You may not have seen the recent Unicef report about the way materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain. What children really want, says the report, is to spend time with family and friends, to take part in group activities such as sporting events, and simply to be outside. What they are getting instead, very often, is more stuff. Parents are working such long hours in Britain, compared with other countries, and when they do get home they are too tired to spend time with their children. So they buy toys and gadgets to compensate. That’s the gist.
John Bingham summaries some of the conclusions of the report:
In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.
Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.
British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.
Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.
In British households television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.
The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.
Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three-year-old son convinced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.
In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.
While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.
But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.
The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”
She concluded that there was an “enormous difference” between Britain and other countries.
She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”
Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, adds:
We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.
We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.
How does one react to all this? Is it just about making parents feel guilty for things that are beyond their control? Is family life really imploding in the way described in this report? Are there simple (guilt-free) changes a family can make to improve the quality of relationships and give children what they really want and need from their parents? Any practical suggestions?