Children’s rights, and children participating

2009 is the 20 year anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRoC), and celebrate this, the University of Melbourne held an interdisciplinary half-day conference on Moving the Children’s Rights Agenda Forward.

My interest in this area has several strands. Firstly, my arts practice is a participatory one, in particular directing collaborations between professional musicians and young people, and in bringing children’s musical ideas and voices into the foreground of music-making. Secondly, my recently-completed Masters research was focused on the perceptions and thoughts of newly-arrived immigrant and refugee children, and their responses to music-learning in Australia. (You can read about my research in a little more detail here).

Thus, the skills involved in drawing out children’s voices and ideas, and the issues surrounding ethical use of their voice, and the arguments for (and against) this, have been areas of focus for me, which has drawn me into the larger arena of children’s rights in many different contexts.

Children’s rights, as enshrined in the UNCRoC, are a balance between freedom (autonomy rights) and protective rights (the right to protection, and acknowledgement of their vulnerability). Margaret Coady, in giving a historical overview, described early critics of the Declaration (1959) and subsequent Convention (1989), in particular the child liberationists (including such eminent scholars as John Holt), who objected to the UNCRoC becuase it was protective, and took away rights from children. (Book to read: Escape from Childhood by John Holt).

The rights of children to be heard in matters which affect them (for example, matters before the courts) have been hard-won (if they could be considered ‘won’ in the current times. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “gradually gaining tiny footholds and prominence in the minds of a growing number of decision-makers”…). Article 12 of the CRoC is concerned with the child’s right to express views, and for these views to be given appropriate weight according to the age and capacity of the child. How this is interpreted in different fields, and in different countries (compare, for example, Noway, Germany and New Zealand with Australia or the UK) can vary quite a lot.

The children’s righs movement has been growing steadily, but ironically, is in danger of being dominated by adults.

Coady finished with a reminder about autonomy – adult or child autonomy. Quoting Kymlicka, she said, “No lives go better being led from the outside according to values the person doesn’t endorse…” Humans live their lives from the inside, according to their understandings of what makes life valuable. This is true for people of any age. Children, like adults, are constantly forming their understanding of what makes life valuable for them.

Dr Judy Cashmore focused on Article 12 and Article 3 (children’s best interests). She looked at what she calls the three principle ‘Ps’ of the UN CRoC – Proviion, Protection and Participation (developing autonomy and agency). She highlighted at the beginning of her presentation the oft-used but misplaced rhetoric of many adults, that

Children are our future.

That may be true, but children are living in the present, in which they are children. It is the present that affects them, and by focusing on their future offerings, we can deny them the right to be children, to be heard, to have a voice in the way their young lives play out..

The notion of children’s “best interests” is a vague one, but this vaguness allows a certain amount of flexibility. It is responsive to changes in our knowledge of child development (for example, the recent recognition of a propensity towards risky behaviour in the wiring of teenagers – a propensity that may be supported by strong and determined arguments on the part of the teenagers, but that should be tempered with the greater knowledge in the developmental pyschology field).

As knowledge changes, we can see previously-held beliefs have been dangerous, damaging and wrong on numerous levels. For example, the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, and the forced migration of children and orphans from the United Kingdom to the far reaches of the Commonwealth, were considered at the time to be in the children’s “best interests”. It can also be used, Cashmore warned, to justify what is in fact in parents’/adults’ interests and resource allocation.

Sociologists take the view of children as “beings”, rather than of children as “becoming”. In other words, as fully-formed people in their own right, rather than as adults-in-the-making. Thus, they have valuable insights and points of view to offer, and unique world-views, of equal value to those of adults, formed as they are through the same process of living.

Cashmore cited Warshak (2003), in describing the way that the inclusion of young voices can bring both “enlightenment” (by providing a broader information base, and assisting decision-makers to consider what is in fact workable, ie. it is essential the children feel able to work within the decisions that are made); and “empowerment” (in that children are happier, have higher self-esteem, and better mental health when they are included in authentic and meaningful processes and space and weight is given to their offerenings). On this last point, there is a lack of evidence-based research to support these claims, although there is ample support for them anecdotally.

Research does show, however, that it is the idea of being included in a process, and the recognition and respect that this affords, that is most important to them. They want to “have a say, not to get their way”. In fact, children value relationships highly, and want to be involved, to be taken seriously, to be encouraged by warm, supportive adults, to be able to act and live with dignity. The issue need not be one of treating children as adults, but one of treating them as people, taking the focus away from notions of competence and capability, and placing it on respect and dignity, affording children the same respects that would be offered to adults (eg. to be listened to, to not get hit out of frustration or as a method of coercion).

Dr Paul Tranter’s presentation came at the question of children’s rights from a different perspective, that of a geographer, concerned with child-friendly environments and peak oil  – in particular the implications of peak oil for child and child-friendly cities. He presented his arguments with the help of the metaphors provided in the Disney/Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. ‘Peak oil’ is the name given to the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline, and prices rise accordingly.

Our dependence on oil means that decline in production will create huge crises throughout the world. But the aspects of our lives that oil helps to feed are also those that make our cities less and less child-friendly, nay, downright dangerous for children.

This includes the dependence on cars (and not small, economic cars, but big, meaty four-wheel drives that consume fuel and coccoon people from the outside world, leading to increased loss of sense of place for children being ferried); use of cars leads to spread out cities (increasing dependence on cars to get anywhere); fear of unfamiliar people or places keeps people off the roads and streets, which means they are deserted and even less child-friendly than ever; and so on. Cheap oil essentially makes our cities less child-friendly. The peak oil crisis will lead to things like a global shortage of food, large numbers of children living in poverty, more wars as countries fight to access and control those resources which remain. None of this is good for children, or children’s health and well-being.

A child-friendly city allows for the independent mobility of children, where it is safe to explore and engage with the environment. Paul asked the audience to think of their favourite place to play when they were ten. We then raised our hands to answer yes to questions like Was it outdoors? Was it in a natural environment? Was there water nearby (a pond, stream, etc)? Could you manipulate it in some way (build things, dig holes)? Was there an element of risk (eg. could you hurt yourself if you fell?)? Children everywhere essentially respond to the same things, in terms of their preferred ways to play and explore their world.

A child-friendly city also supports, or creates, a sense of connection to community, and to the neighbourhood. Children interact with people of different ages. Adults assume a kind of shared responsibility for everyone’s children.

What does this loss of freedom mean for children? There is a need to strike a balance between exposing children to risk, and to protecting them. Two books to read on this topic are Children of the Lucky Country? by Dr. Fiona Stanley, and No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society by Tim Gill.

The use of Monsters Inc as a metaphor and “way in” for quite challenging, confronting and serious topics (for adults as well as children) was inspired. It felt to me like a large-scale arts project waiting to happen. And reminded me of the powerful messages in books like The Lorax (Dr Seuss); my friend Leilani also mentioned the book Momo (Michael Ende, who also wrote The Neverending Story). The metaphors offered by these stories allow people to confront big issues without them being too close to them initially; the ‘closeness’, when offered through realism and a sense of real-life emergency, can cause people to feel defensive and move swiftly into all kinds of denial.

The half-day conference concluded with Professor Glenda MacNaughton, who spoke about Article 12 from an Early Childhood Education perspective. Even when there is acceptance and ambracing of the notion of children’s voice and participation in decision-making, it often only includes children aged eight and above. The under-8s are still often seen as having less cpacity to contribute and offer meaningful insights. Research with this age-group in particular  (and perhaps with children generally) is frequently  observational research, rather than direct questioning or participation. In other words, we the learned adults still persist in watching and observing in order to learn (through interpreting what we see) what is going on, rather than asking questions of the main social actors themselves. MacNaughton gave examples from a recent research project that engaged children in an early childhood centre in questions about what they liked about this centre, and what an ideal centre would look like. The researchers drew incredibly rich data from these interviews (which were accompanied by a drawing task), which changed the way the program ran at that centre.

MacNaughton also showed us some very moving footage of a teacher (a very experienced, capable, switched-on teacher) describing an episode in her kindergarten where she had not listened to a child’s suggestion, where, because if differed from what she was seeking as an answer, she didn’t acknowledge the input in the same way that she had the suggestions from other children that were more in line with her own. She also described how this changed the behaviour of the children involved. It was a powerful piece of footage because I’m sure many of us identified with how that could happen, and how wrong it was. The teacher describing the episode was still very affected by it – her voice became choked, even as she told the story, even though she had clearly processed it and understood what took place.

In summing up all the presentations of the morning, Dr Kylie Smith suggested that we need multiple images of children.

  • In some moments, children are vulnerable, and thus in need of protection (as, indeed, are adults in some moments);
  • Children are developing and learning all the time (as indeed, are adults);
  • Children are also capable social actors with important views to offer, that need to be heard (in the same way that this is true of all adults).

We all then adjourned to the courtyard of the Elizabeth Murdoch building for a delicious lunch (catered by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – very delicious food indeed!) and further conversation. It was an incredibly stimulating morning that stretched into part of the afternoon, and writing it up today (one day later) I am charged up all over again from these ideas.

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