Calling all parents! Are you worried that your kids are growing up less happy and less healthy than in the good old days? Well don't be! If anything the reverse is true.
This comforting news comes from comparing the results of two prolonged landmark studies that are monitoring the development and wellbeing of young children born 20 years apart.
They show that young children today are not experiencing more problems than they did in the past, in spite of the perceived stresses of modern family life, like Mum going back to work early and the kids going to child care. In some cases, they are even doing slightly better.
The Australian Temperament Project study (ATP), began in 1983 with a sample of 2500 Victorian babies and families. Growing up in Australia, the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), began in 2004 with two samples of 5000 babies and 5000 4-5 year old children and families from all states of Australia. The parents in both studies were asked identical questions about their children's personality and behaviour.
The questions were geared to assessing how well children dealt with new situations and with meeting new people; how adaptable and cooperative they were; whether they were fretful or easy to soothe, volatile or able to stay focussed. They also addressed behaviour problems including hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety and the inability to mix well with other children.
The study found that most children in both groups were progressing well and that there was little difference between the two groups. Only a few children were highly aggressive, hyperactive or anxious, and fears that today's children might be more aggressive or hyperactive than the children of 20 years ago turned out to be unfounded. However today's children had the edge in social situations. They were a little more outgoing, a little less fretful and less volatile. They were less anxious around their peers and more considerate and helpful. Why this might be is a matter for further research.
Where the two groups differed considerably was in the change in family circumstances. Parents of the current generation tended to be more highly educated and older than the parents of the group born in the 1980s. Yet surprisingly the impact of this on the children's patterns of behaviour was negligible. Temperament, on the other hand, played a major role. The studies showed that a child who gets frustrated easily, has difficulty controlling his or her emotions and finds it hard to concentrate is more likely to develop aggressive and hyperactive behaviour patterns down the track.
Whether temperament will play such a decisive role in predicting which of our children may develop antisocial or unhealthy behaviours, like obesity, depression or substance abuse in the future, is also a matter for further research with older children. For the time being, however, we can at least be reassured that today's children on average may be starting life with no more difficulties than in the previous generation.
Something for parents to celebrate rather than something to feel guilty about.
The research on which this summary is based on is:
Smart, Diana, and Sanson, A. (2005), 'A comparison of children's temperament and adjustment across 20 years', Family Matters, 72, pp. 50-57.