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Counting What Counts. How Children are Represented in National and International Reporting Systems

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Reports and profiles aimed at comparing the well-being and living conditions of children within and across countries are based on child indicators which measure the children’s current lives. These reports, which are part of the child indicators movement, have become popular because they serve as useful monitoring and goal-setting tools for policymakers. Researchers focus on empirical discussions regarding how to measure well-being more accurately and how to increase the transferability of data to policy and put less effort into questioning underlying conceptualizations of children in detail. Quantitative studies focus on the main changes in the child indicators movement described as shifts “from negative to positive” or “from well-becoming to well-being”. There are no complementary qualitative in-depth analyses of the underlying assumptions about children and childhood. From a childhood studies perspective this is relevant because the unspoken representations not only show the changed adults’ views of children, they also shape the lives of children. Therefore, in national and international reporting systems the dominant conceptualizations of children are emphasized, and whether and how the described major shifts in the child indicators movement have occurred is questioned. A discourse analysis approach is used to examine three influential reporting systems: the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report (2007), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report (2009), and the KIDS COUNT report (2011). The findings show a great variety in the realization of the shifts and also indicate consensus on still conceptualizing children as becomings and future adults.

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  1. Due to space constraints, only five out of six shifts are examined here. The last shift “towards a composite index of child well-being” is not relevant to the investigation presented in this article (Ben-Arieh 2010, p. 17). In the newest publications Ben-Arieh (2011) even speaks of nine shifts but the new ones are not essential to the study presented in this article.

  2. Because of data limitations—similar to the other two reports—the stakeholders are obliged to dispense data which provide good information about child well-being but which are not comparable over all states or countries or which come from one-time surveys (see Lippmann 2005).

  3. However, the reader cannot always understand the distribution, for example, why is the indicator “educational deprivation” linked to material well-being and not to educational well-being?

  4. It is interesting to note that the report takes a strong interest in the self-assessment of children in their role as pupils. That means an aspect of education is in the foreground when the children make their assessments without them being asked, for example, whether they like their lives as a whole or like being children (even beyond school).

  5. This view also is supported by the fact that the indicator “liking school” is not part of the education domain. When it comes to issues of education, whether pupils like school seems to be less relevant. It is more important that the average literacy score is high, the literacy inequality is low, and the youth NEET rate is low as well.

  6. As mentioned earlier, here again the reader cannot always understand the attribution of the indicators, for example, the separation of health and safety on the one hand and behaviors and risks on the other hand. Both domains cover aspects of behavior and of health.

  7. The analysis showed that irrespective of data constraints, to some extent the indicators have been wrong-headedly attributed to the dimensions within one reporting system. Furthermore, the wrong-headed attributions become obvious when comparing the three reports; one and the same indicator is attributed to different domains. UNICEF, for example, attributes “living in single-parent families” to relationships; in contrast, KIDS COUNT attributes it to adequacy of income. UNICEF considers “liking school” to be a matter of subjective well-being, while OECD attributes it to quality of school.


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This research is based on work supported by a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation which is funding the research project educare (“Models of a ‘good childhood’ and inequality in children’s lives. Childhood education and care from the perspective of policymakers, professionals in kindergartens and primary schools, parents and children”) which began in 2010. This research project is taking place at the Goethe-University in Frankfurt (Germany) in the Faculty of Educational Science and at the Center for Research on Individual Development and Adaptive Education of Children at Risk (IDeA).

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Correspondence to Tanja Betz.

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Betz, T. Counting What Counts. How Children are Represented in National and International Reporting Systems. Child Ind Res 6, 637–657 (2013).

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