Alison Parkes: Not-so-secret lives of seven-year-olds

The school holidays are an ideal time to ascertain what children feel and think, writes Alison Parkes. Parents may be surprised

Muriel Spark remarked, “parents learn a lot from children about coping with life”. With the school holidays well under way many parents will be reminded that in amongst the strains of “are we there yet?” and “I’m bored” and “can I have another”, the break from the school routine affords a chance to witness more about what their children think and feel. Parents may be surprised, amused and touched by often unguarded, out-of-the-blue conversations.

Naturally, children have their own take on things and yet, more often than not, research into children’s lives reflects either cold hard numeric data or the views of adults who are their carers, guardians or service providers. This has been especially true when it comes to young children’s well-being when even specialists in child development have had to rely on information from adults, rather than from children themselves. But if we don’t know the views of children themselves too, how can we be sure we have the full picture? How do we form a more complete sense of what the impact of parenting, home, or school might be, in order that society can support children’s development more effectively?

This is something that in seeking to understand the social determinants of health we at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit have wanted to investigate. In a new study, we used the Scottish longitudinal study Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) to collect unique information directly from seven-year-olds in around 2,800 families. Through an individual, confidential process, children completed a computer-based questionnaire, recording their feelings towards statements about school, friends, and their satisfaction with life. We also took the results a step further by seeing if we could link the children’s self-expressed feelings with information about their early childhood that had been previously gathered from their mothers; in the main, we found that children’s self-expressed feelings of well-being were the same as assessed by their mothers.

Our study revealed that most children at this age are happy, but there were some clear, interesting themes that emerged from this new insight, especially where responses were less than positive. The quality of early parenting mattered a great deal to the children. Where there was what researchers might classify as “dysfunctional” parenting, for example where there are high levels of parent-child conflict and stress, and low levels of organisation or routine in the home, the children themselves expressed lower well-being. The reverse was borne out too: where there were stimulating activities to do at home, children reported greater enjoyment of school and overall satisfaction with their lives.

The findings also appear to have turned some preconceived ideas on their heads too, with one or two in particular attracting interest when we published this research recently. For example, these young children valued greater parental protectiveness when playing outdoors, and for some of the children, the notion that living in a more remote place may offer a “rural idyll” could not be further from the truth. While some families may be looking to escape the urban “rat race”, children living in remote small towns and countryside had more negative views of friends, school and life in general.

Perhaps these lower feelings of well-being come from a smaller pool of children to become friends with, longer journeys to school, shops and entertainment, and a perceived unfavourable difference between their own lives and what they see on television, films and social media.

The Growing Up in Scotland cohort of children and their families offers us all a tremendously valuable insight into what life looks like for this generation. As the children grow older, we will increasingly rely on their own accounts of their lives, rather than their parents’ accounts. Children themselves, as well as parents, will help us understand how best to promote children’s well-being and support families.

So this summer before they go back to school, above the sibling squabbles, the 43rd rendition of “Let It Go”, and the pleas to stay up for just five more minutes, it’s worth us all reflecting on what children might really be thinking and taking a moment to hear what they have to say.

Full study details: Parkes A, Sweeting H, Wight D. What shapes seven-year-olds’ subjective well-being? Prospective analysis of early childhood and parenting using the Growing Up in Scotland Study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 2016;[epub ahead of print]

More details about the Growing Up in Scotland Study at

• Dr Alison Parkes is Senior Investigative Scientist at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow