An important report, an important issue
Forgive me for the non-sporting post, but I feel the need to tread into politics for a change…
Not so long ago the UK was put at the bottom of a table of developed nations for child happiness and well-being in a major Unicef study. They’ve since done an additional report on why this is the case, which was released today. This BBC article summarises it, and contains a link to the full report. It’s quite an interesting read and one I can relate to and agree with having grown up in a poor area, as I’ve seen many of the features the report describes.
I have often found a great paradox in South Wales – people here are genuinely poor, and yet when I’m out and about, what always catches my eye is the number of brightly coloured expensive branded trainers children and young teenagers are wearing, and the expensive mobile phones they are inevitably texting on. And yet for the area, my family is quite well-off, but I’ve never had brightly coloured expensive branded trainers or an expensive mobile phone. Equally, I’ve always been the last to get the latest games, toys and gadgets – in fact, there are a number of things I’ve never had, including an XBOX, a PS3 or even raw pocket money (as I had magazines instead). Indeed, for that ultimate in consumerism, Christmas, I most likely had the least amount spent on me in the class.
There is a clear correlation between approximate wealth and what families have spent on trainers, clothes, phones, consoles and various other materialist items – aside from the poorest of all, as wealth increases, spend on materialist goods decreases. So it leaves you wondering how the less well-off can afford it, let alone why they bother. The large emphasis on materialism above all else, as the report shows, doesn’t really make anyone happy, including the kids, who ultimately would much rather spend quality time with their family than have Nike trainers or iPhones.
I don’t necessarily blame parents as such, as even though it is bad decision-making, I believe that it’s society as a whole that leads people down that path of “money = spending money = status = happiness”, something I see as the result of Thatcherism – a needless cultural shift of focus away from the family and towards money (hence why my only criticism of this BBC article is the fact that it quotes Cameron at the bottom – very short-sighted). The Conservatives may have promoted “traditional family values” for a long time, but this is aimed at the middle classes rather than the less well-off families that the report suggests are suffering the most, or if it is aimed at the working class, it is aimed at social mobility – and status is quite an important factor when looking at the reasons why parents feel pressured into buying expensive consumer goods, something the report also infers.
Corporations and their advertisers also have to take a portion of the blame, even if it is the lax rules put in place by the likes of (but not only) the 1979-97 Tory governments that allow them to do this. In the recent past, when everyone was Jamie Oliver’s best mate, there were vicious attacks on fast food chains for their advertising aimed at children. But at that same time, not a word was said by the bandwagon jumpers about the advertising of the corporations behind these materialist goods, who arguably cause more harm to society as a whole than a few dodgy burgers.
The irony is that while Nike and Adidas, as sports goods manufacturers, at least “encourage” people to be more active and thus healthier, when it comes to children they are just as shallow as McDonald’s salads. Sticking with the most visible example, those purple Nike trainers you see kids wearing (which, I remind you, cost £50+ a pair) probably spend more time not being taken around football fields, doing what they were supposed to do – help kids kick footballs more accurately – but sad and empty, gathering dust under the bed, as their owner watches TV or plays a virtual football on a consoles or computer.
I have even seen kids head to their local field in football trainers, and then take them off and switch to football boots to play. Not only is that leaving expensive trainers around for anyone to walk along and pinch (which, in poor areas, isn’t exactly far-fetched, is it?), thus necessitating even more spending on a similarly-expensive pair to replace them, but it shows the self-defeating extra expense, as those football boots would inevitably be even more expensive than the trainers and also worn a lot less, and of course it means the trainers aren’t being used to do what they’re designed to do – kick footballs.
Whether it’s because the kids are afraid of damaging them because they’re so expensive, their local park/football pitch has been sold off and built over for housing, or because console football is more fun and less hassle, the purple trainers under the bed prove a wider point. As the likes of Nike would say in defence, these football boots were made for playing football, but as I’m sure they are aware, that isn’t the case in the real world. Ultimately they are a fashion statement and status symbol, rather than a tool for sport – they are bought not to kick a ball, but to simply pound the pavements, showing them off to friends and the rest of the world. As the extreme colours of the popular Nike Mercurial Vapor and Adidas F50 ranges show, they are primarily designed to be noticed.
The media also seem to have a role in reinforcing this by creating a public perception that all children want is this fashionable stuff – you can see this in a range of things from Daily Mail “reports” to TV characters like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager. Public perception of kids has been consistently negative for a long time, certainly during my teenage years, so negative stereotyping in the media is inevitable. The problem is this quickly adds to the expectation that to be a good parent, you must try and spend as much money on your children as you can to make them happy, which of course is a complete fallacy.
It seems to be a vicious circle – everyone knows they’re doing it wrong but are afraid to go against the grain for fear of standing out. This is something I sympathise with because my parents did go against the grain and I suffered from it with bullying for the best part of a decade. For years people (I say people, I mean Mail readers) have blamed divorce rates and the breakdown of the traditional family unit for society’s ills. You could argue that this report supports the former because with only one parent, it becomes more difficult to spend time with your children, but equally I think that misses the point to a certain extent, because I’m sure divorce rates are similarly high in most of the countries on that list when compared to the mythical “land of lost content” people hark back to (currently the 1950s – as I said, mythical). Equally nowhere does it say that the often-cited lack of male role models is a problem, nor does it blame gays, Muslims, immigration, house prices or any of the other typical Mail or Express reader excuses
The problem is material goods are seen by many corners of society as “what kids need to fit in”, particularly by the kids and the parents, but the parents 1) don’t spend enough time with their kids to start with and thus don’t know them or know what they really want, 2) don’t set the correct boundaries and spoil the kids by buying them everything they ask for, regardless of whether they need it or will appreciate it, because they’re too scared of their kids getting bullied if they don’t get the fashionable toys/gadgets/clothes/trainers/games, and 3) they then have to work for even longer and even harder to be able to get somewhere near affording them, meaning they spend less time with their kids and thus continue to be unintentionally ignorant of what they really want.
There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what parenting actually is, a natural assumption by parents that all the kids want is fashionable clothes/toys/games etc, and a widespread lack of bravery to say the word “no” to a child from a very young age. Again, I don’t criticise them for that on an individual level, because that is what society now expects – to effectively abandon your children, other than buying them expensive stuff to keep them happy.
The USA didn’t come out of this particularly gloriously either, by the way – only 1 place above the UK. The Dutch were top of the list, followed by the Swedes, Danes, Finns and Spanish – not any less materialistic, as the report points out, but set up more around providing time for families to spend time together, and thus less of a need for parents to try and “buy happiness”. There is no doubt that the standard of living of some of the countries towards the top is better (in a more evenly-spread way) than in the UK, but we are still talking about a nation which, contrary to popular belief, is still one of the richest in the world, just proving how vast the inequality remains here on this small group of islands.
Finally, I find it interesting (in a positive way) that the report suggests Britain introduces a living wage – when the Greens suggested exactly the same thing last year for the election, this was seen as rather radical – I know I did, prior to my political shift to the left which led me to consider the Greens far more seriously. It is perhaps ironic, then, that this report has been released on the day that the Boundary Commission has suggested that the only constituency the Greens currently hold is to be abolished. “Happy” days…