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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 06/10/2011

One of the things that incomers to Scotland often find baffling is that Scots don't simply deliver a message but we also 'go for the messages' (our basket of goods) when we go shopping. This is a phrase that keeps going through my mind at present as we're all being given such confusing messages on consumption.

On the one hand we have the environmental and international poverty lobbies, pointing out (rightly in my view), that we can't continue to consume the world's resources in the profligate way we 're currently doing; that the west is using far too many resources in comparison with other areas of the world; and that our behaviour is having a tragic effect on other species.  In other words, our consumerist culture and expectations of continual growth are completely unsustainable. 

On the other hand, many business leaders, economists and politicians want us to spend, spend, spend to help grow the economy and steer us away from a double dip recession. The Prime Minister seems confused on the matter,  however. On the radio yesterday morning he was emphatically urging people to pay off their credit card debts but by the afternoon this exhortation had been dropped. Spending our money was still on the message list.

However, the UK's love affair with spending and stuff isn't simply environmentally unsustainable it is having a profoundly negative effect on the country's real reserves of capital and wealth – our children's development and welfare.  In other words, it is undermining our long-term future.  So what's the evidence for this?

In 2007 UNICEF produced a report on child well-being in rich countries. This comprehensive, empirical research showed that out of 20 OECD countries, children in the UK scored worst – much lower than many countries with significantly fewer resources. How could this possibly be?

To help answer this question the last UK Government commissioned a piece of research to shed light on why our children are languishing in comparison with their counterparts in other countries. It was published a few weeks ago with the title 'Children's Well-being in the UK, Sweden and Spain: The role of inequality and  materialism'.(1) The report looks at the UK alongside these two countries as their children are in the top five in the world when it comes to child-well-being. Dr Agnes Nairn, the report's co-author, is Professor of Marketing at EMLyon Business School in France.

It is important to point out that this new research is a 'qualitative' not a quantitative study.  However, it based on extensive interviews and meetings with eight to thirteen year olds in the UK, Spain and Sweden; three national steering groups of fourteen year olds; and observation and filming of everyday life of twenty-four diverse families across the three countries.

One of the most striking aspects of the report's findings is that across the three countries the youngsters interviewed are remarkably similar in their views of what contributes to their well-being:

What constitutes a 'good day' for children was very simple: time with those they love (friends, family and even pets); creative or sporting activities; being outdoors and having fun. These were spontaneously mentioned by almost every child we interviewed in all three countries.'

The only exception to this is the attitudes of poor kids in the UK who were noticeably materialistic and trying to use goods and brands to shore up their feelings about themselves or help their social standing. 

Nonetheless, the report is clear that the most significant divergence is not so much in the children's views but in their parents' attitudes and in the structure of family life.  In Sweden, for example, there is a strong culture of equality with both parents involved in bringing up their children. Work life is very much adapted to suit the needs of family. Swedes see their role as parents as one where they teach and talk to their children in ways which will help them become responsible adults. Giving children chores and duties is one way of doing this.  Buying their children things to make them happy or socially acceptable did not feature in these parents' views.

In Spain it is mothers who are more involved with children as fathers are often working long hours. However, children also have a great deal of involvement with the extended family. The Spanish see childhood as a joyful time where it is important to keep children occupied and learning.  In both cultures parents put a great deal of emphasis on spending quality time with their children and helping them to develop.

Things are very different in the UK with many parents working long hours and not having a great deal of time to invest in their children.  IN a country with a long history of wanting children to be 'seen and not heard' there were indications in this research of children watching tv or using other gadgetry to keep them occupied and out of the parents' way often in 'media bed-sits'.  However, it also revealed a great deal of anxiety about parenting and fear of children being penalised if they didn't buy them the right stuff.

Dr Nairn summed up the research on UK parents in a recent blog:

A prevalent ethos in the UK is that preparation for adulthood can be acquired with cash. It can be quickly and easily bought through the latest smart phone, or games console or cool T Shirt or theme park visit. Parents’ great fear is that their child will be left out or teased and bullied through not having the latest gadget, gizmo and gear.  There is a widespread belief that brands will somehow protect children from bullying and allow them to fit in or alternatively get ahead. This drive to purchase child happiness leads to more work and less family time which is the thing that children themselves actually want. …

But this cycle of work-to-buy-to-display is pernicious on another level. It entrenches the stark social inequalities which exist in the UK because whilst time and discussion are free, consumer goods and particularly desirable branded electronics and fashion items are not. (2)

The report found that it was particularly poor parents who were most caught up in these consumerist values. However, this was prevalent to some degree across the UK as parents here feel a 'compulsion to consume' which was absent in the Swedish and Spanish parents.

This may help to account for the fact that in Spain and Sweden outdoor, sporting and creative activities were an 'integral part' of life for children whereas it was not in the UK. Poor British children in particular missed out and were more likely to spend time watching tv or using computers.

Another interesting finding was that youngsters in the UK, particularly those in higher socio-economic groups, saw learning or sport mainly as a competition – it was all about 'doing  better' than others rather than simply doing well for yourself.

The 'take home message' from this report is mainly two fold: if we want to improve child well-being in the UK parents have to take their children's emotional needs more into account even if this may mean a drop in resources. Secondly, parents here must become more resilient and able to withstand the pressures of consumerism and commercial culture. In short, the last thing they should be doing is listening to all those messages to go out and 'spend, spend, spend'.  I’m not saying that everyone should be paying off their credit cards at the same time or not spending anything: if we see our economy as someone on a life support machine then it would be disastrous to suddenly pull out the tubes but we have to start thinking how we can get the patient off these substances and living a health life.

At the micro level obviously cutting back on consumption for youngsters may be a difficult thing for parents to do in isolation so they may need to start discussing with others and getting the topic on the agenda at parents' evenings. 

One way or another we need to get this on our message list.
 

Notes: 

1.The report can be downloaded from here:

http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Ipsos-MORI-child-well-being/

2. For blog written by Dr Agnes Nairn

http://blogs.unicef.org.uk/authentic_voices/archive/2011/09/12/quality-time-makes-children-into-adult-citizens-not-just-consumers.aspx

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