Coming in the wake of last month’s looting and burning riots in British cities, a UN report pinpointing materialism as a particularly British blight was bound to make the country sit up and take notice. The youths who rampaged through the streets of London and Birmingham seemed to both covet material goods and despise them at the same time. In a similar way, last week’s report from UNICEF shows both children and parents in the UK trapped in a cycle of consumerism that is wildly out of kilter with what they really want and know to be of value.
Asked what makes them feel happy, children were quite clear: time with their family, having good friends, and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors. This was also true for kids in Sweden and Spain, which the study compared to the UK. But while parents in the latter countries managed to meet the family and activity needs reasonably well, British parents struggled to give their children time and instead bought them off with the latest iPod, PlayStation or Adidas sports gear.
It is not just that the children nag their parents for cool stuff; the parents feel tremendous social pressure to provide it, something that does not happen to nearly the same extent in Sweden and Spain.
The report, Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism, puts this down to time poverty among British parents, driven by long working hours, low pay at the lower end of the scale, and ultimately to income inequality. But, while this makes sense in comparison with Sweden, where the welfare state smooths the parental path, it does not explain the contrast with Spain, where income inequality is lower than in the UK but still significant, which has been hard hit by the recession, and where long working hours are also common -- for fathers.
What is it about Spain that allows parents to spend time with their children and makes its materialism ranking for under-25s the second lowest in Europe? The report itself provides the answer: the strength of the Spanish family.
It would be nice to be able to trace this strength to intact marriages. Alas, divorce, cohabitation and single motherhood has been trending up in Spain as in Britain and Sweden (the latter among the top countries for extra-marital births). In fact, the researchers for this report carefully selected eight families in each of the three countries to represent single and couple families (no mention of marriage) with different employment patterns.
Nevertheless, Spanish families stood out for two reasons: the role of the extended family in looking after children and, most importantly, the role of the mother. Here are a couple of quotes from the report:
In Spain, while fathers often work late, time spent together by mothers and children is often quite natural through the course of the day, with sporting or creative activities and mealtimes bringing the family together, while extended family are never far away and tend to play an active role in looking after children. The importance of spending time with children was a dominant theme of the discussions with all the Spanish mothers.
If the Swedish adults saw childhood as preparation for responsible adulthood then in Spain childhood was seen as a cherished, special time which is full of joy. The role of children was mainly to learn: be it to study or to learn an instrument or a language or a sporting skill. Supported by a willing extended family, mothers by and large nurtured the children whilst the father’s role was to provide financially. The allocation of roles in the households we observed was very different from Sweden (with Spanish fathers almost entirely absent from the ethnographies due to work commitments) but just as clearly defined. In the Spanish ethnographies, we saw that the mother was the epicentre of the family, providing stability and structure for children as they grow up. Mothers in Spain saw this role as their primary one, and often sacrificed other areas of their lives, such as socialising, to do this. Mothers in Spain saw time, rather than possessions, as the most important thing they could give their children.
Although the Spanish families studied included some working mothers, as in the other two countries, this did not change the dominant impression of the mother’s role as the key to children’s happiness and general lack of materialism.
There seems to be a recipe for success here. A 2007 UNICEF report on child well-being in the rich countries -- the OECD -- ranked Spain 8th in family and peer relationships compared with Sweden’s 15th place and the UK’s 21st, and 2nd in child happiness (subjective well-being) compared with Sweden’s 7th place and the UK’s 20th.
As if to confirm this, another report published last week in the UK, where nearly one in three mothers with children as young as six months are working full-time, shows that many mothers regret what they see as a necessity. The The Price of Parenthood, commissioned by the Labour Party -- which spent most of its 13 years in power urging mothers to get back to work -- found that more than 80 per cent of parents of all ages agreed that one parent should, ideally, stay home with the children.
Louise Kirk, of Mothers At Home Matter (formerly Full Time Mothers) told MercatorNet her group has been trying to tell their government that for twenty years, and are pleased that UNICEF has put the spotlight on issues of work, family life and the happiness of children.
This is one lesson from the report.
The other concerns family stability, which any amount of research shows is greatest when based on lasting marriage. Nearly half of all babies in Britain are born to unmarried mothers, and although many are cohabiting with the father of the child, the relationship is far more likely than a marriage to break up before the child is 16.
However, the Price of Parenthood report revealed a “yearning for traditional family values” including "families with both a mother and father", and many of those questioned called for a tax system that “rewards couples who stay together”. Asked how they would describe the modern British family they said: “broken”, “juggling”, “hectic”, “fragmented”, “dysfunctional”…
The importance of family stability, not to mention wholeness, is recognised in the UNICEF report:
Children who did not live with both of their parents tended to mention visiting or seeing their absent parent as part of a good day, while others felt that their family being together (i.e. not divorced or separated by distance) was important in making them happy… The features of bad days that children told us about were strongly related to disruption to stable family life. Some Spanish children explicitly made the link between children being unhappy and disrupted family lives.
Amongst the UK children we talked to serious family problems were more strongly in evidence amongst more deprived children. Several children in these groups spoke of family separation, substance-abuse and fighting between parents when talking about bad days. This chimes with literature that documents the connection between poverty and family problems. Households where no one is in work and lone-parent families have been shown to bring not only economic disadvantage but also family tension.
A British girl aged 12, talking about what she would do if she won the lottery, focused on her broken family: First thing is to go on holiday with all my family together, instead of just one part of them, because the last time I did that I was 7 … even if it wasn’t somewhere fancy, just to be with them.
It is strange, then, that in its recommendations to the British government UNICEF makes no mention of family structure -- although respected think tanks like the Centre for Social Justice have been urging the government to make marriage the focus of its family policy for some time.
UNICEF’s most important advice is for the government to give a lead in the area of work-life balance by paying all its employees and sub-contractors a “living wage” -- a term which used to mean an amount that enabled a breadwinner to provide the essentials of life for his family. This is a sound idea, but how is it to be applied in a society that cannot even agree what a family is? In refusing to address this issue, the report, ironically, falls back on a materialistic basis for child well-being: income.
Being able to earn enough income is certainly vital, but enough for what? The report should have paid more attention to the messages coming from children about fractured families. Even Spain will find it difficult to maintain its record of nurturing motherhood and contented children if it cannot help mothers and fathers to stay together.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.