Only one in five Australians and around the globe believe the early years are most important for a child’s development

A little over eight in ten Australians and globally feel judged as a parent by others

A new 28 country study by Ipsos finds that one in five people in (18%) believe the period from the start of pregnancy to age five is the most important period of a child and young person’s life for health and happiness in adulthood. The highest proportion of people say all periods are equally important (35%).

This is the first time that a global comparative survey looking at perceptions of the early years in different countries has taken place and builds off the work Ipsos conducted in the UK for The Royal Foundation in 2019 /2020.

The study found that:

  • Across all 28 countries included in the study, the early years are not seen as uniquely important for children and young people’s health and happiness, compared with other periods of life;
  • There are differences in attitudes towards the role of parents and wider society in bringing up children between countries;
  • Eight in ten parents of 0-17 year olds feel judged;
  • A high proportion of parents feel judged;
  • The judgement that parents perceive is real and not imagined. A similarly high proportion of non-parents say they judge parents;
  • Children’s behaviour and how parents manage that behaviour are the key drivers of judgement.

 Key Australian findings:

One in five Australians surveyed (19%) believe the period from the start of pregnancy to age five is the most important period of a child and young person’s life for health and happiness in adulthood. The highest proportion of Australians say all periods are equally important (38%);

  • A further one in five say ages 6-11 years are the most important;
  • Only a small proportion of Australians surveyed (5%) believe how children develop from the start of pregnancy is wholly determined by their genes, with almost two thirds (65%) saying it’s both genetics and shaped by environment, and just over one in five (22%) saying it’s mostly determined by their environment. Alongside South Africa (21% environment and 67% both) and the US (22% environment and 70% both), we are among the least likely to nominate the environment and most likely to say both;
  • At just over half (54%), Australians are one of the most likely to believe it is mostly the responsibility of parents to give children aged 0-5 the best chance of health and happiness. We were just behind Poland (58%) and the US (55%) in this belief;
  • Three in ten (31%) Australians surveyed believe both parents and society are equally responsible for giving children aged 0-5 the best chance of health and happiness, with 9% saying it is mostly the joint responsibility of everyone in society;
  • A little over eight in ten parents (84%) feel judged by others, with 44% reporting feeling that way very/fairly often;
  • Their child’s/children’s behaviour and how they manage it are the top reasons given by parents for why people are judging them, both mentioned in Australia by 54% of parents. A little under four in ten (37%) feel they are judged because of the things their children can/can’t do, while three in ten feel judged for how they speak to their children (31%), their child’s screen-time/use of technology (31%) and how their children look (29%);
  • Almost nine in ten (88%) non-parents say they judge parents, with three in ten (30%) saying they do so very/fairly often;
  • Among non-parents, key reasons for judging parents are how they manage their child’s/children’s behaviour (71%), they way the children behave (67%), how they speak to their children (49%), using bad language (47%), and not being strict enough (44%).

Ipsos Australia Director, David Elliott, said: “Given what science tells us about the importance of the early years to a child’s development, the fact that a little under six in ten Australians recognise the importance of these years could be seen as disappointing or even concerning. These findings suggest there is a need to lift the knowledge and understanding of the community in regard to how to best set up our children to be healthy and happy.

The high prevalence of judging parents is also a concern as feeling judged has the potential to impact parents’ mental health, which evidence has shown to impair children’s development[1]. Given these detrimental outcomes, feelings of judgement experienced by parents pose a real risk to children’s development. Like so many issues in society if we started from a place of empathy not judgement we would all find ourselves in a more positive, supportive environment.

Global findings

The importance of the early years

The science is clear; the early years of a child’s life sets the foundations for their health and happiness as they grow up into adulthood[2]

On average across the 28 countries surveyed, one in five people (18%) believe the period from the start of pregnancy to age five is the most important period of a child and young person’s life for health and happiness in adulthood. The highest proportion of people say all periods are equally important (35%).

  • The countries with the highest proportion of people believing the early years are the most important period are Peru (28%), followed by Germany (26%) and France (24%).
  • The country with the smallest proportion of people believing the early years are the most important period is China where just 6% say this is the case. People in China are more likely than those globally to believe the 11-16 period is most important (24% compared with 16% globally).
  • Other countries where the proportion of people believing in the primacy of the early years is lower than the global average are Brazil, Japan and Sweden (all 12%) and Spain (8%).

Graph 1

  • On average across the 28 countries surveyed, only a small proportion of people (6%) believe how children develop from the start of pregnancy is wholly determined by their genes, with almost half (49%) saying it’s both genetics and shaped by environment, and just over a third (37%) saying it’s mostly determined by their environment.
  • Countries with the highest proportions believing children’s development is mostly influenced by genes are India (14%), Saudi Arabia (11%), Brazil and Malaysia (both 10%). Just 2% of people in Canada, Poland and the United States believe this to be the case.

Graph 2

The role of wider society 

  • On average across the 28 countries surveyed, similar proportions of people believe that it is mostly the responsibility of parents to give children aged 0-5 the best chance of health and happiness and believe parents and society are equally responsible (40% and 41% respectively). Just 13% believe it is the joint responsibility of everyone in society to give children aged 0-5 the best chance of health and happiness.
  • However, there are some large differences in people’s attitudes in different countries. Countries where the highest proportions of people believe it is mostly the responsibility of parents are: Poland (58%), the United States (55%), Australia (54%), Great Britain and Sweden (both 52%). This drops to fewer than three in ten in China (29%), Japan (27%) and South Korea (25%).

Graph 3Being judged as a parent

  • On average across the 28 countries surveyed, around four in five parents with a 0-17 year old (82%) report feeling judged very often, fairly often or sometimes. This rises to 9 in 10 parents in Singapore (92%), the United States (92%), Poland (91%) and South Korea (89%). Countries with the smallest proportions of parents feeling judged are Russia (65%) and Canada (73%).
  • Around one in ten parents (12%), on average across the 28 countries surveyed, say they feel judged ‘very often’. India is the country where the highest proportion of parents feel judged ‘very often’ (28%), followed by South Africa (23%) and Mexico (19%). Parents are least likely to report feeling judged ‘very often’ in China, Russia and Sweden (all 3%).

Graph 4

  • Their child’s/children’s behaviour and how they manage it are the top reasons given by parents for why people are judging them, mentioned globally by 46% and 39% of parents respectively. Parents in Italy and Spain are less likely to give these reasons for feeling judged: Only 30% of parents in Italy feel judged for the way their child/children behave, and 25% of parents in Spain feel judged for how they manage their child/children’s behaviour.
  • Reflecting the high levels of judgement reported by parents, four in five non-parents (81%) across the 28 countries surveyed say they judge parents. This rises to nine in ten non-parents in South Africa (93%), Canada (90%), and the United States (89%). Countries where the smallest proportion of non-parents report judging parents are Germany (63%), South Korea (66%), Saudi Arabia (70%) and Russia (71%).
  • On average across the 28 countries surveyed just nine in ten non-parents (9%) say they judge parents ‘very often’. Countries where the highest proportion of non-parents report judging parents ‘very often’ are South Africa (23%), India (20%) and Turkey (19%). Countries where the smallest proportions of non-parents say they judge parents are the Netherlands (4%), South Korea (4%), Russia (3%) and China (2%).
  • The top reasons given by non-parents for judging parents relate to children’s behaviour – how parents are managing their child’s/children’s behaviour (59%) and the way their child/children behave (57%). Non-parents in the United States are particularly prone to giving these reasons (76% and 73% respectively).Graph 5

[1] Gillies, V. (2005). Meeting parents’ needs? Discourses of ‘support’ and ‘inclusion’ in family policy. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018305048968

[2] Save the Children. (2016). Lighting up young brains: How parents, carers and nurseries support children’s brain development in the first five years. Save the Children. Available at: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/library/lightingyoung-brains-how-parents-carers-and-nurseries-support-childrens-braindevelopment

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