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Schoolwork is greatest among pupils' concerns

First survey into modern family life will be used to tackle delinquency. Susan Young reports

Schoolwork is the greatest worry for British children and teenagers, according to the first research into what ordinary modern families are like.

Doing well at school is the thing that gives children most pride, mentioned by almost 90 per cent of those interviewed.

Middle-class children were significantly more likely than their working-class peers to have done homework or reading with a parent in the past week, and teachers were among the least likely people with whom to share worries about school, although they were felt more able to help with bullying problems than academic difficulties.

Older boys are much more likely than girls to describe themselves as clever as well as lazy, and are more likely to claim that they are always in trouble at school.

A representative sample of just under 1,000 eight- to 15-year-olds were questioned about family life for the project, the results of which will be used to tackle problems such as child abuse and delinquency at an earlier stage than is currently possible.

While most children are happy with home life, around a quarter complained of being "often criticised". The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which commissioned the research, believes problems with school, the police or abuse may be likelier among this group.

Chris Atkinson, policy officer for the charity, said: "The children from this group got less warmth. Things are going wrong; they are being criticised. There is this lack of affection going on and it gets into a spiral where there is a lack of confidence, they are not doing well at school, they come home and the cycle continues when they are criticised by their parents."

Children who said they were often criticised were likelier to come from semi-skilled, unskilled or unemployed families, or a step-family, or have three or more siblings.

Such children were far less likely to be hugged, cuddled or kissed by their parents, but were far more likely to be given sweets or nice things to eat as a mark of affection. They were likelier to be smacked than other children, and their levels of self-esteem were considerably lower than for the sample as a whole.

The research was commissioned by the NSPCC after a report from the Department of Health pointed out that while much work had been done on families where abuse took place, nothing was known about normal families and how much they had been affected by social changes.

Ms Atkinson said: "A lot is written about children being out of control, parents not being able to set boundaries, children running wild. But we found that children welcome boundaries and the rules their parents set, are happy with being told what they can and can't watch and when they should go to bed. They are conservative with a small c about what their parents should be like.

"Until this research, nobody knew what happens in ordinary families. We had inklings, but that was all. And nobody had ever asked the children about their lives in this way."

The charity would now be examining ways in which peer group support and early intervention might be used to help certain children who might be felt to be at risk of abuse or other problems.

Talking About My Generation is available from Publications Department, NSPCC National Centre, 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH at Pounds 15 plus Pounds 2.25 postage and packing.

What children say makes a good parent:

He or she is kind to you (cited by 86 per cent of children for both mother and father), always listens, keeps promises, makes time for you, sets a good example, makes you laugh, does things with you, doesn't lose his or her temper, does things for you and is strict with you (mentioned by just over 20 per cent of children for either parent).

Perceptions of family life

* More than three-quarters of children said grandparents were important to them - even more important than absent parents in most cases.

* Almost one in four children lives in a home without a parent in full-time work.

* Most children took part in regular family activities, although most of these were with mothers. Watching television was the most frequent family activity.

* A fifth of those questioned had not done anything with their fathers in the previous week. Girls were more likely to have done something domestic with their mothers, while boys were likelier to have been on an outing with their fathers.

* Almost 90 per cent of children named at least three ways in which their parents showed affection for them, including help with homework. Cuddles seemed to be more frequent in the south than the north.

* A minority of children thought smacking was an effective form of discipline. Explaining why the misdemeanour was wrong, grounding and being deprived of things was felt to be more effective than physical or verbal aggression, particularly for older children.

* Four out of five older children, however, thought shouting was acceptable, while a third considered that the threat of physical punishment was acceptable. Only 14 per cent thought carrying out the threat was acceptable.

* Rational explanation was the most common form of discipline, particularly in the South and among middle-class parents.

* Most older children said important health and safety issues, such as drinking, smoking and what time they came home at nights should not be left to their discretion.

* Physical punishment was likely to be used more in poorer or larger families.

* Most children had someone to share worries with, usually their mother. A significant number of younger children did not.

* Children had a relatively realistic perception of family income. Less than 20 per cent thought it was very important for families to have a lot of money, and these were predominantly from unskilled or unemployed families. This group were also likelier to think it was important for them to have the same things as their friends, unlike two-thirds of the overall sample.

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