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Is Pocket Money and Cable Television a Key to Your Child's Happiness? Research.

By Yvette Vignando - 10th November 2011

It will sound like a pun but I just don't "buy" this - well not all of it.

I love to read research about children's wellbeing and think about its practical application. So headlines about this new UK research caught my eye. For example this one: "Must-have possessions that make a child happy: Why the best things in life aren't always free" 

and this one: "Ten Must Have Possessions that Make a Child Happy".

Researchers for the Children's Society in the UK* surveyed 5500 children about their levels of happiness (also called 'subjective wellbeing') and their access to material goods. They found that children who "wanted items or experiences but did not have them reported much higher levels of unhappiness." 

Children were asked about things like receiving pocket money, family holidays, access to cable/satellite television, access to a garden, a family car, owning brand name sneakers and having the "right" clothes. And naturally, many children reported that without these things they felt unhappy. For example, 37% of the children surveyed said they did not receive pocket money - and 22% of those wished they did. The researchers also found that 34% of children without the right clothes to fit in with their peers were unhappy, followed by children without cable/satellite television (28%), access to a garden or outdoor space (26%) and a family car (25%).

And based on this research the Children's Society argues that:

      "measuring children’s experiences of material deprivation is a better predictor of unhappiness than conventional methods, such as household income, the number of adults in paid work and receipt of free school meals."

And they point out that "children who lack more than five out of the 10 items on our new deprivation index are over five times more likely to have low levels of well-being than those who lack none."

Part of the wonderful work that the Children's Society does in the United Kingdom is helping and supporting children at risk, or who have disabilities, who may be refugees, who care for others or who are caught up in the youth justice system. So understanding how to support those children's emotional wellbeing and happiness is important work. And because much of the Society's work supports children who are living in relative poverty, listening to those children and hearing their experiences, provides information that policy makers need. I applaud that.

Children living in poverty often have a much more difficult time fitting in with peers - so for example, if they never have new clothes, don't have access to gadgets and experiences (like holidays) of children in middle class families then it is much harder for them to feel 'normal'. And these measures of subjective wellbeing - the children's own feelings about being happy - are important, because they can lead to depression and anxiety or behavioural and substance abuse problems in children. And this research contributes to our understanding of the emotional effects of child poverty as well as strengthening the argument that helping children in poverty requires a child-centred approach.

But I just want to point out before we all rush out and buy brand name sneakers and ipods for our 10 year olds, that real happiness for children and adults does not depend on your capacity to give them material goods. And I don't mean to say that we should not, as parents, try to help our kids "fit in". I do think that if we can afford it, giving children safe access to technology for example, or even the shoes that everyone else is wearing, can be very important. Maintaining a balance between helping children 'fit in' as well as encouraging them to be individuals is part of our parenting task.

But please, I implore the mainstream media - remember that this research is about children in poverty - children who are also often deprived in many other ways - emotionally and physically - this research does not demonstrate that there are 10 core things we all need to buy to make our children happy.

What does make kids happy? Well coincidentally, in the last week I wrote about this: Children Tell Adults About What Makes Them Feel Happy . And you know what - brand name sneakers did not feature. Read that article to really understand that parents and carers can, with support and their own wellbeing looked after, raise happy children even if they can not afford an ipod for them right now.

*The Children's Society measures the ‘well-being’ of children every three months in collaboration with the University of York. Their research in this case was called Missing Out - a Child-Centred Analysis of Material Deprivation and Subjective Wellbeing

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