Mum doesn’t always know best

The older children become, the more freedom they have to make lifestyle choices. But the age at which they start making decisions is getting younger

Children are increasingly media savvy and more informed about the world around them, and today’s parents find that, more and more, their children demand a say in the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the gifts they receive and how they spend their spare time.

New research from The Future Foundation nVision, a subsidiary of the Future Foundation which specialises in analysing the impact of social and economic trends on markets, indicates that even very young children enjoy some level of decision-making power. Less than one in three parents surveyed claim they give their children no say in decisions about the food, leisure activities and the gifts they receive.

The proportion is slightly higher – 40 per cent – for parents who don’t allow their children a say in what clothes they wear, but even this represents a minority. On the other hand, only a tiny minority of children under the age of five can always choose what they eat, do, wear or receive. However, all this means that a majority of today’s children are entering into the process of negotiation with their parents at a very early age.

Not surprisingly, the level of decision-making power increases as the child gets older, with the majority of children enjoying a high degree of freedom in the four areas surveyed – food, clothes, leisure, gifts – by the time they reach their early teens. While access to freedom is a gradual process, there seems to be a marked increase in the amount of influence that children have from the time they enter secondary school.

Only a small minority of young teenagers enjoy total freedom. Only 15 per cent are always allowed to chose what they eat or the gifts they receive, 25 per cent are always allowed a say in what they do in their leisure time and 38 per cent in what they wear outside school. This suggests that negotiation, while changing in nature, is a process that develops over the course of the children’s upbringing.

Overall, children have less of influence over the food they eat and the clothes they wear than the presents they receive and what they do in their leisure time. The areas where children gain most freedom as they get older are leisure and fashion, and by the time they reach their teens over 80 per cent always or mostly decide what they wear and what they do in their leisure time.

The research shows some interesting differences between the various social grades. Social grade grouping does not seem to affect significantly the level of influence children have over the clothes they wear and the presents they receive. But the research does show that children from middle class families have less influence over food and leisure, particularly among children aged between four and 11 years old.

This may be attributable to the fact that middle-class parents have the financial ability to provide more balanced meals and paid-for leisure activities, so giving them more power to dictate their children’s eating and leisure habits. The leisure factor may be compounded by the fact that child safety and knowing their whereabouts is a major concern in today’s society, and better-off families are paying for leisure and sporting activities in order to “protect” their children.

The findings fits with the notion that families are more open and democratic than in the past. Other Future Foundation nVision research reveals that nearly three-quarters of parents agree that they have a more open relationship with their children than their parents had with them and that they discuss big decisions with their children before making a final choice. Also, two-thirds of parents claim they spend more time with their children than their parents did with them when they were young.

The growing freedom that children and teenagers enjoy as they get older combined with more money in their pockets, either from pocket money or a part-time job, is in line with the findings from research into teenage happiness, also conducted by The Future Foundation nVision. Most of the teenagers questioned expressed broad satisfaction with their lives, with a majority describing their lives as happy. Encouragingly, 85 per cent of teenagers express satisfaction with their family life and over three-quarters claim they generally get on well with their parents and feel that they enjoy a supportive relationship.

These findings contradict some of society’s perceptions about rebellious youth and difficult teenagers. Today’s children grow up with a lesser sense of distance between themselves and their parents than was the case for previous generations, and changing expectations of parenthood mean that parents are more likely to treat their children as equals than subordinate underlings.

With parents and children negotiating more over decisions, companies need to address the whole family in both their new product development and marketing communications strategies. They should be recognising the growing levels of freedom that today’s children have and create products and services that meet the needs of both parents and children. Proportion of children aged 4-11 who participate in selected consumption choices

Proportion of children who choose what clothes they wear, by age and how often they do soPercentage who agree or disagree with statements regarding the openness of their relationship with their children

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