Could Finland become the country with the world’s happiest children?

2.6.2017

Maria Kaisa Aula

Could decision-makers in the centenarian Finland adopt the goal of making this the country that has the world’s happiest children? asks Maria Kaisa Aula in her column.

Children’s well-being is a success story of independent Finland. A hundred years ago, the country was plagued by epidemics and famine, mothers and babies were dying in childbirth, children were toiling in fields and factories.

After the wars, our decision-makers showed great foresight. They decided to invest in children, introducing child benefits, the maternity package, school meals and a system of maternity and child health clinics.

The expansion of the welfare state saw the introduction of comprehensive school, day care and parental leaves. Child mortality fell to an extremely low level.

Learning results have been good, without excessive competition. Children’s self-esteem was bolstered when the principles and practices of raising children were reviewed and corporal punishment was banned in 1984.

Since the 1990s, child and family policy has been an ongoing battle against cutbacks in spending. Family benefits and allowances have been severely impacted by government austerity.

In a precarious labour market, young people are wary about starting a family. Uncertainty about the future is reflected in a lowered birth rate.

Children’s experienced well-being has moved in a positive direction. The majority of children are satisfied with their lives. They can talk about their concerns with their parents. They’re not bullied at school and they have friends and leisure activities.

But there are increasing inequalities in childhood. A small minority are living in conditions that are not conducive to well-being. The fragmented service system has failed to correct the situation.

At home, the right kind of support is not accessible at the right time. This is reflected in a continuous rise in children’s out-of-home placements. Children’s and young people’s mental health has emerged as a new public health challenge.

How, then, could the success story of children’s well-being continue? Could decision-makers in the centenarian Finland adopt the goal of making this the country that has the world’s happiest children? What investments would this require now?

Children’s happiness grows out of human relations. Good interaction between child and parent and a positive atmosphere in the home lay the foundation for children’s well-being.

Dysfunctional attachment relationships and inappropriate practices of raising children cause ill-being and marginalization and lead to disability retirement in adulthood.

 

The growth of inequality and mental health problems could be effectively prevented by supporting parenting at home and the quality of parenthood. A significant proportion of children’s out-of-home placements could be prevented by support geared to helping exhausted parents, resolving family conflicts and accommodating parental raising styles to better meet children’s needs.

As it is, problems are often passed on from one generation to the next.

Services must take a more holistic approach to addressing children’s and families’ needs rather than follow the dictates of their administrative branch. Early education can advance equality among children, but this cannot be achieved by measures focused on individual children.

The possibilities of what can be achieved at school by pedagogical means are also soon exhausted. In order to address the root causes of behaviour disorders, school disruptions and bullying, it is often necessary to involve the whole family.

Support for parenting and parenthood should become a natural part of every family’s daily life, rather than something exceptional.

There is excellent research evidence on new family-driven approaches. Examples include the Strongest Families programme and the Incredible Years parent groups at the University of Turku.

In Sweden, great results have been reported with the “ABC parenting skills” that are taught to every father and mother.

Parents must not be left to cope alone with the important task of raising children. Consistent and effective support for positive parenting and parenthood, complementing the work done at maternity and child clinics and in early education and schools, would significantly contribute to improving children’s mental health and reducing inequality.

Organizations and parishes also have much to offer.

I suggest that the centenarian Finland launches a new ‘North Karelia project’: a national programme for supporting parenting and parenthood.

We can turn Finland into the country with the world’s happiest children by supporting good interaction between children and parents and a positive atmosphere in the home so that it is accessible and achievable by every family.

Maria Kaisa Aula
The author is the Chair of the Family Federation of Finland.
 

The column has been published earlier in the Kantri magazine in Finland