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a material world

We know that designer goods and brands are items that many aspire to. But has our valuing of them got out of control? A UNICEF report suggests we need to help children put them back in their place. Suzanne O’Connell looks at how schools can respond


he images from the English riots will stay with us for a long time. Debate about their root causes continues. Opportunism, break down in behaviour, poverty, unemployment – there have

been many explanations and potential solutions. For some, the riots were purely about the acquisition of goods. The marketing campaigns for countless consumer products having worked too well. The report, Children’s Well-being in UK, Sweden and Spain: The Role

of Inequality and Materialism (June 2011), perhaps gives us insight into what happened in August 2011. This article summarises some of its conclusions and considers how schools might respond.

The background The UNICEF Report Card 7 ranked the UK as 21st (bottom) in an overall ranking of wellbeing indicators. As a result of this poor performance UNICEF’s report was commissioned by the then DCSF. It looks more closely at the differences between children’s experiences in the UK comparing it with two countries that performed much better, Sweden and Spain. The researchers met around 250 children between the ages of eight and

13 across the three countries. It is a qualitative research study that takes into account different regions, backgrounds and types of school attended. The research pays particular attention to the role of materialism and inequality in children’s wellbeing.

Compulsive consumption The report makes depressing reading for the UK. It paints a picture of a materialistic society which places the ability to consume above that of spending time with family and friends. The researchers report a compulsion on the part of UK parents to continually buy items for their children even when they were not really wanted and were subsequently discarded. They suggest that UK parents buy status brands believing that they are helping to protect their children from bullying. A link that the researchers suggest might have come from their own past experiences.

10 Parents in the UK showed less resilience to consumer pressure than

parents in the other two countries. The report suggested: “This compulsive acquisition and protective,

symbolic brand purchase was largely absent in Spain and Sweden where parents were clearly under much less pressure to consume and displayed greater resilience.” The report refers to this as “compulsive consumption” – the need

to purchase regardless of how much money families have available. In the UK parents found it more diffi cult to resist the requests from their children and seemed to be resigned to their demands.

“In the UK and Sweden, high status brands tended to be more important to children from less affl uent backgrounds.”

Conspicuous consumption In the UK and Sweden, high status brands tended to be more important to children from less affl uent backgrounds. The researchers suggest that this is because they want to disguise their own fi nancial and social insecurities. This behaviour is described as being “conspicuous consumption”. There seemed to be a greater level of acceptance of inability to

purchase certain goods in Spain and Sweden, whereas this was not seen as an impediment in the UK with parents being more prepared to borrow or buy items on credit. In Spain in particular, it was noted that even the poorest families appeared to be relatively contented with what they had and less concerned about how possessions might look to others.

Valuing goods There was a greater sense of children “earning” possessions they aspired to in Spain and Sweden than in the UK. Spanish children clearly

Living in

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