Parents feel something is fundamentally wrong with modern childhood and want to see big changes, research suggests.
There was concern about a lack of safe, free places for children
A study into children's wellbeing for the Department for Children, Schools and Families found people most wanted the lack of family time to be tackled.
They felt they must work long hours because the UK was so expensive, and they worried about bad teachers and keeping their children safe.
The government aims to make England the best place in the world to grow up.
As it is, the focus groups consulted by Counterpoint Research thought things were much better in Mediterranean countries - and many dreamt of moving there.
The researchers held group discussions in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Hertfordshire, Kingston, Guildford, Fulham, Ripley, Lewisham, Bournemouth, Lewes, and Eastbourne in August 2007.
They found that, unusually, the respondents "reacted quite strongly to taking part in a serious discussion about happiness and a happy childhood".
At first they were confused and felt it should be obvious to everyone what that meant.
On reflection they felt it was such an important topic it should be debated more than it was.
They felt good education was key - but both parents and children felt "very vulnerable" because it was difficult to control the quality of teacher a child got.
There was "a perception that there were too many bad teachers in the system".
"Parents felt that getting the right school was not only crucial for their child's education, but also for giving them the 'right' kinds of friends.
"Children and young people were also concerned about people at school who were not friends: bullies, 'mad' or unpleasant children," the report said.
There was great concern about children's safety. Parents felt the lack of a safe environment had greatly curtailed the freedom they could give their children to get out and about, explore and learn to take responsibility for themselves.
Causes included a widening gun, drug, knife and gang culture, more paedophiles and terrorists, violent attitudes, bad language and overtly sexual dress in even young girls.
They saw "a grim reflection of the UK on television, particularly on mainstream drama".
So they could "over-parent" or give up and accept their children being disrespectful and talking back.
"Other parents and people in the community were not felt to be suitable sources of support - rather they were felt to be part of the problem."
At the same time they felt very nervous about offending their neighbours, and sense that it was unacceptable to be proud of Englishness.
There was "an extraordinary level of dissatisfaction" about childhood.
Political correctness and perceived health and safety regulations were felt to have systematically undermined communities and the quality of their children's education.
Those in lower socio-economic groups felt the system was loaded towards academic children, with non-academic subjects being ruined by political correctness and safety rules.
Examples given were non-competitive sports and inclusion policies in such things as music, drama and dancing, "sports days cancelled because of damp grass" or concerts cancelled because of equipment worries.
As to what government might do, people expressed nostalgia rather than demanding immediate action.
But their wish-list included funding to create and extend family friendly places and to help make local parks, community areas and neighbourhoods safe - and free.
A spokeswoman for the DCSF said: "We know there are new challenges facing Britain which is why we published our Children's Plan setting out a 10-year strategy to improve the lives of children and support parents.
"We are listening to parents and families about what we can do better to help children achieve the best education, have a happy, healthy and safe childhood and prevent young people going off the rails and getting into trouble."
The department has announced that 65 local authorities are being invited to bid to become "play pathfinders", developing "innovative play sites with challenging equipment and natural landscapes".