How should society measure the quality of a childhood

What does it mean to have a ‘good childhood’? Should we measure a child’s number of friends? Family income? School marks? The Children’s Society has a different way answer to this question; let’s just ask the kids how they feel about their lives. Do they feel that they’re enjoying their childhood?

The Children’s Society recently published The Good Childhood Report 2012 – A Review of our Children’s Well-Being. The report is the result of six years of research using interviews and surveys of over 30,000 children aged eight to 16 living in the UK. What is unique about the project is that it focuses on children’ssubjective well-being, rather than objective measures such as school attendance or family income. The aim of the report is to understand how children perceive their own happiness, and then to determine what factors affect their perception.

Something that is truly striking about the report is how insightful the children are about their needs, and about what makes them happy with life. For example, they don’t think that they need to be wealthy to be happy; they just want their family to have enough, and to have about as much as their friends’ families do. The report is quite extensive and we don’t have the capacity to give a proper overview, but you can find their conclusions on page 58 of the document.

There are a number of factors identified in the report that have a resounding implication for the importance of mentors. Children’s relationships with their friends are of course very important, but relationships with key adults in their life are even more important – for two reasons. First, children need to feel supported in a safe and trusted relationship with adults. Second, children need to be listened to, and as they grow up they increasingly need to feel respected, trusted with responsibilities, and active in decision-making. Mentors help supplement all of those things for children who aren’t receiving enough of it. By requiring a minimum commitment of two years from our volunteers, we ensure that relationships have enough time to develop trust and demonstrate to the child that the mentor will be there to care about and support him or her. In addition to lending a listening ear, mentors also help their mentees to participate in the planning of the activities that they do together.

Something that is unique about Friendship Works is that – as our name suggests – our volunteers are both an adult mentor and a friend. Friends are extremely important to children, and the children in the report highlight their need by noting that it’s good to have “a special friend you can always talk to or ask questions to”. The combination role of a key adult as well as a steadfast friend positions Friendship Works mentors as amazingly positive influences in the lives of children facing a tough time.

Finally, it really bears noting that stability is a theme that was repeated throughout the report. The importance of stability is something that Friendship Works has known for a very long time, and that is why we stand by our model of long-term relationships with the children that we support. The most inspiring sentiment that we took from the report is that a child’s low sense of wellbeing can truly be helped by the presence of a mentor in their life.

Levels of subjective well-being are changeable and low subjective well-being is not fixed or inevitable. It should be possible to prevent low well-being and avoid some of the potential longer term repercussions, by providing support for children during key transitions in their lives, and when they are facing particular challenges and adversities.

At Friendship Works, we strive to be the support that children need to make it through difficult times in their childhood. It’s nice to have a report to confirm that we can make a real difference to the life of a child.