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97 FEBRUARY 2007
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Children's rights and wrongs

Mark Smith

Like many Child and Youth Care practitioners I am uncomfortable with much of the talk of children's rights that we hear. I know I’m meant to accept children's rights as a “taken for granted” good thing, but my discomfort persists. And I’m not alone in this regard. Interestingly, once you move beyond the coterie of children's advocates, social work professionals and politicians who peddle children's rights you find that a number of writers ask some pretty fundamental questions of the rights agenda.

The notion of children's rights derives from a particular philosophical standpoint, one with its origins in the period of intellectual activity known as the Enlightenment. Before this there was no real conception of human rights. The Enlightenment privileges notions of human reason and universal principle. It sees us as going about our daily business as autonomous individuals bound only to one another through a series of contractual rights and duties. In this sense rights sit very comfortably within a neo-liberal political agenda. Dahlberg and Moss note that

“ ... (it is no coincidence that the prominence given to rights coincides with the dominance of advanced liberalism and increasing recourse to law as a means of mediating relationships) and premised on particular values and a particular understanding of the subject as a rational, autonomous individual” (2005, p.30).

Parton (1991) argues that political interest in children's rights has to be understood within a new politics of welfare which speaks a language of consumer choice rather than political or civil rights (from Butler and Drakeford, 2003).

Much of the current discourse does seem to conceptualise rights as existing within a consumerist framework of legal relationships. In residential care we institutionalise this view. Kids are increasingly “presented with statements of rights (and entitlements)" and “told of a complaints procedure should they feel they are being mistreated by programme staff” (Fulcher and Ainsworth, 2006: 291). Statements of rights are often more about protecting agencies from litigation than they are about meaningful affirmations of their hopes for kids. Such developments are fundamentally anti-dialogical and actually get in the way of healthy and just ways of resolving conflicts, through sitting down and thrashing out differences and moving on.

Of course rights are not a one-way street; with them come responsibilities, a term I’m equally uncomfortable with, for responsibility also assumes that we are always capable of rational decision making. A result of this is that we hold kids to account when they screw up, we say that they have to face up to the consequences of their actions and the only right we then accord them is a right to due process as more and more of them are locked up within an increasingly punitive justice system. Strangely, I don’t hear too much of a hue and cry from children's rights advocates on this. Maybe I shouldn’t expect to because they’re part and parcel of the neo-liberal system that the children's rights agenda is designed to protect.

The difficulty of trying to mediate relationships through legal or procedural process is acknowledged by writers who approach the issue from a different theoretical orientation. One of these interestingly enough is Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People. She comes from a background in law but subsequently studied divinity and has co-authored a book (Marshall and Parvis, 2004) considering the respective claims of the two traditions. A theological perspective is uncomfortable with conceptions of human beings as autonomous individuals; we exist in community and in relationship with those around us. Rights can only be realised within the framework of the ties that bind us to one another and to wider society. There are surely important messages here for Child and Youth Care.

One of the conceits of a rights agenda is that it can be presented as being cool, emancipatory, taking the side of the underdog; it’s de rigueur to say that you're into children's rights. Most of the time it is anything but. In fact the rights agenda has been hijacked by what Butler and Drakeford describe as “the far less emancipatory paradigm of child protection”, in which children's rights are subsumed beneath their supposed need to be protected by adults. This locates power very firmly with adults and denies appropriate agency to kids.

None of the foregoing is to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with rights; there are noble principles of freedom of speech and conscience which ought to be our birthright. However, when rights become trivialised as they have been and get bogged down in questions of bed-time, pocket money or petty gripes about daily living then we trivialise a noble cause. And paradoxically, try saying that you’re against children's rights, and that right to free speech you thought you had will very quickly be called into question.

Scotland has until recently drawn upon an interpretation of children's rights, that goes beyond the legal and individual. As far back as the mid 19th century children were argued to have rights to food, clothing and education, either from their parents or the public. Jackson (2004) highlights a view of children's rights which incorporates their social and cultural rights, their access, if you like, to a concept of the good life. Access to the good life of course requires more than a few bob extra in pocket money. It requires a political system prepared to acknowledge its casualties and to accept that the cause of children's rights is actually a moral and a political one, rather than a legalistic and procedural one.


Butler, I. and Drakeford, M. (2005). Scandal, Social Policy and Social Welfare. Bristol: BASW/Policy Press

Fulcher, L. and Ainsworth, F. (2006). Group Care Practice with Children Revisited. New York: Haworth Press

Jackson, P.(2004). Rights and representation in the Scottish children's hearings system in Meeting Needs, addressing deeds “working with young people who offend. NCH Scotland

Marshall, K and Parvis, P (2004). Honoring Children: The Human Rights of the Child in Christian Perspective. Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press

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