Should we be concerned about the behaviour and psychological well-being of children in modern Britain? Have things become worse over time? It is more difficult than one might expect to measure the population accurately (also for adults) as the last decades have seen changes to diagnostic criteria so that official figures cannot be reliably compared over time. The willingness of parents to report problems about their children might also be a factor, perhaps reflecting that the degree of stigma associated with certain behaviour patterns may also be changing. Some commentators have even suggested that conditions such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) may be ‘trendy’ and over-diagnosed. However, despite the criticisms that we are too eager to label our children these days, there is a body of evidence from nationally representative studies suggesting that behavioural problems and mental health problems in adolescents are on the up. Moreover, researchers have looked at the relationships between these childhood behaviours and later life outcomes (such as depression) and found that these associations appear unchanged over time and conclude therefore that increases cannot simply be an artefact of reporting tendencies.
Not only should we be concerned about the subjective experience of childhood, there are a wealth of ‘objective’ reasons to care too. Children who experience behavioural problems often have below average educational outcomes. In later life, they have an increased risk of being unemployed and having poor health and more criminal convictions. In other words, chances and opportunities in almost every area of life are curtailed. This was the motivation behind CSI’s latest study. We wondered: to what extent are these behavioural problems and the psychological well-being of children shaped by social class? And how is the effect of social class changing over time? The answer has profound implications for understanding life chances in Britain: if parental class is shaping the behaviour of children and the behaviour of children influences life chances, then this may be a key mechanism by which equality of outcomes can be realised.
The research is based on data from three major studies of cohorts born in 1958, 1970 and 2001. We examine measures of behaviour of these children at the age of 10 or 11 (in 1969, 1980 and 2012). For each cohort a child is identified as having a behavioural problem when their score falls into the highest 10% and we look at three types of problem – conduct problems, emotional symptoms and hyperactivity – separately. Figure 1 shows that there has been a sharp increase in the level of inequality in conduct problems: in 1969 children of fathers in routine occupations were about twice as likely to have conduct problems as children of professional/ managerial fathers. By 1980 this inequality had doubled to four times as likely, also remaining at about this level in 2012. For emotional problems (Figure 2) we see a similar growth in class inequality though the change is less severe. It is noteworthy that in 1969 there were no class differences in emotional problems – an equality since lost. In hyperactivity (Figure 3) we see a similar increase in inequality. Across the board, then, behavioural problems have become more closely linked to parental social class background since 1969.
We can only speculate about the reasons for this growing divide. Over these decades, the ‘routine’ social class has contracted, the number of dual earner households has increased as has the number of single parent families, and social class has also become increasingly concentrated in neighbourhoods. In his recent book, Robert Putnam presents evidence on families in the USA where gaps seem to be growing in parenting styles, on extracurricular activities, but also in the financial worries of parents. Whatever the reasons (on which new research is required in the British context), it is clear that we ought to worry now about the social mobility of the next generation.