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Children in Chile

An invitation to Chile this month to talk about child development and the beneficial effects of music to children’s social, emotional and cognitive progress was the result of our report on Children and Music prepared for Unilever. Supporting Unilever’s CSR initiative with Unicef, children from a poor area of Santiago played in a superbly produced ‘swing band’ at the launch of the report. Questions from the audience that included representatives of children’s organisations, business, politicians and press centred on the way in which music can be made accessible to all. Clearly a challenge when both instruments and lessons are expensive, but as Gareth Malone, the charismatic leader of several choirs in the UK including the highly successful Military Wives choir argues, many people can be inspired to sing. The social benefits of joining in, having a common purpose, being supportive to peers and experiencing the uplifting effects of making a sound that can be enjoyed and appreciated by an audience can help children to feel engaged and can improve their self-esteem. Chile is a beautiful country, and the snow-capped mountains surrounding Santiago in August where it is early Spring are magnificent. The warmth and hospitality of the country was clear and it was inspiring to see the work that Unicef and Unilever are doing to help children in Chile.

Tablet Schools: inspiring schools and inspiring leadership

In our recent research we have been visiting UK schools that use one-to-one tablet computers. Research has included ethnography, focus groups and individual interviews with pupils, teachers and parents. A noticeable characteristic of these schools is the inspiring leadership and innovative thinking that has led to the adoption of one-to-one devices. While undoubtedly a big commitment and one that requires a big investment on the part of the school, including ensuring that there is sufficient wifi available in classrooms, the effects of tablets appears to be beneficial to both pedagogy and pupil motivation. The school leadership argue that it is not the device itself that makes the difference, but that allowing children to have their own tablet enables them to learn in a way that encourages independent learning and produce creative material associated with their learning. Initial fears that centred on the potential for theft and pupil safety have not been realised, although there has been an issue with breakages. Full results of the research will be published in the Autumn, and top line results will be presented at the launch of the Tablets for Schools initiative at the House of Lords next month.

Children need recognition and acceptance

Much has been written about the Tiger Mother, and the term ‘helicopter parenting’ appears to be ubiquitous. But what exactly does this mean, and why is there such questioning about the style of parenting adopted globally? Constant, demanding attention on the part of an over-ambitious (and over-anxious) parent is not healthy for children. While they need encouragement to learn and to thrive, children also need space and privacy.

Parenting styles have always differed across cultures, across generations and across social class. Pragmatic reasons drive this. In a family with several children and little money, getting by, making do and being a ‘good enough’ parent must and does suffice. While perhaps not able to respond to their child’s every whim and demand, parenting that has clear boundaries and plenty of love tends to give children the circumstances in which to thrive. Equally children brought up by wealthy and highly educated parents but with little parental contact or emotional understanding can have real problems, best summed up by Virginia Axline’s classic story of the child ‘Dibs’.

In this true case study Axline, a child psychiatrist, describes the work she did over the course of a year with the young 5 year old to whom, to protect his identity, she gives the name ‘Dibs’. Dibs displays disturbing behaviour; he is unable to communicate, is uncooperative, and cannot look anyone in the eye. His high attaining parents wonder if he is ‘mentally defective’ (the book was written in the 1960’s when such a term was not uncommon), and completely fail to recognise that he is in fact highly gifted with an IQ of 168. A previous psychiatrist had told the parents, perhaps confusingly and certainly not tactfully, that it was not Dibs who needed treatment, but them, as parents. Dibs was an emotionally deprived child; the parents responded by filling his play room with toys.

Axline arrives to treat him at the request of his school where he has failed to communicate with peers or teachers. Over the course of a year she allows Dibs to express himself through play, and ‘Dibs in Search of Self’ is the classic text that describes the process of play therapy, as well as describing the core conditions that lie at the heart of psychotherapist Carl Roger’s ‘person centred’ therapy: unconditional positive regard; empathy; and congruence.

So recognising children’s emotional needs is important, but labelling children as in some way ‘defective’ for not meeting the high expectations of ambitious parents can be damaging. Parenting styles differ, and there may be no one right way to bring up children, but remembering those core conditions might go some way in helping parents ensure that their child develops in a full and healthy manner, while also providing the tools to enjoy being a parent. Hovering over them and pushing them to attain may not be the right response. In a global world it is important to recognise and appreciate different parenting styles, but equally to sympathise with parents’ wishes. Parents should not be blamed, but they might need support to learn to relax, and to appreciate their child for who they are, and not who they wish they could be.

As Axline wrote: ‘A child, given the opportunity, has the gift of honest, forthright communication. A mother who is respected and accepted with dignity can also be sincerely expressive when she knows that she will not be criticized and blamed.’

Allowing children the freedom to play outside

The Nation Trust’s campaign to allow children the freedom the play is something that resonates with much of the work we have done over the last few years. The ’50 things to do before you are 11 ¾’ campaign sums up beautifully the ability of a charitable organisation to promote behavioural change amongst children and families. Based on research carried out by the Trust, the campaign provides a checklist for under 12’s to get active and enjoy being outdoors. This is similar to the ‘Really Big Summer Adventure’ run by the Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign last summer which provided a range of simple activities (including bug hunting) to do throughout the summer holidays.

The National Trust’s research found that children spend less than a tenth of their time playing outdoors, but an average of 2 ½ hours a day watching television. Grandparents on the other hand recalled being outside for much of the day when they were children, and the Trust is hoping to encourage grandparents to teach children about the pleasure of being outside. A report by PlayEngland demonstrated that half of all children had been prevented from climbing trees, and 1 in 5 had been prevented from playing games of ‘tag’ or conkers. Author of the National Trust’s report ‘Natural Childhood’, Stephen Moss, calls on schools, councils and private institutions to create more play spaces as well as teach children about nature. Stephen Moss is also author of the excellent ‘The Bumper Book of Nature’ (Square Peg, 2009).

Our research for IKEA, The Play Report, revealed the extent to which parents were concerned about their children playing outside, unsupervised. It also showed that many parents feel too stressed to play with their children. Relearning the values held by previous generations when children were allowed more freedom, taking risks was part of growing up, and being outside was an important part of childhood, might be a difficult shift to make, but one that could benefit parents and children.

Should commercial researchers be more academic, or should academics be more commercial?

Ethical committees in Universities are challenging and questioning about the way research is carried out, especially in relation to vulnerable participants, and research with children. Some of the post-graduate students I’ve supervised over the last few years with subjects that centre on child development and wellbeing have steered clear of certain topics, or even avoided doing research with children at all for fear of being turned down by ethics committees. Which raises the question about whether the same scrutiny should apply to commercial research?

Some professional academic researchers (in that they are employed by Universities to carry out research) profess to being driven mad by the hurdles of ethics committees, not least because of the time it takes to prepare materials and to have clearance. In the commercial world such luxury of time may not be possible. It could be argued however that to ensure that research is valid, and especially research carried out with vulnerable participants, it should never be rushed or not thought through.

Academic research, in the UK amongst other countries, is highly regarded and trusted. While mostly highly respected, this may nevertheless not always the case of commercial research. If this means ensuring that the research methodology, sampling and proposed reporting is subject to the scrutiny of a body of professional researchers beforehand, as well as results rigorously peer reviewed afterwards, this should not be challenged. It could be argued that commercial research should sometimes take a leaf out of academia in ensuring that it is truly robust, ethical, fair, and interpreted in a way that reflects the high standards of the professional commercial research industry. The demand for instant results will always be there, but commercial researchers may sometimes need to push back and argue for time, consideration, and peer review of results.

Kids as Consumers

There is little heard now about ‘Pester Power’ or the ‘Nag Factor’, but these were terms frequently used a few years back by marketers. Happening on a brochure from a very old conference about marketing to children, held in a southern European city, it is clear from this that the message appeared to be ‘how do we persuade kids to buy, or pester their parents to buy for them’. It is refreshing, and probably says a lot for the adoption of CSR by large organisations, that the emphasis now is on child wellbeing; how might we understand children and how might we protect children rather than how do we sell to them. Not that children today are regarded any less as consumers, but they are rightly viewed also as potentially vulnerable consumers with rights. Perhaps the industry has grown up. Certainly many of our clients now have children of their own, something that was not always the case a few years back when anything to do with kids was delegated to junior execs.

My experience is that clients today have a deep interest in and hunger for knowledge about their target market, be it child development, cultural differences, behaviour, or psychology. They are far more sophisticated and sensitive in the way they communicate with families and children, and are eager to learn about children’s world and children’s behaviour. ‘Learn how to maximise pester power and tips for encouraging kids to ask for your product’ (a true quote from that old conference brochure) is unlikely to be seen again.

Conferences, and myth busting about kids and digital

I attended an excellent conference yesterday at the British Library (yesterday was ‘Super Thursday’, the day booksellers rush out titles for Christmas). Organised by The Bookseller, the Children’s Conference looked at the digital landscape for children and considered how this is impacting on print media; the conference had a thoughtful and receptive audience as well as insightful co-speakers. I presented key findings from our Digital Family Kids and Youth research.

It is the season of conferences; last week was the ESOMAR Congress in Amsterdam, where I presented a paper co-written with Catriona Ferris from Unilever on the change in family life in emerging countries such as China and Brazil. In the hotel lift on the way to breakfast on Tuesday I met the conference cartoonist Mark Siermaczeski ( which resulted in a highly entertaining breakfast; he has since sent a cartoon – not bad drawn from memory.

There has been much discussion about the UNICEF Research carried out in the UK, Spain and Sweden, published 14 September. Being qualitative research it inevitably focused on relatively small samples of families (8 in each country) and groups of children (2 groups or depth interviews in 7 schools per country). The report pointed out that families in the UK appear to be more materialistic than in Spain or Sweden. The conference yesterday emphasised the reality of children’s lives today and the place of digital devices, and there was discussion about digital media replacing parental engagement. Parents do feel guilty about the amount of time and the quality of time they spend with their children, but our IKEA Play Report research, carried out with 11,000 parents and children in 25 countries, emphasised how common this is in many countries, and how children do indeed want their parents to spend more time with them. While our Play Report reflects much of what was in the UNICEF research, we did not find that the UK was particularly worse that Spain or Sweden in terms of parental time and feelings of guilt.

At yet another very good conference last week the third wave of the EU Kids Online research was launched at the LSE, London. Sonia Livingstone summed up the findings by questioning a number of myths that abound around children and digital. Included in these was the myth that children are meeting strangers online. This certainly backs up our research; most children are meeting their friends online, and as I have frequently argued, it is those children who are vulnerable in the off-line world who are most vulnerable in the online world. If parents do not have the ability, the time, or the inclination to engage with their children, this can leave their children more vulnerable to becoming lonely and isolated, which in turn might make them victims of unpleasant experiences online. There was a general call for adults – parents, teachers, social workers – to become better clued up about children’s online activity, a point emphasised at yesterday’s conference by Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration. Tamara described the work that eModeration does in monitoring websites, and made the point that many responsible social networking sites can do a great deal to protect children and moderate language and behaviour; this must be reassuring for parents.

What is poor parenting?

An American commentator said yesterday that a couple of months ago England was viewed as the land of Harry Potter and royal weddings, and now it is apparently the land of anarchy. He has a point. It is shocking to see bored and disillusioned children and teenagers behaving on our urban streets in a way that is more like Lord of the Flies than helpful, clever, Harry Potter. William Golding’s novel describes children stranded on a desert island and attempting to govern themselves with no adults around, painfully recording their decent into savagery.

Children need boundaries, and they need adults around them who will guide them, care for them and listen to them. In the aftermath of 3 days of unbounded behaviour it is easy to imagine that all children can behave like savages. Of course this is not true, any more than saying that all parents are bad. In our research we have been into many family homes where there is little in the way of material goods and even less in the way of family income, but where the warmth and love given to children by parents and grandparents is moving and impressive. Equally we’ve been into homes of prosperous families where there is no shortage of material wealth but little time for interaction with children. But most parents want to do the best for their children, and most bring them up in the best way they can. Parents do need support and they do need friendly (not prescriptive) advice; being a parent is tough, especially when children reach adolescence, and that is irrespective of social class or race.

Many studies have been carried out on resilience, considering why some children seem to survive difficult and deprived childhoods, emerging as healthy and successful adults and others are sucked into a black hole of truancy, petty theft, and drug abuse. The common factor seems to be that that there has been one person, or a group of people, to whom the child can turn for support and understanding. This can be a relative or someone in the community: for example a grandparent, a neighbour, a priest, or a teacher; someone who has taken sufficient interest in that child to make them feel worthwhile, and to build their self-esteem. Friends are important to children and especially to adolescents, but they can be a negative as well as a positive influence. Without a sense of confidence and self-esteem adolescents can be deeply influenced by their peers, and at its worst drawn into a world of gang culture and subversive behaviour.

Parents who can’t cope, who might be depressed or addicted to drugs or alcohol, are clearly not likely to be able to be a positive influence on their children. These children are then very vulnerable. Poor parenting is much more than not knowing where your child is, or what they are doing, it is about not having the time or emotional resource to be fully engaged with that child. But it should also be remembered that most of the time most parents are, in paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s phrase, ‘good enough’.

5 a day – tips on parenting – helpful or prescriptive?

Giving tips on parenting is always a difficult area, but the news that the Coalition Government is thinking of rolling out a national campaign to help under-performing children was bound to prompt criticism (see The Telegraph as an example). This has been based on the Lib-Dem’s think tank ‘The CentreForum’s report’ which suggests a ‘5-a-day’ guideline to effective parenting. It might be the name that is unfortunate. There have been many comments over the last week since the guidelines were issued that ‘5 a day’ refers to the ‘unsuccessful’ campaign that encourages children to eat fruit and vegetables. But I would question this; I don’t think we’ve interviewed a school-aged child who does not understand what ‘5-a-day’ in terms of eating fruit and vegetables is about – often prompted by their school being part of the Healthy Schools initiative. Children are frequently telling their parents about healthy eating.

CentreForum’s five guidelines are: Read to your child for 15 minutes; Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes; Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off; Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently; Give your child a nutritious diet. Twitter, Netmums and Mumsnet have all registered disquiet about ‘directing’ parents about parenting but perhaps the report deserves a closer look.

The full report ‘Parenting Matters: Early Years and Social Mobility’ by Chris Paterson at the Centre Forum is very good. The report states ‘It is now firmly established that the single most important factor influencing child intellectual and social development is the quality of parenting and care that a child receives and the quality and conduciveness of the Home Learning Environment (“HLE”) that this creates. ‘(page 12). It goes on to look in depth at early brain formation, and points out the vital need for early interaction and bonding between child and parent or care giver: ‘when strong, frequent, or prolonged exposure to adverse experiences – such as extreme poverty, abuse or neglect – are experienced in early life without adult support, the stress caused can become literally toxic to the developing brain architecture.’ (page 20). This point is made by Sue Gerhardt in her book ‘Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain’, based on research in neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis and biochemistry.

Issuing such guidelines in the summer school holidays may be a sound move, but in our most recent research with mums over the last week we have found that many find themselves enervated, and there’s still another 4 weeks to go before children return to playschool and school. The weather hasn’t been great, and for many families money is short; there is uncertainty about their financial future, and holidays away from home have not been possible, so not surprisingly there is trepidation about what to do with the kids in the holidays. Grandparents can play a part in helping with childcare and with ideas for entertaining the kids, but many families are now removed from family support, and mums we talk to do not necessarily turn to their parents for guidance. It is interesting to note that our research for the Ikea Playreport (the largest international study ever done on play) indicated that two-thirds of parents would seek information on parenting from the media (including websites, blogs and TV), but the most trusted source would be their parents (30%) followed by health professionals (17%). However other research has shown us that some parents can find social networking sites for mums in particular a bit daunting and patronising; having advice and support online or anywhere would help, but does it have to be quite so prescriptive?

‘Too fast, too soon’ : becoming a teenager too early

More evidence emerges of children’s (unhealthy?) engagement with digital. Research released today from charities Family Lives and Drinkaware shows that 87% of parents think children are experiencing ‘teenage’ issues before their teens. We know from our recent research for The Bailey Review on behalf of Credos that parents are very worried that their children are exposed to media content that is too old for them, but feel helpless to stop it.

We have long been aware that children are lying about their age online so that they can gain access to social networking sites. In my 3 year ethnographic research with 10-14 year olds I reported in 2009 the issue of children signing up to social networking sites as young as 10, often claiming that they were 16 as this was the age they thought they had to be to sign up. My research showed that children were exposed to unsuitable advertising such as gambling sites and ads for weight loss, simply because they had claimed they were older. Today’s Family Lives and Drinkaware research shows worryingly that more than a quarter (28%) of 10-12 year olds see and read alcohol-related posts on social networking sites, over a third (37%) of 13-15 year olds see photos of their friends drunk on social networking sites and 12% of 10-12 year olds and 25% of 13-15 year olds say they have seen sexually explicit images on the internet.

I have long argued that parents are not aware of what their children are doing online, and that as in all aspects of parenting children need boundaries and their digital time should be discussed and limited. Early adolescents (10-14 year olds) will always push boundaries, try the unknown, experiment, as David Squire and I showed in our recent paper for the Children’s Media Conference. Most children are sensible, have friends who support them and parents who listen to them. For example the Family Lives and Drinkaware research indicates that three-quarters (73%) of 10-17 year olds would choose to speak to their parents first about issues they are encountering. Most children benefit from the friendship and support they receive through their social networking encounters with friends. It is those children who are isolated, find difficulty in making friends, lack parental engagement (for example through parental issues with mental health, alcohol or drugs) that are most vulnerable both off-line and online.

A happy medium needs to be sought. Children should not be discouraged from using digital media, but they need clear rules. To empower parents both Family Lives and Drinkaware have great advice on their websites, and have produced a Top Tips list. This includes advice on technology, alcohol, and parenting. On technology they advise parents to:

 Familiarise yourself with how computer and mobile technology works. Don’t worry if your child knows more about technology than you – be honest and spend time together looking at online security and privacy functions.

 Keep the computer in a room used by all the family, monitor how much time your child spends on the computer and encourage them to openly talk about what they’re looking at online.

In my last post I wrote about internet service provider Talk Talk which now offers a network-level security service Home Safe and in particular Child Safe which enables parents to restrict sites as well as time children can access the internet. Children can gain from their engagement with digital, but they also need protection.

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