Is your Neighbourhood a Child-Friendly Community?

Childhood is an important time for healthy development, learning, and establishing the foundations for future wellbeing. Most Australian children are healthy, safe and doing well. However, childhood is also a time of vulnerability and a child’s outcomes can vary depending on where they live and their family’s circumstances.  (A.I.H.W)

The kinds of neighbourhood and community in which children grow up have a significant influence on their lives, making a difference to psychological, social and learning outcomes. Neighbourhoods can be healthy and supportive, or they can be unhealthy and damaging, although there is much variation in between the two extremes. What we all want to see is a move towards the healthy end of the spectrum for all children.

City - Walking Blur

Healthy, child-friendly neighbourhoods provide feelings of security, stability, interconnectedness, and social and cognitive stimulation, as well as a sense of shared social responsibility. Poor neighbourhoods can give rise to feelings of isolation and social exclusion, while poverty, hardship, conflict and violence can lead to a poorer quality of life and hinder positive child development. Neighbourhoods can therefore create inequalities in the population.

Neighbourhoods are actually quite hard to define. They can have boundaries imposed by geography or housing clusters, but they are also part of the notion of community. Hence, a neighbourhood can be defined according to a particular area, street or apartment block where one lives. Or, a neighbourhood can be defined by a group of people among whom one lives – that is, a tribe or community to which one belongs. Neighbourhoods can be small (local) or large (extended), valued or distrusted, protective or threatening. Members of neighbourhoods may have their own meaning when they use the word, but most people will take it to mean something about a familiar place where one lives alongside other people.

Neighbourhoods affect the daily lives of families, and through them the development of children. They are part of what we call ‘social capital’ involving important characteristics such as trust, civic involvement, social interaction and community resources. Crowded housing, poor housing quality, noise, poverty, lack of transport, conflict between neighbours, racial discrimination and social exclusion can all create stresses for children that have bad effects on their development and wellbeing. On the other hand, cooperative, supportive, peaceful, safe and trusted neighbourhoods, which protect children from trouble and provide plenty of opportunities for growth and development, tend to have good effects on children’s development.

That said, it is important to note that for most children, especially young ones, neighbourhood effects are mostly transmitted through the attitudes and behaviours of their parents. Parents are the conduit, or the filter, for a neighbourhood’s effects. The way that parents perceive and deal with their environment is critical to how the child copes with social and economic difficulties or benefits from good social capital. Parents’ economic and personal circumstances, combined with their attitudes and behaviours, influence outcomes for their children.

There are age factors, too, associated with how neighbourhoods influence children’s development. For example, young children are more dependent on how their parents manage their environment, whereas older children and adolescents have a wider range of influences, especially the neighbourhood children with whom they mix, the schools they attend and the local youth culture. There can be important differences between boys and girls as well. In many cultures, boys are much freer to move around independently in the community and are exposed to more risks when they are unsupervised. This is one part of the explanation for why some boys are more prone to getting into trouble in their neighbourhoods.

There has been considerable research into the effects of community factors on children’s development in North America. Many studies show the negative effects of growing up in communities with high levels of antisocial behaviour and delinquency, and the enriching effects of growing up in well-resourced and stable communities.

The research has concentrated on two kinds of outcome:

  1. learning and cognitive development; and emotional and behavioural adjustment.
  2. Effects of social disadvantage seem to be more powerful in slowing down children’s learning progress in the very early years, while influences on emotional and social adjustment are more notable in the primary school and adolescent years.

Learning experiences in the home, availability of toys and books, and the warmth and responsiveness of the mother are all related to children’s intellectual growth and their future lives. Young children in socially disadvantaged families can be less ‘school ready’ and this might have a negative impact upon their early education. It can then be quite a challenge for them to catch up.

Together with school quality, family and neighbourhood factors also influence academic progress, particularly when home, school and neighbourhood conditions all suffer from economic and social deprivation.

Neighbourhoods with good resources and where families support each other can enhance academic opportunities for children.

When families suffer the many stresses related to their living circumstances, their children are at risk of poorer physical and mental health. Research clearly shows the major risk factors for both urban and remote Aboriginal child communities. The community-environment problems most often reported by Aboriginal families were noisy and reckless driving, being short of money, break-ins and children not going to school. Alcohol and drug problems also caused stress for families. The higher the levels of rated stress in the family, the greater the problems reported in children.

parents-playing-soccer-with-babyFactors that help to protect all children and foster resilience in them include:

  • having good role models in their community who cope well;
  • encouragement and support to persevere and complete education;
  • families supervising and monitoring the whereabouts and the activities of their children, ensuring they are safe and not getting into trouble, and making sure that their friendships are positive and socially responsible;
  • parents supporting the development of learning in the home through reading, homework and encouraging academic skills; and
  • parents finding resources that enrich the lives of their children, such as parks, clubs, sporting activities, swimming pools, special tutoring, and art or music activities.

Moving to better neighbourhoods is a strategy that many parents adopt to improve the future of their children. There is research, particularly in the USA, to show that moving from poor neighbourhoods to better-off, safer and healthier neighbourhoods has positive effects on families and on the development of their children.

There is little systematic information or research on neighbourhood effects in Australia that are concerned with outcomes for children.

In most Australian States there are government-initiated urban-renewal and/or neighbourhood improvements being undertaken, mostly concerned with housing and the physical environment. The value of involving residents in such community-building projects is recognised. However, this is not always easy to manage and the evaluation of the effects of such interventions that we need in order to guide ways of improving communities is hard to find.

In summary, research has shown us principles and practices that benefit communities and their families and children. Parenting attitudes and behaviours are the most important filters for neighbourhood effects in early-childhood development, so any intervention initiative must include support for parents. Good schools and teachers can help to improve a child’s chances in life; poor schools compound the effects of neighbourhood disadvantage. So cooperation between communities, schools and families is crucial. Role models of adults and families within neighbourhoods, who are committed to regular school attendance, who monitor their children’s activities and the company they keep, and who are socially responsible neighbours, can reduce the risk factors operating in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Community improvements work much more successfully when the community itself chooses, negotiates, owns, directs and supports such improvements.

There are other factors that have a bearing on the situation in Australia. Currently complex regulations and the amount of paperwork that is required for funding support are a severe obstacle for struggling communities and has sapped the motivation and confidence of people for whom the language and literacy demands of such requirements are major barriers. We urgently need change in the way in which the process is managed.

For more information

See Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (A.I.H.W) report on children and neighbourhood safety