The life of Czech children pre and post Covid

The pandemic has changed the lives of us all – including the lives of children. For the better part of the last school year they were forced to adapt to a whole different way of life –distance learning, very little direct contact with their school friends and few cultural and sports activities during the days of lockdown. They were confronted with illness and death, had to wear respirators and take Covid tests. How has the pandemic impacted the lives of Czech children – are they as happy and self-confident as they were before, are they safe online and which of their rights do they think is most frequently violated? Those are some of the questions I discussed with the head of the Czech branch of UNICEF Pavla Gomba.

“UNICEF has a universal mandate and we also work in high income countries such as the Czech Republic. Of course we are concerned about the growing level of poverty in industrialized countries, the Czech Republic included. That is why we recently launched a survey conducted by our research centre and it seems that up to 35,000 children in the Czech Republic may be at risk of falling into poverty –and I think this is a number that needs to be taken seriously.”

In what way are children suffering?

“There are a number of areas that need improvement in the Czech Republic where children are concerned. Child poverty is one of them, but there is also the fact that a growing number of children are exploited in prostitution and pornography, especially online and also in the tourism sector. We also need to pay more attention to the high rate of children in institutionalized care, especially children with disabilities, and also issues around Romany children, how well they are integrated, how much support they have.”

What is being done to alleviate these problems? Because the pandemic must have made them worse…

“When we ask children which of their rights is the least respected here they say it I their right to be listened to.”

“Yes, we saw that in the most recent survey of our Young Voices poll, which we conduct every five years or so. The children themselves said that they are concerned about more children living in poverty, so it seems that children themselves can see the difference. In previous years there were other concerns among the young. Last year we engaged in a project called “Computers for Children” because it was very obvious that there are many families that could not secure a computer, tablet or any device for children to be connected online so as to take part in distance learning. So clearly this was a concern in the Czech Republic.”

Are there enough support networks to help socially disadvantaged children?

This phase of poverty is different from what we used to see and from the research conducted, it was evident that poverty affects mainly single parents. Their risk of falling into poverty is four times higher. And it happens that these families do not even know what subsidies they can apply for. They don’t know how to ask for help. I think the network of social workers and community help should be strengthened to provide support to these families. I myself delivered a few computers to such families so I had the chance to interact with them, and there is also a segment of foreign families in such circumstances who may not be entitled to standard subsidies. The children were either born here or spent most of their lives here, they go to school and they made be discriminated against or excluded from the standard life and peer support that other children have.”

I understand that more and more parents need to ask for support from the Free Lunches for Schoolchildren initiative, is that right?

Pavla Gomba | Photo: Eva Dvořáková,  Czech Radio

“We do not have any data on that, but when it comes to nutrition it seems to me that Czech children are more at threat from obesity than malnutrition, but of course there may be segments of the population that may be threatened by that as well.”

Czech children have been away from school for a long time. Some people speak of the “Covid generation” or the “lost” generation of children. Are you concerned about that –or do you feel that they will soon make up for the lost time and this will be forgotten?

“Here we have some good news from the children themselves. Because when we surveyed them in the summer the results suggested that the level of “happiness” or let us say mental health is the same as it was before the Covid pandemic. Therefore, it seems that children are able to recover quickly, more quickly than their parents in some situations. The finding was that more than half of Czech children say they are happy, most of the time. Even though there are some differences. For example, children in Prague were happier about online classes than children in other parts of the country. And we found that for children living in smaller towns or in the country the level of happiness or satisfaction was much lower. One of the surprises from this poll was that children in Moravia are substantially less happy than children in Bohemia.”

Why is that?

“One of the surprises from this poll was that children in Moravia are substantially less happy than children in Bohemia.”

“We discussed it with psychologists and we tried to detect other differences in this poll and it might be linked to education and family background – and the fact that Moravia is slightly more conservative. Also, there were differences in other areas as well. For instance, when we asked children how they enjoy school, whether it is easy or difficult to speak about their problems at school or in the family there was a difference. In Moravia they clearly find it substantially more difficult to speak up and express their opinions, not just at school but in the family. So they may be shyer, more reserved and have less courage to speak up for themselves.”

Less self-confident…But what I was asking about was the learning process, because we hear that more children will have to repeat first grade, more children are not ready to start school, as a result of the pandemic.

“Yes, that is something we discovered as well. When we asked children what they would like to tell their teachers if they could speak freely, this was one of the main things they said –they would ask them to be more generous, more tolerant because they themselves felt less confident, they felt they had learnt less and we do see a gap here.”

Are Czech children self-confident in speaking up for themselves and are their voices heard?

“I would say they are not, and this is something we see consistently over the years. When we ask children which of their rights is the least respected here they say it I their right to be listened to. We see that across the board, because when we ask what would you like to change in your family, for example, children say we would like to be listened to, to participate more in the family decision-making process. So one of the messages –and recommendations from this poll is for parents, grandparents but also neighbours and the whole society to listen to children more and take them more seriously.

Illustrative photo: feelgoodjunkie,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“Of course we may smile at situations where children would like to be more consulted about holidays, how the family spends money or even the name of a sibling, but there are also some serious issues involved here – such as cases of divorce and child custody battles when children want to be heard in the court. These are issues that need to be taken seriously.”

Is this to do with the traditional Czech upbringing or is something teachers do as well?

“I think it reflects the whole mental setting of the society – I would not point to parents or teachers alone, it is to do with the traditional upbringing and culture. And although we can see some changes over the years there is still a long way to go.”

What about Czech children’s ladder of values – do they think about what they want from life? Do they know what they want from life?

“I think they have their values right, in general. Most of them want to go to school “to be somebody” (laughs) as they say, we were also positively surprised by the level of solidarity among them and they way they help others. For example, during the first wave of Covid 25 percent of children said they helped others – girls usually by sowing face-masks when they were in short supply and boys by doing shopping for the elderly. So solidarity- helping –listening to each other, all that is present. When we asked them about how conflicts should be resolved they said by communication first and foremost. Also, one of the positive surprises from the survey results is that the level of arguments in families that they reported has decreased substantially in the past two years –almost by 50 percent, so I think there are some positive developments.”

Are they significantly different from the generation of their parents?

“When we asked children whether parents control what they do online, only 20 percent of children said that their parents impose any restrictions.”

“Very different. We first polled children in this way in 2001 so the children who were polled then are now parents themselves. And there are three findings that I would mention. First, children nowadays are generally less trusting of people, of the society and structures in the society. Secondly, they are more skeptical about their future and it is yet to be seen to what extent the Covid pandemic is responsible for this. But, when we ask how do you see this country in ten years, do you want to live here, do you think that you will have a better life than your parents –they are more skeptical than the children polled 20 years ago. And thirdly, we found that childhood has become shorter. Twenty years ago the break between childhood and teenage years happened when children were 13 or 14, now it happens between the 11tha and 12th years. So definitely, childhood is shorter – but I would say that this development is typical for any industrialized country. We know about it, but there’s nothing to be done about it.”

I find it hard to believe these factors contribute to the general level of happiness….

“(Laughs) There were two age groups polled  9-13 and 14 to 17 and we could see that teenagers are somewhat less happy, but we can still say that children in the Czech republic are happy most of the time.”

They spend an enormous amount of time online. How are things with online safety in this country –in terms of children?

“That is definitely an area that needs improvement. We need to address online sexual abuse of children, but not only that, also bullying. And this relates to the general awareness of parents regarding the need to protect their children online. Because when we asked children whether parents control what they do online only 20 percent of children said that their parents impose any restrictions. Of course, they may not know about it – that is a possible explanation, but in any case, I think the number needs to be higher.”

What about their growing dependence on computers and mobile phones – and time spent online in general?

Illustrative photo: natureaddict,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“A typical Czech teenager spends three to five hours online every day, and this also goes for some children aged 10 or 11, which is not an ideal situation. There were also some children who said they spend ten hours a day online, which I think is really worrying so we can see a growing level of addiction there. On the other hand, and this is a positive finding, we could see that substance abuse has dropped – especially drugs, so there is good and bad news about that – and of course children need to have balance in their lives.”

Is that amount of time online changing this generation of children?

“I think it depends. We should not see social networks as evil in themselves. There are children who benefit from them. For example children who are extremely shy and find it difficult to socialize –for them to have peers and friends online can be very helpful. So it is like with fire, it can work well, but it can also burn everything.”

You have engaged in child-friendly cities. What should they be like?

“When we speak about child-friendly cities, most people think these are cities with playgrounds. Which is true of course, but there is much more to it. Currently we are working with one city in the Czech Republic and we hope the pilot project will inspire others. A child-friendly city is a place where children can play, where they are safe, where they have an environment that supports their development, but also where children are listened to, where they can express their opinions, where they can participate in the public and community life. So this is a nice experiment. We know it works elsewhere and we would like to set it up here in the Czech Republic in the near future.”

Do you engage children in the debate about what they would like to have?

“Children nowadays are generally less trusting of people, of the society and more skeptical about the future. Childhood is shorter.”

“Yes, the first step in introducing such a project is to hold a survey among the children who live there, to identify how they see their environment, where they see gaps, where they see risks and how they are involved in the life of the municipality. Based on this survey we identify the gaps that we need to work on. For example, what works very well in other countries is setting up children’s councils in the given municipalities so that children can be consulted and give their opinion to the local authorities about what needs to be done. This is another way to encourage children to be more active.”

You have pushed for the introduction of an Ombudsman for Children –why is that so important?

“This is something we are rather disappointed about, because we have had it as a priority for a long time and although we got some verbal support from government officials in the past, not much has happened. It is important that there is a public defender of child rights and we can see in other countries where it works well that it is really a major improvement. Such an Ombudsman is basically a person that understands children, someone who is an expert on childcare and who works full time with other experts, lawyers, social workers, child psychologists to really defend children in potential conflicts with the authorities or public offices.”

Let’s hope we’ll get there one day. Finally, do you engage children to help other children in different parts of the world?

“We are very happy about the growing level of interest among Czech children to help elsewhere. For example, one of our most successful projects is the “Adopt a Doll” project where children make rag dolls with a birth certificate –either at school or with their mother’s help – which we sell for a sum that covers the cost of vaccination for one child in a developing country. And over the years 50,000 dolls were created by Czech children and have helped in countries affected by natural disasters or conflicts, where children lack basic health care. So we can see that Czech children are able and willing to help elsewhere.”