What really makes our children happy?

In the past few years, our society has been rocked by reports on the wellbeing of children in the UK. Unicef, the UN children’s agency, told us last week that family life is in crisis, and that rampant consumerism and parents’ long working hours are largely to blame. Out of 21 developed countries, our children come out the worst – even though Britain is the fifth wealthiest country in the world.

I created the BBC television series Child of Our Time, a unique 20-year project that follows the lives of 25 children from all over the UK and from all walks of life who were born in 2000. During that time I generated a separate project to unearth the real quality of British children’s lives. Our team filmed the children when they were eight continuously for 48 hours, for one school day and one home day. Every laugh, every tear and every movement was recorded, counted and analysed to build up a true picture of a day in the life of the average British child.

The results of this intensive study brought into sharp focus the issues facing today’s parents. What makes their children happy? Do they have time to play? And how do our children manage the stress of the hundred formal tests they have to take during their education?

British children are the most tested in the world and, not surprisingly, they find it hard. I have seen at first hand how psychologically damaging exams can be for some children. One engaging child talked openly about her rising anxiety: “My teacher thinks I am good at my school work, but I don’t think I am. I’m scared that I’m not going to do well because then I won’t ever get into a good school.” She was only seven years old.

Other young children were also upset. “It makes me very unhappy and frustrated”; “They are too hard”; “I can’t catch up”; “I hate them.” And, from a child who, at seven, had already given up on education: “Clever is boring.”

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