Excessive individualism threatens our children, say experts

02 February 2009

Leading experts today identify excessive individualism as the greatest threat to our children. In a landmark report on A Good Childhood, commissioned by The Children’s Society and published by Penguin, they show that children’s lives have become more difficult than in the past, and they trace this to excessive individualism.

This produces more family discord and conflict; more pressure to own things; excessive competition in schools; and unacceptable income inequality. According to the panel, excessive individualism needs to be replaced by a value system where people seek satisfaction more from helping others rather than pursuing private advantage. Their report is based on detailed evidence and findings, and leads to challenging recommendations.

The findings include:

  • The proportion of children experiencing significant emotional or behavioural difficulties rose from 8% in 1974 to 16% in 1999, and has remained at that level.
  • Some 70% of children agree “parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children.” By contrast only 30% of parents agree with the statement - a significant difference of perspective.
  • Children with step-parents or a single parent are, on average, 50% more likely to suffer short-term problems with academic achievement, self-esteem, behaviour, depression or anxiety.
  • Only a quarter of the children who are seriously disturbed by mental health difficulties get any kind of specialist help.
  • Increased exposure to TV and Internet increases materialistic desires and reduces mental health.
  • Children who spend 18 hours taking a Resilience Programme, which teaches children to manage their own feelings and how to understand and care for others, are half as likely to experience depression over the next three years and also do better academically.
  • Britain and the U.S. are more unequal than other advanced countries and have lower average well-being among their children. In Sweden 8% of children live at below 60% of median income. In Britain the number is 22%.

The report makes recommendations to parents, teachers, government, media and society at large. They include:

  • People who bring a child into the world should have a long-term commitment to each other and should aim to live harmoniously with each other.
  • For children whose birth is not celebrated through a religious ceremony like christening, there should be a civil birth ceremony where parents celebrate the birth of their child and vow to care for the child.
  • Support for parents should include free parenting classes available around childbirth, and psychological support if their own relationship falters, or if their child has emotional or behavioural difficulties.
  • At least 1,000 more psychological therapists should be trained to support children and families.
  • Schools should be “values-based communities” promoting mutual respect between teachers, parents and children. They must develop character as well as competence.
  • Personal, social and health education in secondary schools should be taught by specialists trained to teach these difficult subjects.
  • Teachers in deprived areas should be paid significantly more than elsewhere to ensure that teaching quality and teacher turnover is no worse in deprived areas than elsewhere.
  • School league tables and SATs should be abolished. Testing prior to GCSEs should continue within schools but purely as a guide to the progress of every individual child.
  • Advertising aimed at children under 12 should be banned, as should all advertisements for alcohol or unhealthy food on television before 9 p.m.
  • The government must achieve its target for the reduction of child poverty.

The report’s author, Lord Richard Layard, said:

“Our evidence showed clearly how stressful life has become for many children in all social classes. We identified a common thread in these problems, which is the excessive individualism in our culture. This needs to be reversed, and children to learn that being of use to others is ultimately more satisfying than an endless struggle for status”.

Chair of the inquiry and co-author, Professor Judy Dunn, said:

“In the Good Childhood Inquiry we had a great opportunity to see how children today experience their lives within their families, at school, with their friends (and enemies!), their problems and their pleasures. We looked critically at the evidence for and against the beliefs about children today that get media attention. What we learned has lessons for all of us - parents, teachers, and those concerned with policy making and the care of children.”

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said:

“This landmark report for The Children’s Society says the aggressive pursuit of individual success by adults is now the greatest threat to our children, and we are determined to do something about that. Essentially the report brings a taboo into the open which is that we have to confront our selfish and individualistic culture. We need to realise that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all children and that together we can make childhood better.’’

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, comments on The Good Childhood Inquiry:

“Our children deserve the best we can give them, and I hope this Report will stir us to action in the wide variety of areas it touches upon. The Report shows something of the energy, the good sense and the vision of so many of our young people. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the well-being of children and young people in this country is far from being the priority it should be, and this Report spells out in carefully researched detail some of the ways in which we are failing them. It is a clarion call for us as a society to do better.”

'A Good Childhood: searching for values in a competitive age will be published by Penguin on 5 February 2009, priced at £9.99.

Media enquiries:

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact: The Children’s Society’s Media Team, Tel: 020 7841 4422 Email: ple@childsoc.org.uk mobile: 07810 796 508.

For review copies of the book, please contact Thi Dinh at Penguin Press Publicity, 020 7010 3156, thi.dinh@uk.penguingroup.com 

Notes to Editors:

Thirty thousand children and young people, parents, professionals and organisations contributed to the two-year inquiry into childhood, managed by The Children’s Society. The evidence submitted was considered by the independent panel of experts.
‘A Good Childhood: searching for values in a competitive age’ is the final report of The Good Childhood Inquiry, managed by The Children’s Society.
The Patron of the inquiry was The Most Revd and The Rt Hon. Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
The Chair of the Inquiry was Professor Judy Dunn, Professor of Developmental Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
The members of the Inquiry panel were:
Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, Children’s Commissioner for England
Dr Muhammed Abdul Bari, Secretary General, the Muslim Council of Britain
Jim Davis, Programme Manager, Children’s Participation Project Wessex, The Children’s Society
Professor Philip Graham, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychiatry, Institute of Child Health, London
Professor Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of Social Policy and Demography, University of York
Professor Lord Richard Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics, London School of Economics
Professor Barbara Maughan, Professor of Developmental Epidemiology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
Professor Stephen Scott, Professor of Child Health and Behaviour, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
The Right Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and Chair of the Board of Trustees, The Children’s Society
Professor Kathy Sylva, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Oxford

The report is heavily evidence-based and covers the lives of children, beginning with family and friends, expanding to lifestyle, values and schools, and ending with mental health and child poverty.
The Children’s Society is a leading children’s charity committed to making childhood better for all children in the UK; www.childrenssociety.org.uk