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Of kissing, the less the better

31 October 2011

1 in 7 billion. Now click to see how population growth affects you

Today’s post to mark the birth of the 7 billionth baby was written in collaboration with Lynn Robertson of the OECD’s  Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs, and follows on discussions that led to this post we did in September on children’s happiness

The world’s 7 billionth baby was born today, or a couple of years ago, or maybe will be born in a couple of years from now. Demographers can’t say exactly when we reach the magic number, but Halloween 2011 is as good a guess as any. Many experts agree though that there’s never been a worse time to be a child. Extensive research in a number of bars has proved that when we were kids, life was much better, and so were children. And this result is robust over time: whatever period you look at, it turns out that you missed the golden age by a generation.

One change over the millennia is that now we talk about children being more selfish, lazy, etc rather than just people. That in itself is an improvement the golden agers probably haven’t thought about. Until the late 19th century, children enjoyed no special status or protection. They worked long hours often in dangerous conditions, could suffer barbaric punishments, and be abused with impunity by practically any adult. In fact, we’re only now learning of many cases of abuse that took place when today’s adults were children.

When things did start to change, progress was slow, with great faith in harsh treatment. L. Emmett Holt’s 1894 bestseller  Care and Feeding of Children explained that: “Babies under six months old should never be played with, and of kissing the less the better”.  In 1928, the most influential child psychologist in America, John B. Watson, echoed this advice in Psychological Care of Infant and Child when he warned against the dangers of “too much mother love”, telling women “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.” Otherwise, the result would be spoilt, self-centred, unproductive brats.

This drivel is sometimes called a “no-nonsense” approach to child rearing, and obviously influences people who want to return to a time when they had no responsibility and someone else always told them what to do. It’s impossible to argue against nostalgia, fond memories, and the feeling that things were better before despite the world wars, genocides, diseases and squalor of times past, but the fact that this view can be retraced back over the centuries suggests that it’s nothing more than a myth. The objective facts paint a different picture.

Take health for example. A child born fifty years ago when the OECD was created could expect to live to over 73 on average in only two countries of the world compared with 87 countries today. In OECD countries, average life expectancy reached 79.1 in 2007, more than ten years better than in 1960, and exceeded 80 years in almost half the OECD countries.

Elsewhere, improvement has been dramatic too even over short time spans.  According to UN figures on the Millennium Development Goals, the global mortality rate for children under five has declined by a third, from 89 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 60 in 2009. Despite population growth, the number of deaths in children under five worldwide declined from 12.4 million in 1990 to 8.1 million in 2009, or nearly 12,000 fewer children dying each day. Access to education is also improving, and there is progress on the other MDG targets too.

Much of the evidence on more subjective aspects comes from small-scale studies with only a few participants, but last year Brent Donnellan of Michigan State University and Kali Trzesniewski of the University of Western Ontario published an analysis of nearly half a million high-school seniors spread over three decades. They argue that “more often than not, kids these days are about the same as they were back in the mid-1970s” regarding a whole range of topics, including individualism, happiness and antisocial behaviour. Their data also suggest that compared with previous generations, today’s youth are more cynical and less trusting of institutions;  less fearful of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortages; and have higher educational expectations.

Still, the basic problem remains: they’re not us. The good news is that in a decade or two they will be, and they’ll be boring their own kids with stories about how they were happy with a simple iPad for their birthday. So, whoever you are little 7 billion, good luck. With parents like us, you’ll need it.

Useful links

The OECD is partnering 7 Billion Actions, established by the UN Population Fund to “inspire change that will make a difference by highlighting positive action by individuals and organisations around the world”. You can find out more about the OECD Better Life Initiative and make and share your own Better Life Index here

Doing Better for Children provides data, analysis and policy advice on child well-being in OECD countries

UNICEF IRC, the OECD, the Learning for Well-being Consortium and the European Commission are co-organising an expert consultation on cross-national research on child indicators and well-being on 2-3 November 2011 at the OECD. You can download the papers here.

Wikichild is part of the OECD’s Wikiprogress platform for sharing information on global societal progress

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