Child wellbeing in the new generation

Since the UK was placed bottom in a 2007 Unicef report on the wellbeing of children in rich countries, concern with the situation of the nation’s children has taken on a new dimension. But new evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study suggests the current generation are faring well.

Picture Credit: Seema Krishnakumar

The 2007 Unicef report resulted in considerable soul-searching among those concerned with promoting children’s welfare. And though the UK moved up the international rankings in the 2013 update it still performs poorly compared to other western European countries.

However, our new findings from the age 11 survey of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) suggest that, by their own report, this new generation of children is not faring so badly.

Among over 13,000 children who participated in the age 11 survey, over half (52 per cent) rated themselves as ‘completely happy’ with their lives – the top of a seven point scale. The average across all children was more than six. While the telling teenage years are yet to come, these children at the end of primary school are not showing strong signs of misery or of deviance.

The MCS has followed these children since they were age 9 months, visiting them and their families also at ages 3, 5 and 7. This has provided a wealth of information on their family circumstances through the first 11 years of their lives.

From this information it was possible to ascertain that four in ten of the 11-year-olds had experienced some disruption in their family circumstances (i.e. parental separation or the (re)partnering of a formerly lone parent, or multiple changes) by age 11.

Nevertheless, by and large they remained very happy with their families: three quarters of all the children said they were ‘completely happy’ with their families. And while this was a bit lower (65%) for those who had experienced the separation of previously partnered parents or who were in blended families (72%), it was still the dominant response. Apart from those who were not living with a parent at all, no more than four percent said they were completely unhappy.

Post-separation parenting

It is widely believed that children’s behaviour reflects their parents’ relationship, and the Children and Families Act 2014, which reflected some of the concerns raised by the Unicef reports, emphasised the importance of the involvement of both parents post-separation.

The age 11 MCS survey did not, however, find much evidence that children growing up in non-traditional families suffered as a result. They did find that children living in families with two natural parents had lower rates of behavioural problems than other family types, but part of the difference was due to other factors, such as the influence of family poverty, maternal age, and mother’s educational level.

Indeed, as much other research has shown, it is the adverse socio-economic circumstances that are linked to family separation that are more of a concern for children’s outcomes than family structure itself.

The study also highlighted the extent to which some children were facing high risks of material disadvantage across their early years. Using a measure of low income relative to that of other families with children, over half of the children had experienced poverty at some point during their childhood.

More of a concern was the 17 per cent of children who had experienced poverty at four or five out of the five surveys. Nevertheless, while such ‘persistent poverty’ was associated with greater material deprivation in the children’s families, it only reduced their overall perceived wellbeing by a small amount: from an average of around 6.2 on the 7-point scale for those never poor to an average of just under 6 among those persistently poor.

Persistent poverty had a much more marked impact on the wellbeing of the children’s parents, suggesting that parents may manage to insulate their children to some degree from the immediate stresses of living on a low income for a long period.

Happy at school

Despite experiencing relatively high rates of bullying (58% had been bullied with 7% being picked on ‘most days’), which is known to have detrimental long-term as well as concurrent effects of young people’s lives, the 11-year-olds were also remarkably positive about school. Over half of them said they were ‘completely happy’ (7) while 80 per cent ranked their satisfaction with school as either 5, 6, or 7.

Despite concerns with the detrimental impacts of peer influence on the initiation of risky and antisocial behaviours as they reach the end of primary school, only three per cent had tried a cigarette by this age. Just 13 per cent had tasted an alcoholic drink, with only around one per cent having tried enough to feel drunk.

While seven per cent of boys and four per cent of girls admitted they had taken something from a shop without paying for it, well over 90 per cent of children deemed such behaviour ‘very wrong’.

Poverty and bullying

There is substantial evidence of the impact of poverty and disadvantage on children’s educational and cognitive development. Children with disabilities or special educational needs are more likely to be living in poor families and there have been dramatic changes in family formation since the 1960s, when nine in ten children of this age lived with both their parents.

Bullying is known to have long-term consequences for victims. Yet the subjective wellbeing of this generation suggest that by age 11 overall they are adjusting well and have a positive outlook on life. Only small numbers are showing signs of distress or challenging behaviour.

While there is no room for complacency about those who do find themselves in difficulties, the real challenge for the future may be to help them to retain that positive outlook – and to justify it.

This will require ensuring that the next generation are supported throughout their teens and into adulthood in ways that enable them to fulfil their potential regardless of their family circumstances.

These findings are based on Platt, L. (ed.) (2014) Millennium Cohort Study: Initial findings from the Age 11 survey. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education.