One of us recently was talking to an expectant mother, who made the decision not to find out the sex of their baby at their 20-week scan. She said, “as long as they are healthy and happy then that’s all that matters”. That got us thinking. What does it mean to be “happy”? What do children need to be happy? And is it important to be happy all the time?
Although happiness is not the same as well-being there is a link between feeling happy and having a high level of well-being. In the UK we know that children’s levels of well-being in the UK have been ranked much lower than that of other developed countries. For instance, in 2013 Unicef published a report called Child well-being in rich countries, which examined 5 different, measurable areas of well-being (material well-being; health and safety; education; behaviours and risks; housing and environment). The UK ranked 16 out of 29 countries. You might be surprised that the UK ranks so low down, but in fact the 2013 ranking paints a much more positive picture than Unicef’s 2007 report, in which the UK ranked last of 21 countries, just slightly below the United States. In both reports the Netherlands came out on top, closely followed by Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden in 2013. So, are children growing up in those countries happier than those in the UK? And what might be the consequences of this?
In 2013, Unicef only focussed on dimensions of well-being that are measurable (i.e. objective). (In 2007, they also included a dimension of subjective well-being which wasn’t considered in 2013. Arguably this is why the UK ranked more highly in 2013). But others like the Children’s Society have considered children’s subjective levels of well-being. That is, how children themselves assess their life satisfaction and the emotions they are feeling. We touched upon The Children’s Society’s report into children’s well-being in a recent post where we spoke about how girls in the UK aged between 10-15 are more likely than boys to feel unhappy about their appearance (34% and 20% respectively). In fact, girls are more likely than boys to be unhappy their life as a whole (14% and 11% respectively.)
But what does this information mean for those of us living and working with young children? In order to assess subjective well-being, children need to be able to understand their own emotions and understand that all feelings are acceptable. The non-statutory guidance that supports the Early Years Foundation Stage in England, Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) suggests that children learn to express that they are feeling things like happiness, sadness and frustration between 22-36 months old. By 30-50 months they are learning to be aware of their own feelings and that their actions might impact on other people’s feelings too. Providing resources like photographs and books that display a range of emotions for children to talk about is important. Puppets and dolls are important too, for modelling emotions to children and allow them to test responses out to help others with how they are feeling.
What do you think can help children understand their emotions and what it means to feel happy? And if they aren’t happy or don’t have a high level of well-being, what can we do about it?