The UNCRC, Children's Rights and Should Children Make Decisions About Their Lives.
Within western society, children are generally dependent on adults for care and guidance and are regarded as having less knowledge, skills, power and autonomy. Although this means that adults can do a lot to shelter children from the hardships of the adult world, it can also put children at a greater risk of being abused or exploited. Over sheltering children can leave them unaware of potential dangers and therefore more vulnerable than less sheltered children. In contrast, allowing children to do whatever they want and have full control over their lives can lead to them making poor decisions and put them in danger.
To help protect children in the event of abuse or exploitation, they have been granted additional rights under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This is known as The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The convention has 54 articles that cover all areas of childhood and set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that children have been granted. It explains that every child has the same rights regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, language and ability and aims to ensure that children have access to things they need so they can grow and develop their full potential. The UNCRC also explains how governments, parents and other adults can work together to make sure all children can enjoy all their rights.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was introduced in 1989 to protect children and help them access things they need because they are still developing and are more vulnerable than the majority of adults. It includes rights such as the right to relax and play (article 31), the right to be safe from violence (article 19) and the right to education (article 28) with no one right being considered more important than the other. The UNCRC is the most complete set of children’s rights to have ever been issued and is the most widely adopted international human rights treaty in history. The introduction of the UNCRC has led to governments having to provide new protections and services for children. It has also helped children when they are placed in difficult or troubling situations such as becoming refugees, being involved in war or if they have committed a crime.
Do You Think Children Have to Much Freedom and Choice?
Acceptance and Conflict
Although the introduction and widespread acceptance of the UNCRC has improved the lives of countless children it has also caused difficulties and conflict as it fails to account for the differences between cultures and societies around the world. What is practical and acceptable for a child living in a westernised country may be impractical or even impossible for children living in others. It also fails to account for each society’s customs and beliefs.
To make The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child more realistic and workable, some countries; such as Africa have developed charters that are used in addition to the UNCRC. These individual charters deal with issues that are relevant to the culture in which they are being used. For example, the African Charter has sections relating to matters such as apartheid, child refugees and children in war. It also recognises the difficulties faced due to Africa's depressed economic state. One major difference between the UNCRC and the African charter is that the latter not only details children’s rights but also lists their responsibilities within their families and communities. For example, article 27 of the UNCRC states that children have a right to an adequate standard of living and that the child's parents (or other guardians) are responsible for providing this. In contrast, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has no equivalent article and states that children have responsibilities towards their families, society and the state. In African society, rights are granted along with responsibilities. Children are expected to show respect for their parents and elders at all times, to serve their community and to help preserve and strengthen the independence, integrity and unity of Africa and its cultural views to the best of their abilities. The UNCRC views children as dependant on adults for their needs to be met whereas the African Charter views families as interdependent, noting that children and adults rely on each other and so both have rights and responsibilities to each other. This is more fitting with the African way of life.
The Four P's
Within the UNCRC children’s rights are divided into four groups, known as the four p's. These are:
- Provisional rights – These are rights that enable children’s growth and development and include the rights to adequate housing, food and education.
- Prevention rights – Prevention rights are used to create and implement systems that protect children. This includes protection against abuse or infringement of their rights and the right to legal representation.
- Protection rights – These protect children against exploitation and abuse and allow intervention when either occurs. For example, children who are abused or at risk of harm at home can be removed by the state either temporarily or permanently.
- Participation rights – This group of articles grant children the right to take part in decisions that involve or affect them. Participation rights also include the right to have an independent opinion.
The majority of people would not argue against children having somewhere safe to live, adequate food or access to education and health services, however, other sections of the four p's have created a lot of controversy. One issue that many people have found it hard to agree on is whether children have a right to an opinion on matters that affect or involve them. Different views exist on this issue with many people concerned that it is not in the best interests of children to be included in matters they considered to be too complicated or upsetting for them. Not only may children and adults disagree on whether children should be allowed to participate in decisions, but they may also clash on what is the best outcome of those decisions, causing further conflict and bad feeling within the family. Giving children the right to make decisions about their lives directly challenges the traditional view of a child's place within the family and society. This means people must view children as having thoughts and opinions as well as accept that they may possess enough knowledge and insight to know what is best for them, rather than seeing children as helpless and dependant beings that need adults to choose everything for them.
People's views on children's rights and a child’s ability to make decisions independently will depend on how they view children and childhood. Supporters of the romantic discourse see children as naturally good and believe that they should be free to enjoy childhood without the issues and stresses associated with the adult world. This discourse states that children learn through experience and therefore should be protected from things that may cause them harm. It is believed that exposure to unsuitable experiences and knowledge may corrupt children or teach them how to be wicked or evil. The beliefs of the romantic discourse of childhood make it likely that supporters of this discourse would believe that children should be protected from having to make decisions in case it causes them upset or exposes them to things that may affect their moral development. In reality, the romantic discourse may make it easier for children to be exploited or abused as adults have full control over every aspect of their lives. Having never had to think for themselves children may lack the knowledge, experience and confidence to speak up or ask for help when needed. This issue can also continue into adulthood when they are suddenly faced with much more responsibility and can leave them more open to harmful or abusive situations such as domestic abuse or exploitation at work.
In contrast, the Tabula Rasa discourse of childhood views children as blank slates who will be shaped by experience and information given to them. Followers of this discourse may be more likely to support children making their own decisions as it will help to give them confidence and teach them about responsibility and how their choices affect them and others around them. Of course, allowing children choices doesn't mean giving them a free rein to do as they please and experiences such as decision making should be provided based on a child’s age, level of understanding and ability. For very young children, decisions such as what clothes to wear or which cup to use are good simple choices that not only help to foster independence but can help children develop likes and dislikes and a solid sense of identity. As they grow older and more capable the range of decisions can be expanded to include other more significant issues. If able to understand older children may take part in a range of decisions such as where to take a family holiday, what meals are eaten and where they would like to live following parental separation. These experiences and knowledge are believed to help them grow into well-adjusted adults.
Many adults work hard to support children’s rights. One such Supporter, John Holt argues that children aren't incompetent because they are children but because they are made incompetent by adult attitudes. He views children as being capable of understanding and participating in many decisions regarding their lives and states that they have a right to be consulted on matters that are going to affect them. John Holt believes that allowing children to participate in things that matter to them or that have an effect on their lives has many benefits for growing children. These benefits include helping to teach them responsibility, boosting their self-esteem and giving them confidence in their abilities, thoughts and feelings. If children are allowed to make choices they gain experience and can learn how to make better or more balanced decisions in future. It is unfair to never allow children to make choices for themselves and then when they reach a certain age expect them the do so and make good decisions just because society now views them as adults.
Because it can be hard to know if an individual child is genuinely capable of making informed and sensible choices people tend to shy away from even giving them a chance to try. Adults often use a child’s age in deciding how much say they can have in their lives but this can be problematic. Even within the same age group children can vary so much emotionally, mentally and in what they can or can't understand so blanket rules do not always offer the best solutions. Working with children on an individual basis and giving each freedom based on their abilities and understanding would be a better approach but this can be difficult to implement outside of the home, for example in schools and social groups or clubs.
Where you Aware of the UNCRC Before Reading this Hub?
Protection and Participation Clash
If children do not fully understand the world around them they may need protection from the consequences of their actions and decisions. At times like this participation and protection rights can clash and it may be necessary to override participation rights to protect the child. For example, if a child is being abused at home it may be necessary that the state intervene and remove the child from their family to fulfil their duty to protect them. This action may need to take place without telling the child or asking for their opinion or wishes in the matter. Protection rights may also need to override participation rights in cases of emergency interventions such as after a natural disaster or during war to ensure children are safe and protected.
A good example of protection and participation rights clashing can be found by looking at Article 28 of the UNCRC. This article gives children the right to compulsory education based on the rules of their country. Because this education is compulsory children aren't allowed to refuse to attend and so their right to participate in this decision is denied. In some circumstances, there may be room for the child to have choices regarding their education, for example, in what school they attend or which subjects they study. In some countries, there are a variety of school to choose from each with their beliefs and systems, though these may only be an option for families able to pay for them. For some home, education may also be an option and can be a good choice for children who struggle within ridged school systems or wish to learn subjects not commonly taught in schools.
Another example of protection and participation rights conflicting arose in Vietnam in 1997. Many children migrate alone from the countryside into the city to find work. Due to concerns around them living alone and away from their families the Vietnamese government deemed that working was not in a child’s best interests and set up a programme to return these children to their families. The aid agency PLAN International trained outreach workers to help with this programme and believed that it was beneficial for the children. One fourteen-year-old boy known as Hiep objected to the programme and stated that he wished to stay in the city. He felt that although he was young and working away from home, it was his choice to do so and in his view, he was better off than if he lived with his family in the countryside. Hiep felt that the protectionist approach taken by the government prevented him from properly participating in society and that having lived there for two years successful, he had already proven he was able to care for himself. As well as earning enough to provide for his needs, Hiep had also been able to send money home to his parents and pay to continue his education as school is only free in Vietnam until children are eleven years old. Hiep also made the good point that the education he was receiving in the city was better than he would in the countryside. Despite his protests, Hiep's right to make decisions for himself was denied, even though he was competent enough to do so and he was returned to his parents. Only a few months later he left his parents’ home in the countryside and returned to the city. However, because he felt that he had been treated unfair previous, he avoided any involvement with government agencies even if it was to his advantage. In Hiep’s case, the well-meaning programme set up by the Vietnamese government meant that he was now less likely to seek help when it was needed for fear of his right to choose being taken away again.
Do children want To Make Decisions for Themselves?
Another matter to be considered in the debate about children and decision making is that a child may not want to have to make important decisions for themselves. They may feel they don't know enough to make a good decision or that too much pressure or responsibility is being put on them. Additionally, children may worry that they will upset others with the choice they make, especially if it is different to what the adults involved think is best for them or they are choosing between two adults differing views. Children faced with difficult choices such as those regarding medical treatments or where they want to live when parents separate may wish that they didn't have the choice and that the decision could just be made for them.
The matter of whether children should be allowed to participate in decisions that affect them is a complicated one with no easy and definitive answer. What works for one child may not be right for another, especially when you take in to account cultural variations. In some circumstances, giving a child the right to decide may not be in their best interests or may lead to later difficulties or more complexed decisions being needed. For the majority of children, it seems that allowing them to actively participate in their lives and have others respect their wishes where possible benefits their development. It can also help children to feel valued and secure as they know that they will be informed and consulted on aspects of their lives and can trust others to value their opinions.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Do children have the right to make their own choices?
The answer to that question will vary greatly from person to person. However I believe that children do have the right to make decisions about their own lives based on their age and ability to do so. If they are unable to make the decision entirely then they should be included when possible. Choices do not have to be big things - it can be something as small as letting a small child chose their own clothes. This still gives them a feeling of control and input over what happens to them and helps in them developing their own sense of taste and identity.
© 2012 Claire