Improving Children’s Lives
In this assignment I will endeavour to compare three major approaches of intervention in children’s lives and the way in which adults’ constructions of childhood can affect intervention. I will initially describe the three major approaches to intervention and examine the different beliefs that were instrumental in the development of these approaches. I will also discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each of these three approaches in regards to intervention. To conclude, I will discuss my opinion regarding the question; is a rights based approach, especially one which promotes child participation, the best way of improving children’s lives?
Why do adults feel the need to intervene in children’s lives? Childhood is a status which is recognised world-wide and by many, if not all, of the world’s religions. These religions have through-out history called for adults to protect children from harm, for example ‘Christianity, Islamic teaching and Buddhism’ (The Open University, Ch5, Pg.188) There are three major reasons why adults feel it is in the child’s best interest for adults to intervene in children’s lives and these reasons have transpired through the different ways adults have constructed childhood. Some adults view childhood as a vulnerable period during which children need protecting, others view childhood as an investment, that by investing in children’s lives adults are in fact investing in future society as a whole, and some view children as citizens who have rights and a claim on resources.
Some of the earliest interventions in children’s lives stemmed from the construction of children as vulnerable and in need of adult rescue. The romantic discourse, a belief that children are innocent, vulnerable, powerless and in need of adult protection was instrumental in the implementation of early children’s charities such as Barnardos (founded in 1866) and Save the Children (founded in 1919.) These charities portrayed children as ‘poor victims of circumstance in need of rescue.’ (The Open University, Ch5, Pg.195) There humanitarian response was concerned with their lack of basic necessities such as food and shelter; they were much less interested in wider political issues of poverty. Although this type of intervention does work in the short-term, for example, hungry children are fed and homeless children are given shelter, unfortunately it does not actually deal with the real issues, the underlying cause of poverty and suffering. The Open University states that by ‘conceptualising the child as a victim in need of rescue can decontexualize the social, economic, and political circumstances of child-suffering and does nothing to bring about greater social equality or to tackle the root cause of poverty’.(The Open University, Ch5, Pg.205)Therefore a new approach to childhood intervention was required.
During the 1960’s and 70’s there was a move away from constructing children as passive victims, to a new approach which constructed children as an investment for the future society or human capital. It was now believed that by providing children with the ‘right resources during the early years would enable children to become productive citizens in the future’. (The Open University, Ch5, Pg.206) Head Start, one of the first early childhood development projects was implemented in 1965 in the US as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’. The Head Start programmes’ aim was to ‘give poorer children an educational boost in the early years, so that they would be able to compete with middle class children when they arrivedatschool.'(The Open University, Ch5, Pg.209) To this day many early years’ intervention programmes are fundamentally about providing all children with the chance to enter society with a fair chance to succeed. There is no doubt that investing in the early years benefits many children by providing children with stronger foundations in the areas of health and education, but it does have limitations. Unfortunately this type of intervention does not benefit all children, for example, the programmes only target children below the age of five, funding is controlled by governments and is only allocated to areas considered in need. Therefore assistance is not available for all children.
Recently there has been a move towards a rights based approach, constructing children as valuable contributors to society, citizens with rights. A rights based approach is one which recognizes all children regardless of age as right bearing citizens. The first specific children’s rights document was the 1994 Geneva Declaration which was followed by the 1994 Declaration of Human Rights and, the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. These documents constructed children as weak and dependent on adults and they did not have the power to actually protect children, although they were instrumental in bringing to the attention of the world children’s needs and their value to society. In 1989 an international human rights treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was introduced. This treaty applies to all children and young people aged 17 and under and was the first to take a children’s rights based approach. The UNCRC is separated into 54 ‘articles’ which provides children and young people with a set of comprehensive rights. These ‘articles’ give children social, economic, cultural and political rights; while others set out how governments must implement the UNCRC.
The UNCRC states in article 12 that, ‘all children and young people must be listened to, and have their opinions taken seriously in all decision-making that affects them’. (Article 12, UNCRC) This leads us to participation. Participation is a way through which children are recognised in an adult society as right-bearing citizans. Gerison Lansdown defined participation as ‘children taking part in and influencing process, decisions, and activities that affect them, in order to achieve greater respect for their rights.’ (The Open University, Reading, Pg.273) In brief, participation is about adults really listening to children and young adults and taking their views into account when dealing with issues that effect them.
The UNCRC does not clearly express that children have a right to participate, although when read together with other ‘articles’ there is a strong indication towards participation. For example, Article 12 grants every person aged 17 and under the right to express their views, and to have these views given due weight in all matters affecting them. Article 17 gives children and young people the right to receive, seek and give information. Article 13 gives every child the right to freedom of expression, using words, writing, art and any other media so long as they respect the rights of others. Article 23 gives disabled children and young people the right to active participation in their community. And Article 2 requires all the rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child to be implemented for every child, without discrimination. (UNCRC, http.unicef.org/crc/cc.htm, accessed 3/9/05)
For participation to work, children and young adults in many cases have to work together with adults and organisations. Children and young people need access to services that will provide them with information and support enabling them to become knowledgable and confident of their rights. In many countries adults provide support in the form of children’s rights commissioners. Gerison Lansdown stated in Audio 8, Band 5 that it is ‘very important that we establish children’s rights commissioners. Children as a constituency have no vote, very limited access to the courts, very limited access to the media, and therefore they’re not able to exercise the kind of democratic rights that adults are able to exercise.'(The Open University, Audio 8 Band 5, 3:43) Norway was the first country to introduce this system in 1981 and since then other countries have followed in their footsteps. UNICEF states that the children’s rights commisioners role is to ‘seek greater justice for the children both by improving access to existing rights and by promoting the recognition of human rights not yet embodied in legislation, culture or day-to-day practice in children’s lives.’ (The Open University, Ch5, Pg.215).
By encouraging participation adults do not surrender all decision-making power to children, instead they encourage children to take more responsibility in decision making. Although in many situations, adults still make the final decision based on the ‘best interests’ of the child or young adult, but this decision should be informed by the views of the child or young adult. The UNCRC states that children should be ‘given more responsibility according to their ‘evolving capacities’ (UNCRC, Article 5) meaning that as children develop adults should give them more and more responsibility regarding decisions that affect them. The role of a children’s rights commissioner is a difficult one, as they have to balance children’s rights to participation, with children’s rights of being protected. Peter Clarke, a children’s rights commissioner, discussed this issue of protection v participation and his way of dealing with these situations in Audio 8 band 5 ‘There may be situations where my view of what’s in the best interests of children and young people is different from that being expressed by the young people themselves who I consult with about things.’ (The Open University, Audio 8, Band 5, 17:54) Clarke believes that his role as a children’s rights commissioner is to go ahead and make the children’s and young people’s opinion public even if his opinion is different but then to also make public his own adult perspective on the subject alongside the children’s. As with any political regime the issue of children’s rights to participation are part of a constant ongoing debate.
There are many benefits regarding the use of participation; It is believed that the values of democracy, such as respect for the rights and dignity of all people, for their diversity and their right to participate, are best learned in childhood and that by encouraging children and young adults to view their opinions and beliefs allows them to learn constructive ways of influencing the world around them, preparing them for their stake in the future. The use of participation may also help children protect themselves, children who are repressed or discouraged from expressing their views may become more at risk or vulnerable and accept situations which abuse their rights, where as children who are encouraged to discuss and express themselves may become more capable or empowered to challenge any situations which abuse their rights. In this way participation can be seen to be actively protecting children and young adults. Gerison Lansdown states in the Open University that involvement in participation helps to promote the well-being and development of children and young adults. She describes this as the virtuous circle effect; ‘The more opportunities for meaningful participation, the more experience and competent the child becomes which in turn enables more effective participation which then promotes improved development’ (The Open University, Ch 6, Pg.277)
Participation also has many drawbacks; it may be difficult for adults to take childrens rights seriously due to the fact that children have been under-represented in social theory and policy for many years, many cultures did not place value on what children had to say. It may also be the case that children’s do not have equal access to participation rights and there may be a bias towards more privileged children having access to these resources, and the children who really need their rights to be heard are unable to gain access to these resources to improve their lives. Adults may also be reluctant to relinquish power to the children and young adults because they still assume they know what is best for children. They may feel that by encouraging participation rights they could produce children and young adults who lack respect towards parents and other adults and figures of authority. Some people may believe that particiption takes away a child’s ‘childhood’ this view may stem from the idealistic construction of childhood as a time of innocence or a care-free period (the romantic discourse) where they believe that children should not be bothered with important decision-making and responsiblity.
We can see that there are many benefits and also drawbacks regarding a rights based approach and the use of participation. It is my opinion that the benefits far out-weigh the drawbacks. I believe that a reason why participation may be difficult to implement is due to the fact that many adults of this era were not afforded the benefits of participation themselves. I believe that the new generation of adults, the ones who have received the benefits of participation during their own childhoods will, due to first hand experience, have a greater understanding regarding the importance of participation and be far more willing to empower children with the right to participate.
In conclusion, we can see that throughout history there has been numerous ideological discourses surrounding children and early childhood. For example, in the Victorian era, where children were perceived as, ‘to be seen and not heard,’ this discourse and others which I have discussed above, demonstrate how society’s constructions of childhood can, has and will continue to influence laws and legislation regarding the ways in which adults intervene into children’s lives.
So, do I believe that a rights-based approach, especially one which promotes child participation, is the best way of improving children’s lives? After considering the deficits and benefits of the three main approaches to childhood intervention and after exploring the theoretical ideas and practical application in the promotion of democracy and empowerment in the lives of young children, I have come to the conclusion that I agree that rights based approach is the best way of improving children’s lives. It is my opinion that empowering children with a voice to express their opinions will help contribute to the development of a healthy democratic society. I believe that democracy empowers children to protect themselves against abuses of their rights, and that failure to consult children and young adults on how they feel about something that directly involves them, fails to promote social equality.