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Europe diary: Children speak out

22 February 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell asks what can be learnt from a Unicef report comparing and contrasting children's well-being across Europe and why Britain ends up bottom of the class.


All but oblivious to the Belgians around us tucking into their steak au poivre we held hands across the cafe table and talked. I didn't need the prompting of a Unicef report to gossip with my eight-year-old daughter, but its unspoken disapproval of parents who never make it home to share an evening meal had perhaps hit home.

British children in school playground (file pic)
Why is it so many British children dislike school?
Anyway, my daughter asked me what I had been up to in the past week and I told her about my day trip to the Netherlands to cover the story of their happy children and Britain's unhappy ones. She observed that when children arrived from Britain to join her school they often seemed defensive and unsure of the other children at first. A natural consequence of a big move and a new place perhaps, but is there something rotten in the state of childhood in Britain?


The Dutch teenagers I meet at a school just outside Utrecht certainly seem keen to live up to the reputation given to them by the report, as the happiest kids in Europe. True, drama lessons do tend to be at the lighter end of school life. But the hooting laughter that greets one girl's rather skilful attempts to do a rapid-fire murder mystery charade speak volumes. They're falling over themselves laughing as she hoots and flaps her arms, grabs hold of classmates to simulate raucous carousing and mimes putting on make-up.

According to the survey, Dutch children rather like school. I find a few boys who say, no they hate it and it's boring, but most agree it's a good place to be.. And whenever I ask "why?" the answer is the same: "It's somewhere you can be with your friends". By the way, the answer to the murder mystery: Tweetie Pie was the killer, at a carnival, and the murder weapon was mascara.

Dutch Prince Willem-Alexander (right) holds daughter Catharina-Amalia beside his wife Princess Maxima with daughter Alexia
Dutch royals on holiday appear to embody the nation's family values
One of the many surprising things about the report is that in liberal Holland, drunkenness, smoking, teenage pregnancy and even cannabis consumption were all lower than in Britain, where whatever the behaviour on the streets there is no shortage of moralising from on-high.

Drawn into the Utrecht school's rehearsal hall by the strains of a rather good Nirvana cover thumping out, I talk to the band Appleslapp. The lead guitarist tells me people don't feel the need to take drugs or get drunk to break a taboo. He rather spoils the effect by adding: "here people smoke weed because they like it". He says there are classes in school covering all these perils. The lead singer, a girl, blushes as she says "in biology they even tell us how to use a condom".


What is startling about this report into the well-being of children in Europe is that the countries at the top and bottom of the poll don't seem to me so different. The Netherlands and Britain are both rather overcrowded, rich northern European countries with a strong work ethic and pockets of poverty. There's a great deal of concern in Britain about relentless hours and little spare time, so some made an automatic assumption that parents' quality time with children was the key difference. It's certainly true, or at least it's certainly a result of this survey, that Dutch families have more meals together and put aside more time to talk to their children than the Brits. Although Italy comes out tops in the "family meal" stakes, it's not those countries with a Mediterranean attitude to the importance of the family or the relative unimportance of work that win out. Indeed, Germany, famed for having short working hours for social reasons, is worst when it comes to putting time aside for a chat.

Material well-being
Family and peer relationships
Health and safety
Behaviour and risks
Own sense of well-being [educational]
Own sense of well-being [subjective]

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The Portuguese are best at eating fruit every day, the Finns worst. The Germans are the most determined underage smokers, the Poles have the most virginal 15-year-olds. The Finns dislike school the most, but have the highest educational achievements. Belgium's 15-year-olds are way out ahead in feeling awkward and out of place, while the Swedes are least likely to feel this. The "negative feeling" question throws up one remarkable non-European comparison: while 5-20% of European children report feeling lonely, a staggering 30% of Japanese kids feel this way. The Hungarians are most likely to have been in a fight, the Finns the least - no doubt aggression sapped by the lack of fruit and all that studying. The Norwegians, who like school the most, are the least likely to be unemployed at 19.


The real key though may have nothing directly to do with "well-being" and everything to do with national character, if such a thing exists. The report interprets some facts: for instance it assumes that living in a single-parent family gives a negative score to a "child's well-being". Some would say that's common sense, others would find it contentious. What is odder is that it mixes purely factual statistics, such as infant mortality rate, with reported opinion on facts ("I live in a low-income house" or " I have been bullied") and with the purely subjective. And it's the latter that is so fascinating.

I haven't gone as far as pulling apart the statistics and re-averaging them, but I am pretty convinced what puts Dutch kids out on top and British ones at the bottom is their own opinion of their lives. Really striking is what they think of children their own age. Are they kind and helpful? More than 70% of Dutch children say "yes" and the figure is higher still in Switzerland, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Norway. In Britain under half the children reckon their peers are helpful, the lowest of any of the 31 countries on the graph. When asked how satisfied they are with their life, the Dutch come out on top, the British down at the bottom with the Poles and Portuguese.

I wonder what is behind this? The Dutch have always seemed to me a contented bunch. I am trying to find the right phrase: most of those I want to use, like "self-satisfied" or "pleased with themselves", have a negative connotation of smugness, and that is not what I mean. But perhaps the very fact that it is difficult to find a positive phrase for this feeling in English speaks volumes. Britain is a cynical place, and I wonder whether British children just think it's uncool to admit to liking their classmates or their life. Not to mention a greater willingness to own up to underage sex and drinking than, say, the Poles. I think life probably is rather nicer, more friendly, more relaxed in the Netherlands (and Belgium) than the UK, but is it really so very different?

Your comments:

I suggest less instruction from parents would give children the freedom to think for themselves. We parents are constantly correcting our kids in an aggressive manner, ie threatening. Stop and listen to them instead.
alan raleigh, loughrea,galway, ireland

After living in England for 27 yrs, then Australia for 25 yrs, I moved to the Middle East. Here children are not embarrassed/ashamed to say they love their siblings or their friends (even supposedly awkward 14 yrs olds). I have NEVER heard malicious sneering between youngsters, although good-humoured wit is enjoyed. When asked whom they most admire, often the answer is, sincerely, 'My father', 'my sister' or 'my best friend'. The default behaviour is unthinkingly positive.

Oh, how we Westerners short-change ourselves in our desire to be derisively critical, in our resentment of others' good fortune, in our seeming inability to publicly express non-sexual affection without risking squeamishness in the community at large. And brilliant though British TV can be, too many programs rely on furthering the needless cynical put-down to the nth destructive degree. So-called British/Western humour is almost always at someone else's expense. A pervasive, unfortunate, powerful influence on young minds and old. How tragic that some can only only laugh to hurt.
Dodo, Doha, Qatar.

Please do not think for a minute that these results are just down to kids being ironic and trying to be cool by saying they are unhappy. Kids in the UK or at least in London have to deal with terrible standards of living, specially having to travel to school by an appalling public transport. I have seen kids trying to get to school fighting for a place on a packed bus, being pushed by forty year old bankers, when they should not even think about it, but just have it as a right to get to school in a clean, decent way. These kids are commuting to school, how can they possibly say they are happy?
G Bello, London, UK

As an expat Brit who has been living for nearly 20 years in The Netherlands (with 2 teenage Dutch children and Dutch wife) I really agree with the remarks made by Tanya. Dutch people are generally busy with themselves and exercising the 'rights' that they have come to expect. I find them a nation of 'very big talkers' and 'limited doers'!!! The kids do rule the roost by and large. There is a very good book called The UnDutchables written by a couple of non-Dutch that provides a fairly accurate picture of the Dutch and their habits and lifestyle. Would make interesting reading for Mark Mardell!!
Simon, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I agree with David Pritchard - it's to do with a culture of cynicism, misery, and complaining. This mindset is fostered, I'm afraid, by the media, which delights in knocking down anything and anyone.
Michael Dunn, Lima, Peru

Interesting report. We have all become too busy in our worlds and I feel children are not given the quality time with both or single parents. I do some work with a charity that helps children in crisis, and often all we do is listen and talk to children when we spend time together, they simply enjoy a stroll in the park or sitting around the kitchen table chatting. They just lack these basic needs when they grow up at home and feel unimportant and not valued in society. What a shame and shame on the grown ups!! Spend less time gossiping and bickering and value the children more.
Patricia Falkner, Tunbridge Wells

In Holland people enjoy life more and they have much more disposable income to do so. Huge numbers of people work part time and a 4 day week is very common, allowing them to spend more time with their kids. It is not a "nanny state" and society is not mollycoddled as they are in the UK. There's also not a "must have" culture like there is in the UK. True, the kids here are rude but then so are the adults. It's just the way it is. Finally, people are not uptight about sex here like they are in the UK. It's discussed openly and frankly. 19 year olds are considered to be "teenage mums". Is it any wonder that kids in the UK get pregnant at 14 when you have the religious zealots banning even the mention of the word "condom"?
Susie, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Our three children are in Dutch schools. Perhaps the difference can be found in the fact that Dutch children are not pressured into becoming achievers. Average is perfectly okay, is in fact preferred to being above average! We have been told time and again to "cool it" as parents, not to demand so much of our offspring! If they have ability, it will flower naturally, if not, there will be a place for them in society anyway. If I compare my daughter's piano lessons to mine, I am astonished. The first six months were spend (to my mind) fooling around, then slowly they started playing together as a music group. One year later they are only getting into reading notes and actually practising little pieces, but the difference is they ENJOY it all, no pressure to practise. At their recitals I only find parents who are mildly astonished that their children can actually play together in a group. As long as children find it "leuk" (fun) parents are satisfied. I am amazed - and learning fast.
Elana, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

It is a difficult thing to put your finger on. We are New Zealanders who have lived both in the UK and the Netherlands. Our 16-year-old daughter went to school in the UK for 12 months in 2004/5 and I think the UK schooling system might be the root cause of the problem. We observed the attitude of the children was so so different from her friends' in the Netherlands. Somehow there was a level-headed maturity amongst her Dutch friends which we never experienced in the UK. Children in the Netherlands are treated with respect by the teachers, but we noticed in general this was not the case in UK, it was still very much a them and us attitude. In the Netherlands, when children finish primary education, the highschool years are in a tiered system based on capability and and not on bank balances. This means children that are not so academically inclined will be in a group with their peers, learning a real skill that will help them and not just banging on about maths, etc. Strangely enough we are NOT all the same and the Dutch system recognises this. In answer to your question, is it really so different, the answer is a definite and resounding YES.
Karl Smid, Huizen - The Netherlands

I have to say this report confirms my own experience of going to school in the UK: after living in Canada my entire life, my family moved to the UK for my father's work. We spent a year in Oxford, and I attended year 8 at a local public school. I have to admit I had an awful time, the environment was utterly alien to what this poor, naive little Canuck had grown used to back home. The bullying, violence and even drug use was rampant, I was often the target of abuse.
David, Vancouver, Canada

I live in Poland and I'm 18 years old. Nowadays I attend secondary school (in May I will have my A-level exams). I don't agree with this article, many youths are satisfied of their life and school . We are a community who are normal, like other young people. We love to have fun. It's true that Poles are conservative about sex. But in my opinion that's good.
Paulina, Poland

I agree with Mark that the strong undercurrent of cynicism in the UK has much to do with the Unicef results. Also the obsession with material, rather than emotional well-being hampers the development and contentment of our children. The media and corporations have much to do with this. "Must have" stuff is strongly targeted at children in the UK, much more so than on the Continent in my experience. In addition, there is an increasing trend to turn children into little adults before they are ready. When I lived in France and Holland in the 90s, I noticed that children in those countries were just that; children. We should give our children the opportunity to fully enjoy their childhood, after all, it doesn't last long and they've got 60-odd years to play at being adults!
Steve Knowlson, Bristol, UK

Don't get me wrong; every country has it pluses and minuses. But the UK just about leads the league in terms of litter, sheer scruffiness of public spaces, levels of traffic, congestion, overcrowding, unaffordable and cramped housing, poor diet, aggression, stress and peer pressure. In other words I suspect the UK is failing children so badly because, in truth, it is failing adults so badly as well. People will no doubt blame Blair, but the fact of the matter is, when one sacrifices society (a la Thatcher) for the economy, this is the price one pays. So you have plenty of jobs. And that's about all.
D Ewing, Paris, France

If Dutch kids are so great then how come Dutch adults (along with the Germans ) came top in a recent poll of people who would not want to have children of their own?
Steve Hale, Bristol

I was born and raised in the Netherlands. The word mr Mardell is looking for to describe the feeling the Dutch have, is only found in the Dutch language. It is "gezellig". Kids are constantly told to stop fighting and keep it "gezellig". Birthday parties are "gezellig". Sitting in a room with a few friends talking is "gezellig". Contended, comfortable....they don't come close to describing it, but are the closest thing to it. The Germans come close with gemuetlich , but not quite. For most, this is what makes the Netherlands such a pleasant country to be in. For some, like me, it is stifling. My parents often comment to the fact that I am not really "Dutch". The Dutch are known for being tight, I splash out with money. The Dutch are "gezellig", I am cynical. Lately, I have been accused of becoming an English prude! It is good to see the Dutch have happy kids, but I am a happy adult living in the UK. Much happier then the adult I was when living in the Netherlands.
Ineke Warner, Reading, UK

I'm not sure what the exact cause is, but I'm sure culture has a lot to do with it. Since experiencing life abroad, in Germany and Spain, I've felt that the British are, by comparison, cynical, sarcastic, aggressive, grumpy, confrontational, and lacking in a kind of basic kindness and agreeableness which you find elsewhere. This is especially true of younger people. This affects people's quality of life in the most fundamental way: their relationships with other people. I'm glad to be out of it.
David Pritchard, Madrid, Spain

From experiences about 15 years staying in Amsterdam for a few weeks, I noticed at the time that I never heard children crying, in shops, on the street, in restaurants. No tantrums. Were they more biddable than children here, or were parents and children happier with each other? I have no idea.
Liz, Cambridge, UK

The UNICEF report has resulted in a lot of soul-searching in the UK (and rightly so), but the report tells us as much about the prevailing mindset at UNICEF, and the political bias of their researchers (anti-Blair, anti-Anglo Saxon) as it does about our children. Childhood bullying and a culture which revels in, even reveres, ignorance (notably about sex and contraception) are a blight on Britain, but our children are not unhappy under-achievers. If they were, British youth culture would not be the vibrant and internationally admired phenomenon that it is, and neither would young people from across the globe want to spend time here.
Jonah Sabremesh, London

Destroying the personal aspirations of children, robbing them of their desire to compete, may well acheive social cohesion in the classroom, but at what price to the resulting adults?
Steve McBride, London

I'm British, but live in the north of the Netherlands. My kids still live over in the UK. My 16 year old daughter is a huge problem for her mother, constantly rowing and neither my daughter or 15 year old son 'like' living at home. Academically, they are great, but at home with their mother and her boyfriend, there are problems daily. When my daughter comes here, she is a changed person. She can go out in the evening, have a beer with her friends, (sipping at one all evening)and generally have a pleasant evening. No pressure to do things she may get up to in the UK. Can I see the difference? Yes. I'm 41 and see the kids here with more of a respect for their elders, no cheek, opening doors for you, and without the expectation of the kids in the UK that they are 'equals' to other adults, if that's the right phrase. All in all, I think it boils down to respect and discipline. In the UK, kids do what THEY want, went they want to. In the Netherlands, they take advice from their parents and talk it through. By letting the kids do as they like, it gives them to much pressure to go too far. By giving them distinct boundries they can't cross, relieves the pressure on them and makes them happier. Also, you find the kids here actually LIKE spending time with their parents!!
Stan Holcroft, Drachten, Netherlands

My husband is British, I'm American, and we have two daughters, 5&8, who were both born in the Netherlands and go to Dutch schools. We are as integrated as they'll let us be. As a parent I observe that the Dutch have very little concept of discipline as your average Brit/American understands it. I've actually had meddling parents tell me off for insisting my own children wait their turn on the playground. Generally speaking, they don't intervene in their childrens' behaviour so it's no surprise to me to hear the children consider themselves happy-- they rule the roost! Your average Dutch child is not very pleasant to be around, they're rude and insolent and parents completely ignore that kind of behaviour. It manifests quite clearly in your average Dutch adult as well-- a twisted hyper-awareness of his/her own 'rights' and total lack of observation of anyone else's. This is not what Brits or Americans would consider a polite society. And I would say 'smug' is an accurate term. To be fair this is only the portion of the population that are dyed-in-the-wool Dutch-- those who don't leave or have contact with non-Dutch cultures. But it's enough to make the sway.
tanya, The Hague, Netherlands


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