Independent Online

We did a strange thing, my brother and me a few years back, and got ourselves inside the flat we'd lived in when we were little kids. The whole block was empty, about to be "regenerated", and we thought we'd take our opportunity to have one last look at the old place. Our own flat, on the top storey, was scheduled to be sliced right off the building, as part of the effort to refurbish the whole estate and bring down the density of the population housed there.

It's weird to see a childhood home after so many years, like this. The rooms, half forgotten, wholly forgotten, for such a long time, are so immediately and devastatingly familiar, yet changed enough for it all to seem like a trick. We'd moved out of this place a quarter of a century before, when we were six and 10. But there it all was - fragments of the old living-room wallpaper, the big cupboard we'd played in so much but hadn't remembered at all, the panel of glass my brother had crashed through as a toddler, when he tried to go head-over-heels down the stairs one Saturday morning before my parents were awake. Though they got up pretty fast that day.

The huge surprise was that the place was so big and light and airy. From the living room, at the back, there was a stunning panoramic view of the Clyde Valley, miles of it stretching out to the sky - green, shimmering, beautiful. How could we not have appreciated this? How could we have forgotten this amazing property detail?

For two reasons, I suppose. One - we were too little to be able to see out of f the window, while the drop outside was far too hazardous for us to have been allowed to clamber up on to the wide sill. Two - the view back then would not have been quite so breathtaking anyway. A couple of the other blocks of flats - or maisonettes as they were christened in the parlance of the day - had been completely demolished, and many more had been chopped back so the view was much better now. Too many homes, too many families, too many people, all piled up on such a little patch of earth. Six shops, two little playgrounds, no community centre and no other communal facilities at all. What a basic, stupid planning mistake.

We hadn't known, of course, when we moved in to that brand new space, right on the edge of town, in 1966, me nearly four and my brother just a baby, that we were part of a vast, seemly utopian social experiment that would start being written off as a total disaster in just a few years, and which would, even more disastrously, knock the political bottom out of the whole idea of the expansion of social housing as a desirable cultural ambition. We got out, to another socially rented home, much nicer, much better for a family. Even then, it was an accomplishment. There would be very little chance of managing that today.

We're a property-owning democracy now, obsessed with our equity, locked up in the law of supply and demand, or locked out, very firmly, by spiralling house prices. You could blame Thatcher, if you felt like being lazy, and her nutty directive that the money made from selling-off the decent council stock should not be spent on building more. Certainly the policy ruthlessly promoted what the next Labour government would heartily condemn as "social exclusion", with the shrinking availability and quality of council-housing stock simply corralling and ghettoising the least affluent ever closer together in the least desirable housing.

But that doesn't explain why, since 1997, the building of rented homes has declined by 33 per cent in England, and by 80 per cent in Wales. According to Shelter, 100,000 households wake up in temporary accommodation each morning, more than twice as many as the day Blair came to power. According to the department of work and pensions, 3.4 million children live in poverty in Great Britain now, after their housing costs are paid. That is about one in five of the under-20 population.

Whether or not you subscribe to the idea, most recently promulgated in a Unicef report, that British childhood is close to the most crisis-ridden among the world's affluent nations, few people would have predicted in the 1960s that quite so many children in this country would now be living such economically limited lives. On the contrary, the mood back then was optimistic. Most people, as consumer opportunity opened up, expected as a matter of course that their children's lives would be much better than their own.

Now, it is common for people to fret that their children might "fall through the net" and find themselves living lives less secure and less affluent than those of the previous generation. It's part of the reason why so much anxiety has coalesced around the issue of schooling, and why children report feeling under pressure in environments that seem more benign to an older generation than the belt-wielding, rote-learning, 40-to-a-class regimes that were the norm in the 1960 and 1970s. These fears thrive despite 30 years of massive technological advance, not to mention hugely increased overall wealth.

The continuing polarisation of childhood experience is a huge influence on the shape and the manner of public debate on the issue. Suggestions that the quality of British childhood is in decline are fiercely opposed by the majority of opinion formers, simply because for the affluent, children's lives have become immeasurably better.

There's an annoying tendency among experts who attempt to speak out about what they see as the decline of British childhood to insist that the difficulties cross class barriers more than they really do. This could be seen most clearly in Sue Palmer's otherwise excellent study, f Toxic Childhood. She and many other commentators are at pains to emphasise that problems are emerging across the social spectrum.

Some of this manifests itself in fairly sensible ways. It is true that the poor are not the only people who feed their children too many sweets or too many processed foods. It is true that the middle classes are as happy to let their children watch telly while they get on with something else. It is true as well that among middle-class families with two professional parents, there can sometimes be little in the way of family time, although there is truth in the argument that quality counts as much as quantity.

But there tends to be an over-eagerness to attack parents who commit the sin of enrolling their children in "too many" extra-curricular activities, or put too much pressure on them to "do well". Lots of children thrive on such structured activities and a majority of parents find it quite difficult to force them into these sorts of commitments when they are not happy to do so. There is powerful evidence to suggest that people pressed to be high achievers early in life can fall victim to depression when they are older. But the tendency to stress these more ephemeral difficulties over those that mainly reside among the socially excluded tends to put on the defensive the very people who need to engage with what is happening to so many young people in contemporary British society, and how deeply entrenched their difficulties have become.

The access my own children have to information, culture, organised activity, their city, their country and their world, is barely comparable to my own. I didn't set foot on soil that wasn't British until I was 24 years old. I didn't visit London until I was 20. My nine-year-old has been to Australia twice, and claims that the first time doesn't count because he doesn't remember it. He presumes that he will travel the world for ever, while if I saw a plane in the sky, I would wonder if the Queen was on it.

I suppose I'm particularly concerned about the intractability of much childhood experience now, in contrast to the boundless opportunity that characterises the childhood of the more privileged; the former sits in such opposition to the feeling I had from a very young age that the world was mine and that I could take my life in any direction I chose to. Social mobility being as achievable as people in the early 1970s presumed that it would be, I wasn't the only child from a modest background to find it relatively easy, without any special advantages, to take myself off where I fancied going. An impressive gaggle of 18-year-olds left my bog-standard comprehensive to be the first in their family to go to university, and to become middle-class professionals. Plenty more were perfectly capable of doing so, and I spent a lot of time at my elite university simply stunned at how terribly average so many of the bright young things appeared, compared to people who'd left school at 16. All the statistics confirm that this attractive trend has stalled almost completely. Even though the capacity of higher education has expanded so much, average well-off children are much more likely to get to a good university than clever disadvantaged ones.

This lack of fluidity itself erects barriers. Battalions of parents observe their children's richer and more accomplished childhoods, and it is easy to dismiss the fact that for a rump of millions, things have got no better at all, and are in some ways, relatively or actually, worse. This dismissal often manifests itself in cruel ways - most graphically illustrated by the dizzying leap in the number of children who are imprisoned or "Asboed". The "bad kids" are demonised in a way that simply wasn't on 35 years ago. Now people are fearful that these wild children will corrupt their own children, or hurt them. Again, this can be seen in the terror people have of their child ending up at a school where the class might fall victim to the "disruptive element".

Back in my own childhood, though, people were not nearly so fearful for their children - or so it seemed. At school, there was little demand for parental involvement, beyond homework signing. Children would make their own way to and from school from an early age, and the yearly school report was generally one of just a few communications between school and family. The routine bestowment of childhood autonomy, now referred to as "benign neglect", is the single thing I look back on my early years and marvel at. Down at ground level, in all the communal space on our estate, children ruled the roost, for good or ill.

Down there, out on our own, we had some fantastic times. Team games would somehow emerge - not just sport, though there was plenty of that, but stuff that now seems anomalous enough to have been imaginary. Big circles of kids holding hands and singing out songs their parents had sung before them, and that I can now barely remember; f massive skipping marathons, with chants again and people being called in and out of the ropes; and fervid crazes - for sitting a book on a roller skate and whizzing down the hill, building go-karts, or making dens. We'd be wild for hula-hoops or mad for clackers - which even then were eventually banned because they could deliver a whack that could break a cheekbone.

We'd put on shows sometimes, and get the parents down to admire all the little girls who went to Ballet, Tap and Modern Stage. Local kids made good that way. Neil Reid, improbably enough, was a local hero because of his win on Opportunity Knocks with the cringe-making "Mother of Mine". Lena Zavaroni, poor woman, was the sine qua non of dizzying showbiz ambition achieved.

There was a dark side too, as could be seen immediately from the dispiriting fact that the ranks of saplings planted round the new estate were all broken as fast as they could be planted, along with every door or window that could be knocked about or smashed. There were fights and there were accidents - sometimes they were serious. There was theft and there was bullying and ruthless victimisation. There were determined assaults on no-go areas, from boarded-up buildings to electricity sub-stations, from scrapyards to lock-ups or garages. Everywhere forbidden was an adventure. Everything that was banned was a temptation. There were paedophiles too, and they claimed some successes. We'd be warned about them. But events had to be chilling indeed before parents were informed. There were plenty of secrets from parents. However scary things got, silence was respected, and freedom was jealously guarded.

When Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Sheffield University and the founder of the British Revolutionary Communist Party, wrote a book called Paranoid Parenting a few years back, his contention was that all the risks parents once took so blithely had been wholly good for them, and that children's development now was being retarded by over-protection. It's a romantic view in its callous way, and it overlooks the fact that children are doing more dangerous things now, younger and more frequently than ever before, and with even less parental knowledge.

A newspaper poll recently revealed that parents routinely overestimate the age at which their children are smoking, drinking, having sex, or taking drugs. Children aren't allowed out on their own now until they are older, and for good reason. There are many more cars, there are many more drugs and there is much more alcohol about. In some parts of the country, there are many more weapons. I never saw weapons during a childhood that had its rough side. My stepson, on the other hand, is casual about knife-carrying among teenagers he knows.

But although sheer availability of drink and drugs and knowledge about sex explains to some degree the early age at which children start to "experiment", it fails to take into account a simple and crucial factor. Children stayed absorbed in childhood for much longer in the days when it formed its own secret society and developed over years. We played out until we were well into our teens, and left growing-up for later. Now, for many children, being out alone is an experience that doesn't have a compelling personal tradition or history. Who launches a career in tree climbing simultaneously with their first day at secondary school, when freedom of movement is now more generally dispensed with? No one does really - although if you've been in the habit for years, then it's much harder to shake.

The new levels of circumscription that it operates under have eroded the solid, self-determining nature of childhood. It's less physically and psychologically intense in some ways, and this makes childhood somehow harder to hang on to. Childhood activities are now, it seems to me, much more heavily defined by the outside influence of the broader culture, and much less by the relationship with the world that children generate in their own heads.

The hardest thing to explain to children today about one's own childhood, is the vast difference that technology has made. My five-year-old recently flew into a rage over what he saw as punitive restrictions on his television watching. "I bet you watched television in the morning when you were a kid!" he huffed. He and the rest of the brood all stared in amazement when I explained that, in fact, no such thing as morning television existed back then, in any form, and that apart from half an hour of Watch With Mother at midday, for preschoolers, there was just a couple of hours of children's programming on a choice of two channels after school.

"Ah, but you could watch videos," said my stepson's girlfriend, 17 years old and on most issues as smart as paint. So I had to further explain that videos were items that were played in a special darkened schoolroom on a large, heavy and temperamental contraption that cost more than a car, and that if a VCR f had turned up in the house at any point before I left home then, weirdly, I had absolutely no memory of it. We didn't watch much television when I was little, because there wasn't much television to watch. My children would sit staring at a screen all day, every day if they were allowed to, because it's there for them all the time, day and night, and they know it.

Surveys suggest that a huge proportion of children have televisions in their bedrooms, although I can't say I know any myself, living as I do in a land of middle-class values. I wouldn't even let my poor old husband have a television in our bedroom when we got married, because it would set a bad example. And some people I know think we're hopeless because we have a telly in the living room instead of siting it less temptingly in the coalhole.

I'd count myself as a moralist on the issue of television and children, even though it sets my teeth on edge when people fulminate on about how people are supposed to be poor yet have "all the latest technology". It's reckoned to be snobbish and elitist to suggest that the poorer you are, then the poorer the cultural choices you are likely to make. But actually, relative poverty in an affluent society can be more socially damaging than absolute poverty in a poor one, simply because in an affluent society there are very many choices, and very often the least economically powerful make the choices that are worst for them.

It's one of life's little ironies that the best place to discover how bad television can be for family life is on the television. But on so many reality television programmes that delve into family life - from Wife Swap to Honey, We're Killing the Kids - the transformation in households that start getting out to the park together inside of staying inside and relying on screen-based entertainment (with games consoles and the myriad distractions of the home computer apparently more fiendishly addictive than the goggle box), is generally startlingly positive for both parents and offspring. For a lot of children, "benign neglect" has been replaced with a domestic ensconcement that is in its own ways far less benign.

Yet in cultural terms, the landscape outside the home is far less benign now as well. The huge proliferation and liberalisation of the media has made a huge impact on childhood, and was described in excellent detail by Naomi Klein in her seminal book, No Logo. Klein charted the incursion of advertising into schools in the US and Britain, highlighting the sorts of absurdities involved in handing out jotters sponsored by fizzy drinks companies, who also installed soft-drinks dispensers in schools as part of their deal; or in encouraging families to save up tokens on crisp packets in order to purchase sports equipment for schools.

The vast negative impact of poor eating habits on the physical and mental health of children is something that we have woken up to fairly recently. But the neverending wrangles over how exactly to restrict the advertising of unhealthy food to children, or how to alert shoppers to the nefarious content of certain foods through labelling systems, only serves to emphasise the unwillingness of our society to put the needs of children at the forefront of the socio-political agenda.

Cavalier attitudes to the idea of maintaining an adult space in society that is not easily accessed by children are now the norm. Despite widespread distress about the sexualisation of childhood, there remains an overwhelming attachment to highly sexualised images in advertising, for example. There was a great deal of repulsion against French Connection's long-running advertising campaign that offered endless variations on the snickering jape of pointing up the exciting fact that "FC:UK" was an anagram of "fuck". The genius behind this great cleverness, Trevor Beattie, defended the campaign vociferously. His attitude, and one that is prevalent, appeared to be that parents alone had a responsibility to protect any innocence they wished their children to experience.

It is a contradictory society that condemns "bad parenting" so heartily, while at the same time stomping so comprehensively over any parental views which imply that the rearing of children might be best done within a cultural context that supports childhood rather than treating it as an entirely private matter. The change in ideas about what adult language and images are acceptable for general consumption has been a profound one.

No discussion of the changing nature of childhood can be had without acknowledgement of the changing nature of parenthood. When I was small, in the block of flats my brother and I visited a decade ago, only one family was a single-parent family (one of the three girls, by the way, did a medical degree, so they were not so very disadvantaged by their singularity). The head of that family, also, was the only mother of small children in the block who worked. But since her children were off experiencing benign neglect with the rest of us, it was in some ways less of a knotty problem than single-parenthood and work is now. There were, at least, plenty of other mothers at home to keep an eye on hers.

There is little doubt that "the breakdown of the family" has had a detrimental effect on the lives of children, just as there is plenty of evidence that it doesn't have to be this way. But in many respects the tendency to look inside the family for answers to the problems children face is itself a distortion of the wider picture. Our whole society considers the needs of children less, while at the same time the exigencies of modern life have intensified the importance of good parenting and strong familial relationships.

There is a tension there that cannot possibly be addressed in the smallest part by such superficial notions as "tax breaks for marriage", or by carping on about the halcyon days when women arranged their entire lives round a couple of decades of child-rearing. Parents cannot bring up children without a societal structure that supports them in doing so. In almost every way I can think of, that structure has been weakened or removed over the past 40 years, a period of time and of change when it needed to be bolstered, reinvented and developed. Plenty of other countries have negotiated all this much better than we have, and we need very urgently to learn from their successes.