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Ten pillars of a good childhood: a Finnish perspective.

If you sow two identical seeds in two different environments, you will have two plants of strikingly I different size and strength, but they will still be discernibly the same plants. While the optimal I environment varies from plant to plant, some basic requirements have to be met, such as appropriate watering, for every plant to grow.

Ten Pillars of a Good Childhood

The organizers of the Decade for Childhood (1) have formulated Ten Pillsars of a Good Childhood (2) as basic requirements for an optimal childhood. The pillars can be used to analyze the quality of childhood in our homes and our nations, and to guide policies and practices related to the experience of childhood.

I shall illustrate, pillar by pillar, a few high points about childhood today and also touch on issues that erode childhood, taking my examples from Finnish culture. People have grown interested in the Finnish approach to education and child rearing, due to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results showing that, for the past decade, 15-year-old Finnish students have been among the highest-performing students in all the 34 OECD (Organisation For Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.

Finnish Lessons

Delegates from different countries have visited Finland to see the Finnish school system and find explanations for the good PISA results. Less attention has been paid to the impact of the entire childhood experience on students' success. Yet the quality of children's experiences with early education at home and in child care is very important for their future.

In Finland, children start their nine-year basic schooling in the fall of the year when they turn 7. This is the highest school starting age in the OECD countries. From the point of view of brain development, age 7 is the proper age to start teacher-directed learning. Let's start our look at childhood with the first pillar.

Pillar 1: Safe places to live and learn, and access to health care, adequate clothing, and nutritious food

Of the many influences that affect a new life, some of the most far-reaching happen during the nine months before birth. In Finland, free maternity care has been well-organized for over 60 years. Pregnant women are expected to contact a maternity clinic by the end of the second month of their pregnancy A maternity grant provides material incentive to do so in the form of either a cash benefit or a maternity package that includes a full set of baby's clothing (the package itself serves as the baby's bed). Maternal mortality in Finland is very low, and infant mortality is one-third of that in the United States.

Once the baby is born, a public health nurse and a doctor at a child welfare clinic provide free services for children under school age and their families. At the clinic they get health check-ups, vaccinations, and general advice on health issues.

In schools, welfare services provided by school nurses are available for check-ups and health care plans. In 1948, Finland was the first country in the world to start serving free school meals.

During the Decade for Childhood, access to health care, good nutrition, and safe places to live should be made available to children all over the world. Public health services are not enough, however; we also need to strengthen parents' awareness of their responsibility for providing their children with these amenities.

Pillar 2: Strong families and consistent, loving caregivers

The role of the father has changed radically in Finland over the last 50 years. Fathers used to be authoritarian and distant with their children. Nowadays, men participate actively in their children's lives. The father is usually present at the baby's birth and uses his two-week paternity allowance after the birth. Fathers share in child care duties, domestic chores, and related activities.

In spite of these developments, the divorce rate is high in Finland, as in many western countries. In a UNICEF study (2007), Finnish teenagers were ranked highly in terms of material well-being and health and safety, but only 17th among 21 OECD countries in terms of family and peer relationships. The reasons for this low ranking were the high percentage of young people living in single-parent families and step families; Finland has the lowest percentage of teenagers whose parents eat their main meal with them around the family table several times a week.

During the Decade for Childhood, the value of the family should be emphasized and new means of supporting ties between couples found. Parents should be made more aware of the importance of such simple things as having family meals together and being mindful and alert--being present for their children with an awareness of what is going on right now. Research shows that having common meals around a family table several times a week is associated with children having a wider vocabulary and greater success at school, fewer emotional problems such as depression, and lower use of alcohol and other drugs.

Pillar 3: Social interactions and friendships

As children begin to move away from the parental influence, at age 3 to 4 years, they benefit from a variety of activities with peers. They develop the skills needed for sociability and intimacy, form relationships, and gain a sense of belonging.

Unfortunately, bullying has become a big problem in Finnish schools, as elsewhere. Bullying carries high developmental risks for the bullies and their victims, who may suffer long-lasting depression.

During the Decade for Childhood, effective interventions, such as the KiVa antibullying program (Karna et al., 2011) developed in Finland, should be implemented to eliminate bullying from schools.

Pillar 4: Creative play and physical activity

Play is children's way of expanding their knowledge of the physical world, their ability to communicate with peers, their understanding of themselves and others, and their imagination. In Finnish early education (up to the age of 7), creative play and physical activity traditionally have occupied most of children's time. Parents and other educators provide opportunities and simple toys for playing indoors and outdoors.

Physical activity is necessary for all kinds of development. In the recent book Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe 2012 (3), Sally Goddard Blythe (2012) notes the

growing body of evidence which indicates that an increasing number of children are entering formal education lacking the physical skills which are necessary to support all aspects of formal education. These children are at risk of under-achieving and/or developing various social or behavioral problems unless this immaturity is recognized and addressed, (p. 19)

In countries where formal teaching in preschools starts at the age of 3 to 5, the role of creative play and physical activity is often reduced to a minimum. During the Decade for Childhood, more time should be provided for creative play and physical activity. Also, more attention should be paid to the fact that many children spend more time watching TV and other screens than they do in school. Aric Sigman (2012) argues that the early age at which children start watching screen media and the high number of daily hours they watch have negative effects on both their physical health and their psychological well-being, irrespective of the so-called "quality" of the screen material.

Pillar 5: Appreciation and stewardship of the natural environment

Human beings arc part of nature. The sense of belonging to nature and its appreciation are strengthened in children and adults who can spend time in the natural environment.

Unfortunately, there is a growing concern in many countries about the effects of environmental threats on children's health. Van den Hazel (2012) remarks that the effects of environmental threats may start during pregnancy; the effects or toxins and radiation may be cumulative. The main risks are unreliable household water, poor hygiene and sanitation, air pollution, chemical hazards, injuries and accidents, and emerging global issues such as climate changes.

During the Decade for Childhood, everything possible should be done to protect the earth from human devastation and, consequently, reduce the negative impact on children's health. It is also important to increase children's access to the natural environment.

Pillar 6: Creative expression through music, dance, drama, and the other arts

Schools are responsible for the transmission of culture. That culture is, however, too often understood only as academic knowledge to be transmitted. Arts belong to culture. Participation in music and other arts clubs has positive effects on children's success at school and on their working skills, such as improved concentration, and it enhances their ability to act cooperatively with other children. These findings are based on a three-year experiment that 1 have conducted in seven schools (Pulkkinen, 2012).

During the Decade for Childhood, it is important to strengthen the culture of artistic self-expression in schools. Children have fewer and fewer opportunities in their homes to learn self-expression through arts and handicrafts. Parents' white collar professions and computer-based skills do not offer children models of creative expression. Kindergartens and schools have a special duty in this respect.

Pillar 7: Education that develops the full capacities of the child--cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and ethical

The goals of Finnish child care education were defined in our legislation 30 years ago, based on the work of the parliamentary Committee for Educational Goals in Day Care (4). I was an expert member of this committee. We analyzed the educational objectives of physical, social, emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, ethical, and religious education, taking into consideration for each domain the care and educational environments, the quality of care and education, and the child's own play activity, as illustrated by the "House of Objectives." Its foundations are the view of the child, society, and culture. It was our belief that to foster unique growth in children and to support the child's opportunities to reach his or her hill potential as an individual, attention should be paid to educational conditions rather than to standardized characteristics and skills for children to achieve.

In school, Finnish educators agree that every child has the right to get personalized support provided early on as part of normal schooling (Sahlberg, 2011). There is no tracking by ability in the schools. Well-trained teachers have wide latitude to decide what and how to teach. The central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores. Finnish educators take care not to hold students back or label them as "failing." Physical punishment was legally forbidden at schools in Finland in 1914, and in the home in 1984. Education in Finland is tuition-free for everyone up to the level of their doctoral dissertation.

During the Decade for Childhood, a reassessment of many educational practices may be needed, including acceptance of standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; standardization of the curriculum; and using test-based accountability to determine merit pay, close schools with low scores, and fire educators for low scores. In Finland, we try to stand up for our educational philosophy and resist pressure for standardization and test-based accountability.

Pillar 8: Supportive, nurturing, child-friendly communities

Finnish child care centers and schools are carefully designed to meet children's academic, social, emotional, and physical needs. Unfortunately, the trend toward calculating the short-term cost-effectiveness of education has spread into Finland. This has resulted in larger schools and cuts in schools' resources. Such policy changes take place irrespective of research results about their effects on children.

During the Decade for Childhood, an important issue to be discussed in Finland and elsewhere is how to connect the science of child development to public policy in order to promote supportive, nurturing, and child-friendly communities.

Pillar 9: Growing independence and decision-making

Children's independence and decision-making develops toward different outcomes in different contexts, following developmental paths. Figure 1 illustrates developmental paths from age 8 to adulthood based on my longitudinal study (Pulkkinen, in press).

One path started from characteristically aggressive behavior at age 8. It tended to lead to an orientation in adolescence that includes being always on the go, hanging around in the streets, and early onset of smoking and drinking, and to an undercontrolled lifestyle in early adulthood.

Another path started from constructive, reasonable behavior at age 8. It tended to lead to an orientation toward taking responsibility for school work and other activities in adolescence and a resilient lifestyle in early adulthood, characterized by optimism about and plans for the future, continuing education, and an interest in societal matters.

The other two paths depict more passive behaviors, starting from a state of anxiety, which tends to lead to an overcontrolled lifestyle, and from a state of compliance, which tends to lead to a reserved lifestyle. These paths are statistical trends; individuals may move to another path due to personal choices.

The paths on the left: side of Figure 1 are characterized by high self-control (also called self-regulation). High self-control is promoted through child-centered parenting. By this, I mean that the parents have a sustained and caring interest in the child's activities and trust. They advise the child and consider his or her opinions. This encourages the step-by-step development of independence and responsible decision-making.

The paths to the right of Figure 1, which share low self-control as a common characteristic, were promoted by parent-centered parenting. Parent-centered parenting means that the parents deal with the child in a less considerate or consistent way, based more on their own moods than on the child's needs. This may mean that they are indifferent to the child's activity, are inconsistent, or are authoritarian in their parenting approach. The child is left emotionally alone. Independence develops, but responsibility for ones behavior and future in decision-making may not develop adequately.


During the Decade for Childhood, support for parenting should be offered in various ways. One way to do so is through the dissemination of knowledge based on research about child development and the factors that affect it.

Pillar 10: Children and young people participating in community life

When we speak about the quality of childhood, we often look at childhood through adults' lenses without listening to the voices of children. Children can offer critical insights that support societal development.

Another potential bias when speaking about the quality of childhood is assessing childhood from a utilitarian perspective. By this, I mean regarding childhood as a preparatory stage for moving on to school and to a productive and profitable adulthood. Childhood is a unique stage of its own in human development, as is old age.

During the Decade for Childhood, active discussion should be encouraged about the image of the child. The image of the child might include a conception of the child's inner potential to grow, learn, and communicate; the child's agency over his or her own life, instead of being seen as an object to be shaped; and the need for sensitive adults to help the child discover and develop his or her uniqueness.

In Conclusion

The process needed for improvement in the quality of childhood includes various strategies, which Michiel Matthes (2012) describes in the book Improving the Quality of Childhood. He says that we need to increase awareness of problems; establish organizations that highlight children's rights and perspectives; work together professionally; develop action models to get the general public, politicians, and media involved; and work on the national and international level.

I congratulate the organizers of the Global Summit on Childhood on their activities along these lines, and I wish the Decade for Childhood 2012-2022 every success.


(1) Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) and Alliance for Childhood



(4) Paivahoidon kasvatustavoitekomitean mietintb. Komiteanmieiinto 1980:33. Helsinki.

Author Note:

The preparation of this paper has been supported by Funding from the Academy of Finland (Grant No. 127125). Mr. Jarmo Levy, Dovitra Ltd, Finland, rendered help in the preparation of the presentation. Address correspondence to: Lea Pulkkinen, Department of Psychology, P.O. Box 35,40014 University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. Email:


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by Lea Pulkkinen, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

Adapted from a presentation given at the Decade for Childhood2012-2022 Launch during the Global Summit on Childhood, March 30, 2012, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Pulkkinen, Lea
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:4EUFI
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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