What makes Canadian kids happy? UNICEF Canada responds with new report

little kid plays with cat
CC BY 2.0 Cristian Bortes

Disappointed with Canada's poor rankings in the child wellbeing report card, the national UNICEF chapter sought input from youth across the country to determine what happiness is.

Every year UNICEF releases a report card that measures children’s wellbeing in nations around the world. Not surprisingly, the top positions are held by Scandinavian countries (they seem to do everything well), but what rankles many developed nations is how low they score relative to those Scandi superstars.

Take Canada, for instance, which occupies an unimpressive 17th place out of 29 rich countries when it comes to overall child wellbeing. (The United States is a horrifying 26th out of 29, followed only by Lithuania, Latvia and Romania.) Worse, though, is when the kids themselves are asked how they’re doing, then Canada tumbles to 24th, a rather embarrassing place to be.

UNICEF Canada has taken matters into its own hands. With the noble goal of making Canada the #1 place to be a kid by 2030, it has completed a research project that involved speaking directly to young Canadians about how they define wellbeing. What UNICEF Canada found is that the objective measures used in official report cards, such as grades, physical health, obesity, and screen time, are not what young people spend most of their time thinking about. They’re more concerned with friendships, having a caring and secure adult around, future opportunities, holistic health, being treated with respect, and inhabiting a safe environment, all of which are far more difficult to measure.

The final report was published today, called “My Cat Makes Me Happy.” The title is a nod to the frequent discussions about the positive effects of pets on many kids’ lives, and how turning to one’s cat or dog is a recurring comforting activity among Canadian youth (as it is among adults, too, no doubt).

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Lam was involved in the report’s creation. She told The Star that child and youth wellbeing is currently measured on a very “surface level” way, and undervalues factors like friendships and relationships: “I think if there are improvements to the kind of questions that are being asked to measure child well-being in Canada, I think we’d get a much better vision of how youth are doing.” Whether Lam and/or UNICEF Canada think that a score using these new criteria would be better or worse than the original report card is unclear. They are simply meant to make a definition more accurate and reliable.

UNICEF Canada plans to use this report to design a Canadian Index of Child and Youth Wellbeing, starting this fall. Says Allie Truesdell, the UNICEF Canada Youth Participation leader:

“When you go and ask young people what matters to your wellbeing… we learn things that aren’t typically on our radar when we’re doing research.”

As a parent raising young children in Canada, I find these measurements interesting, though somewhat tedious. I feel as though there's a limit to the academic assessing required to figure out what makes kids (and parents, by extension) happy and I am going to take the liberty of prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution to youthful discontent: Thou shalt go outside.

Based on my observations, all Canadians kids, both urban and rural, need to spend far more time outside, independent and unsupervised. That would improve a great number of issues off the bat, from obesity and general health to reducing screen time and improving grades and social relationships. It would bring kids into greater contact with wildlife (we know they love animals) and create a sense of belonging and safety for some. It would empower many to want to protect the environment, tapping into youth's desire to inhabit a safe world.

See how many bases are covered by one significant change? Worth noting, too, is that a pro-nature stance is common among the same Scandinavian countries that rank so high in the report card. In fact, the recently published book on why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world (as of 2013; now it's Norway), states that Dutch parents' insistence on outdoor play is a key factor in their happiness: “Independent outdoor play is seen as the antidote to breeding passive, media-addicted couch potatoes.”

It sounds to me like the solution has already been found. Be like the Scandi countries who've already found the magic formula. The problem is not with the kids; it's with the parents who need to open the door and push them out.

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