The best days of our lives?

Screaming teenagersBy Sarah Womack, former political and social affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph

26 January 2011

Britain's children are said to be the unhappiest in the West.  According to an international league table compiled by the United Nations Children's Fund, they are prone to bad physical and mental health, failure at school, and have the poorest relationships with their parents and friends. The disturbing picture provoked renewed concern about the country's seven million primary and secondary school pupils, and fresh demands for ministers to intervene.

Most state action has so far been aimed at reducing child poverty, a policy predicated on the very natural assumption that if families are richer, the children in them will be happier. The Labour government calculated child poverty by household income but also suggested that 'not being able to afford things that most people consider necessary', like holidays, was a useful measure.

But research from Understanding Society challenges that assumption and suggests that other issues, such as the quality of sibling relationships, are key if children's sense of well-being is to improve.

Understanding Society is an ESRC-funded research study designed to provide new evidence about British people, their lives, behaviours and beliefs. Following 100,000 people in 40,000 households year by year and asking them questions about a wide spectrum of areas relating to their working and personal lives, it found that seven in ten teenagers in Britain are actually 'very satisfied' with their lives. It detected 'no association between the new poverty measures and life satisfaction', suggesting that few if any of the items included in Labour's list of what is important to children - holidays, having a bedroom to oneself by the age of ten, friends round regularly for tea - make a real difference to children's lives.

Intriguingly, researcher Gundi Knies from the University of Essex found that teenagers from ethnic minority groups, who are normally thought to be among the poorest sections of society, are happier than their white British counterparts. The study does, however, confirm other, well-established, findings that life satisfaction is much higher for teenagers living with both natural parents.

Understanding Society makes other interesting observations too - that children's happiness is greater when there are fewer other children in the household, and that sibling bullying is rife and causes considerable unhappiness.

Rivalry and occasional conflict between siblings or peers are normal. In contrast, repeated physical or emotional cruelty (bullying) is not. Parents and teachers need to use consistent and fair interventions when bullying occurs so that children can enjoy their lives rather than worry about the next attack.

Many sources of childhood unhappiness, such as commercial pressures on children, too much competition in education, divorced and separated parents, were examined in the wake of the UN report - but not sibling relationships.

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