Childhood

Sue Roffey

"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children" - Nelson Mandela, speech at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Children's Foundation, 1995.'

How we raise children matters for universal wellbeing

Most parenting handbooks give advice on what children need to become healthy and happy. Although such things matter, we need to think beyond this to create a world we all want to live in. This requires a different emphasis on what is important in raising the next generation. Mandela urges us to treat all our children well, but it is not only care that matters but the messages children receive about themselves, other people, and the world around them.

A Harvard Survey of 10,000 young people in 33 schools in the United States across a wide spectrum of race, class, and culture was published in 20142. This showed that almost 80% valued personal success and happiness over concern for others. They also ranked fairness low in comparison to other values. Some made it clear that their self-interest is paramount: "If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others". This is largely attributed to the messages that children receive at home about what is important. The report goes on to say that when young people do not prioritise caring and fairness over aspects of personal success, and see their peers as even less likely to do so, they are more likely to engage in behaviour that is cruel, disrespectful and dishonest, and take risks with their own wellbeing. Youths were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school". It would seem that what children and young people hear at home in the United States about the importance of achievement and happiness are drowning out messages about concern for others.

In other cultures, such as in Japan, Korea, and Aboriginal Australia, community and family needs are traditionally paramount and values such as cooperation and generosity highly regarded.

A healthy civil society depends on adults who are committed to their communities and who, at pivotal times, will put the common good before their own. This is most evident when crises strike, such as the volunteer fire-fighters whose primary concern is to save the lives and homes of others, and the doctors, nurses, and care-workers who risked their own safety in treating patients with COVID-19. In the United Kingdom many people checked in on their neighbours and others in need as the country shut down for weeks. Children's pictures of rainbows supporting front-line workers were evident everywhere. This is likely to reflect conversation in households. When self-advancement is so dominant that we lose this community spirit, we are in trouble.

The quality of experiences in a child's formative years impact on how well they develop, the person they become, and the society they create and inhabit. Most families want their children to do well and be happy, but how can we also raise children to become caring, community-minded, open to discovering what gives them meaning in life, and motivated to take responsibility for positive change?

When young people have experiences that undermine their own wellbeing this may affect their ability to become responsible and caring adults. Many live with poverty that impacts their development3, and others experience neglect, abuse, poor mental health, family breakdown, and domestic violence. Despite the work of many agencies, there are still children in both developed and developing countries who are subject to forced marriage, female genital mutilation, unpaid work, sexual services, and are without schooling. On the other hand, there are also parents who give their children everything they ask for without any expectation of responsibility towards others. These individuals may grow to have a sense of entitlement. Ultimately, this may damage their future relationships and wellbeing.

How can we ensure the next generation is not only physically and psychologically healthy but also attuned to others? Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological model of child development4 shows how everything is connected just as it is in the natural world. For example, the level of social support a pregnant woman or young mother receives from her friends and family has far-reaching consequences not just for her, but on the future wellbeing and development of her infant5. We need to notice and pay attention to what is happening in families, communities, workplaces, and in government policies, to ensure good practice is initiated, supported, and developed.

This chapter addresses these issues across the stages of childhood, from the first months of life through to adolescence. We explore different ways of parenting and ask how young people can become the best version of themselves: how can they develop the positive qualities and values that will contribute to building a fairer, more humane, and compassionate world.

 
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