In pursuit of happiness

6th February 2009 at 00:00
The UK's first independent national inquiry into childhood lays blame for their problems on parents

Schools should assess the emotional well-being of their pupils and take them as seriously as academic exams if a crisis of childhood is to be averted. The idea was branded "dangerous" by one expert.

A landmark report blames adults for the "aggressive pursuit of personal success" which has caused children many problems, and calls for a change in schools' priorities as a crucial part of the solution.

A Good Childhood, commissioned by The Children's Society and billed as the UK's first independent national inquiry into childhood, is based on evidence provided by 30,000 people and analysis of previous research.

It finds that young people are suffering because adults believe the main duty of the individual is to make the most of one's own life, rather than contribute to the good of others.

Consequences include high rates of family break-up, which the study attributes in part to more women going out to work. Others cited are "premature sexualisation", more children with mental health problems, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education (seen as a greater problem in England than in Scotland), increased teenage drinking and politicians' reluctance to redistribute wealth.

Schools should counteract such pressures through social and emotional learning, the report states, which would also improve academic performance. This would require "not just a good school ethos but also deliberate teaching of social and life skills in dedicated time".

The decline of religious and secular belief in social obligation, amid repeated exhortations to accumulate material goods and compete against others, has sidelined values such as generosity and fairness, the report declares. It recommends that teachers "develop the spiritual qualities of wonder and inner peace - and the feeling of something greater than themselves".

Sue Palmer, the Edinburgh-based author of Toxic Childhood, said it was "very dangerous" to ask schools to assess emotional development, as it "reduces people's personal relationships to something to do with tickboxes".

Instead, she believed, well-being should be bolstered through sport, outdoor activities, art, drama, philosophy, charity work and involvement in the community.

Ms Palmer was particularly alarmed by the prevalence of marketing aimed at young children. There had been a "real ratcheting up" of psychological techniques to exploit child consumers in the last 10 to 15 years, which she found "terrifying".

Children under the age of eight were unable to make reasoned judgments about marketing messages, yet were being targeted by internet and mobile phone technology, often unmediated by parents, she said.

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