Mum’s the word when it comes to children’s happiness

03 April 2011

Young people's satisfaction with their family situation is clearly related to the quality of relationships with parents and especially their mother’s happiness. The research findings come from the first findings from Understanding Society, the world’s largest household panel study managed by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex.

As part of the study, which will follow 40,000 UK households over a number of years, young people aged between 10 to 15 years have been asked how satisfied they are with their lives.  The findings indicate that a mother’s happiness in her partnership is more important to the child than the father's. The findings are based on a sample of 6,441 women, 5,384 men and 1,268 young people.

Overall, 60 per cent of young people say they are 'completely satisfied' with their family situation but in families where the child’s mother is unhappy in her partnership, only 55 per cent of young people say they are 'completely happy' with their family situation – compared with 73 per cent of young people whose mothers are 'perfectly happy' in their relationships.

The Understanding Society research examined the relationships between married or cohabiting partners, and relationships between parents and their children. Professor John Ermisch, Dr Maria Iacovou, and Dr Alexandra Skew from the Institute for Social and Economic Research found that the happiest children are those living with two parents – either biological or step – with no younger siblings, who do not quarrel with their parents regularly, who eat at least three evening meals per week with their family and whose mother is happy in her own relationship.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Maria Iacovou said: "At a time when there is widespread political concern about 'Broken Britain', these findings show that family relationships and the happiness of parents are key to the happiness of young people. Contrary to the popular belief that children only want to spend time playing videogames or watching TV we found that they were most happy when interacting with their parents or siblings."

The research also finds that having older siblings is not related to children's happiness with their family, but having younger siblings in the household is associated with lower levels of satisfaction, and this effect is greater the more younger siblings there are in the household. But relationships with parents are even more important than relationships with siblings. Only 28 per cent of children who quarrel more than once a week with their parents, and don’t discuss important matters with their parents are completely happy with their families.
Dr Iacovou commented: "Together these findings reveal the complex influences of different family relationships on a child’s happiness. Over the years, as Understanding Society follows the lives of families in the UK, we'll build up an even better picture of how children's lives are affected by all kinds of factors. Understanding Society is really set to become a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the well-being of children"

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Notes for editors

  1. The findings above are taken from Chapter 2 'Family Relationships': by Professor John Ermisch, Maria Iacovou and Alexandra J Skew. The full chapters can be found at http://research.understandingsociety.org.uk/findings/early-findings

  2. Understanding Society is a world leading study of the socio-economic circumstances in 40,000 British households. The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and well-being, their financial circumstances and personal relationships. Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people's environment influences their health.

  3. Understanding Society has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivers the study.

  4. The ESRC have contributed £27 million towards the funding of Understanding Society, and have successfully secured a total of £19.4 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Large Facilities Capital Fund. A further £2.61 million has been secured from a consortium of Government Departments. This funding will support the first five waves of the study until 2015. It is envisaged that the study will continue for up to 20 years.

  5. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.