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122 APRIL 2009
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The magic beanstalk: Youth empowerment and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

James Anglin

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was formally adopted on November 20th, 1989, and entered into force on September 20th, 1990 after being ratified by 20 countries, represents an important global milestone in our thinking and understanding regarding three significant and inter-related concepts, namely:

child development
and child advocacy.

Our modern concept of childhood as a “special time” in a person's life, needing adult protection and guidance, appears to have originated in the 18th Century, in what has come to be called the Age of Enlightenment. The concept of child development only really took hold of our thinking, in any rigorous way, toward the end of the 19th Century, with the burgeoning of social science research on children's growth and development in a number of disciplines, most notably psychology. Our concept of child advocacy, in North America at least, was not clearly formulated and articulated until the 1960s, in the report of the Joint Commission on the Mental Health of Children in the United States.

In a very real, evolutionary sense, child advocacy could only take hold and flourish once we had a certain “critical mass” of knowledge pertaining to the development of children, and research into child development could only take hold once the fundamental nature and significance of childhood had been widely enough appreciated and accepted within society.

We are still quite early in this child advocacy, or children's rights, era (I am using these terms interchangeably here), and we all need to share our understandings and experiences related to the process of child advocacy. There are, I would suggest, a number of levels of child advocacy with which we must be concerned.

The broadest level is the sphere of social advocacy. At this level, we are concerned with changing and shaping the basic attitudes, values and beliefs of the society, or community at large, including those of lay people – the taxpayers and parents – the media, and the politicians. At this level, our fundamental societal orientations toward the realities of children and youth are formed and maintained.

The next level is the legislative level, which involves primarily politicians in their law-making role, and the policy makers and lawyers within the state bureaucracy. This level results in documents such as the UN Convention and our state and provincial laws pertaining to child protection, child welfare, child health, youth justice, adoption and the like. Concerned citizens and professionals can, and often do, play an important advocacy role at this level.

Below this level is the level of administrative advocacy, which encompasses all of the virtually infinite number of operational policies and procedures within the agencies, programs and services for children, youth and their families. At this level, such mechanisms as policy manuals, standards of care and practice, and child grievance and appeal procedures can provide important structural safeguards for the rights of children and young people.

At the front-line, personal or individual advocacy becomes, or needs to become, part of the very fabric and being of each and every Child and Youth Care worker. In a very real sense, every interaction we have with a child is an opportunity for advocacy. At this level, one is called to assist the child or youth to become a more effective advocate for him or herself. In some instances this means arguing with various authorities to ensure that a child's needs are being properly attended to. Increasingly, I believe, this will mean helping children and young people to find their own voices and assisting them to become true and effective advocates for themselves. I want to return to this point a little later, as I feel that some of the most dramatic recent developments in the Child and Youth Care field within Canada are resulting from a process of youth empowerment. This process has been growing very rapidly , like a giant magic beanstalk, from the personal level right up through the administrative level to the highest Legislation levels of our society.

However, before I turn to a Canadian example, I think it is important to acknowledge that in the area of child advocacy or children's rights, we are dealing with a truly global phenomenon. To varying degrees, and in various ways, all of the world's nation states are having to wake up to the realities of children and youth in an unprecedented fashion. The demographics of the situation are most informative.

In North America, and in many of the European countries as well, I believe, the concern is with an overall shrinking percentage of young people coming up the generational ladder, which is becoming increasingly top-heavy with the aging of the post-Second World War “baby boom”. In the “developing” nations, the baby boom is happening now, with 80 % of their populations currently under the age of 25. In these countries, the children are a large and growing majority which cannot be ignored. As a result, organizations such as the Maternal and Child Health Unit of the World Health Organization have, in recent years, made adolescent and youth empowerment a major focus of their work.

I would even go so far as to suggest that this Convention is not unconnected with the recent revolutionary events in Eastern Europe and in China. Both the Convention and the shredding of the Iron Curtain appear to be manifestations of a passionate commitment to human rights, social equity, and a renewed demand for freedom at all levels of the citizenry. Indeed, as Vaclav Havel, the President of Czechoslovakia, pointed out at the World Summit on Children in New York recently, both the children of his country, through their parents, and the youth directly, were in the forefront of the impetus for social change. A few years ago in Nigeria, so I have been told, the youth took to the streets in dissatisfaction, and forced the government, for its very survival, to pay attention to their concerns.

If a “children's rights movement” is to succeed in improving the conditions of children and youth, I would suggest several important dimensions of the process need to be recognized and addressed:

a) The movement will depend, at least in the early years, largely on adults to advocate on behalf of the needs of children and to advocate for the voice of youth to be heard and attended to.

b) It will require new and targeted programs and services based upon a sound knowledge of child development; services more sensitively attuned to the “evolving capacities of the child”, to use a key phrase from the Convention.

c) It will require both political commitment and national and provincial social planning with a renewed sense of social responsibility for the well-being of all our children and youth.

d) It will entail a high level of accountability of those who provide services to ensure that their programs are truly supportive of children's growth, effective in attaining their goals, and co-ordinated to ensure their efficient operation.

To my mind, several issues or tensions emerge for any jurisdiction responsible for the delivery of services to children and youth:

1. The role of parents vis-a-vis the role of professionals.
The UN Convention attempts to walk the fine line between reaffirming the fundamental responsibility of parents for the care and upbringing of their children and the overriding responsibility of the state to ensure the well-being of all of its children. In practice, there are real and very difficult issues to be grappled with here, at all levels of the advocacy system. We cannot expect the Convention to resolve these problems. They can only be resolved, or at least addressed, in the crucible of our care giving systems.

2. The degree to which the promotion of children's rights is in harmony, or conflict, with family or parental rights and needs.
This tension, or dilemma, is also a real and troublesome one largely, I believe, as a result of our traditional authoritarian conceptions of parenting and childrearing. Indeed, some contemporary North American so-called experts on child care conceive of the parent-child relationship as a win-lose proposition. To quote one of them: “When a conflict of wills arises one of you must
lose, and who will it be? For your child's sake, it must not be you, the adult.” We must strive tc counteract such frightening formulations, and offer assistance to parents and caregivers ir gaining new understandings of their children's rights and capacities, and the skills to negotiate mutually acceptable outcomes to conflict situations.

3. The competing perspectives of a protectionist, (or “parens patriae–) philosophy or ideology and a child and youth empowerment, or liberation, philosophy.
With this one, we are confronted with our own inherent professional dilemmas as experts mandated to provide care and guidance to young people. In the early years of service development for children, we believed that almost everything we did was good for children, because our intentions were good and our work was indisputably noble. In more recent times, we have come to see that we must endeavour to do what is “in the best interests of the child”, to use another important phrase in the Convention; I would suggest, based upon what young people in care are saying, we need to move another significant step forward. Children in care often experience a bewildering array of experts telling them what their best interests are, or advocating to others, supposedly, in their best interests. Can we learn to be more humble about our expertise, and open ourselves to engage with children in their own process of making sense of their own interests? And, further, can we work with them to articulate their own meanings, needs and desires, and empower them to achieve their own goals?

To put this point in another way, we need to reconsider our understanding of our primary role. In the early stages of the development of our field, in North America at least, we spoke of ourselves as “caretakers” and of our role as “caretaking”. About 15 years ago, the terminology shifted to “caregivers” and “caregiving”. Largely due to the influence of Dr. Henry Maier, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and a North American Child and Youth Care pioneer, we are being encouraged now to think about our work as consisting of “care interactions”, and our roles as being characterized by real mutuality of influence and caring.

Underlying all of these issues are our socio-cultural commitments and belief systems regarding the nature and place of children and youth. How do we value children? As current consumers? As future contributors to our pension plans? As human capital requiring economic investments? As human beings with intrinsic worth?

Are society’s children our children, for whom we share real collective responsibility, or are they their parents” responsibility (except in dire circumstances)?

A children's rights, or child advocacy, perspective is increasingly bringing all of us, including our friends and neighbors who are not Child and Youth Care experts, face to face with these kinds of questions.

Many of us here today are, directly or indirectly, concerned with the provision of services to children and youth. As one judge in the United States succinctly put it: “Rights without services are meaningless.” I would suggest that a corollary of this may be: “Services without rights are ineffective”.

In the provision of services, there will always be a tension between the development, or self-actualization of children and the demands for social and institutional conformity. A children's rights perspective, I am suggesting, entails a primary emphasis on child and youth development, and a secondary (or even tertiary) concern with conformity.

As the Convention insists, in article 42, a fundamental dimension of any children's rights approach is the need to educate children about their rights. We have an obligation to educate ourselves about the needs and rights of children, and we also have an obligation to educate our children and youth about them as well.

How can we best do this? Won’t children become unmanageable if we tell them they have rights which require 42 articles in a UN document to cover? (The Convention does indeed contain 54 articles, but the last 12 are basically bureaucratic and procedural, dealing with the implementation of the Convention as an instrument of law.) And how can I tell five-year-olds, or eight-year-olds, or sixteen-year-olds, about their rights in a developmentally appropriate manner?

A researcher by the name of Dr. Gary Melton, at the University of Nebraska, has undertaken some of the early research on children's concepts of their rights. He has discovered that these concepts differ directly with age and with socio-economic status, and can be understood in terms of three sequential stages:

Stage 1 is egocentric in nature, and rights are understood as bestowed by a benevolent authority. At this stage, children have difficulty distinguishing “is” from “ought”. Only concrete reality is salient here; what people can do. If an older brother is allowed to watch an hour more of television, he has more rights than the younger child does, for example.

At Stage 2, rights are seen as part of a system of laws and regulations that are made, and can be changed, by people. At this stage, a child sees rights as negotiable, and will frequently try to negotiate for “more rights”. In other words, rights are seen as a social construction, and are subject to personal influence, e.g., “That’s not fair. Last week Daddy let me stay up until 10 o'clock.”

At Stage 3, rights are understood conceptually, on the plane of “ethics” and “moral law”. Rights are seen as “inalienable”, and beyond the dictates of authorities and social conventions. This concept becomes operative some time early in the teen years (and even earlier for some children), e.g., “This is a free country; I know my rights, and I don’t care what you say.”

We appear to have no choice if we wish to truly implement this Convention. It will not be good enough to simply staple a copy of the Convention in some obscure location in the kitchen of the group home, or in the administrative offices of the school or treatment centre. The words “by appropriate and active means” clearly seek to ensure more than this.

Developmentally speaking, it would appear that issues of children's rights would be most appropriately integrated into the school curriculum, in a formal way, sometime between what we in North America call grades three and five, that is, when the children are between the ages of eight and ten. Informally, stories and examples of children's rights can be shared with preschoolers and children in the very early years of life in the home. I don’t know about in Europe, but in North America sex education in the schools was a controversial topic. If we thought that sex education was a controversial issue, we need to hang on to our hats for this one! We can anticipate considerable opposition to open and frank discussions about rights, and this process will have to be introduced with considerable sensitivity. In Canada, as well as in other countries, some materials have already been created to facilitate this process (Defense for Children International, 1990; Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child, 1991).

I would like to close with a brief account of what I consider to be the most exciting and, potentially, most influential development in Child and Youth Care and children's rights in my country. I know that in the United States and the United Kingdom, at least, a similar story is unfolding.

In 1985, a large conference combining the major Canadian and American Child and Youth Care associations was held in Vancouver. As the theme chosen for the conference was “youth empowerment”, the organizers of the conference, through their own working contacts, selected seven young people who were in the care of the child welfare system, 16 and 17 years of age, to attend the conference. The young people were involved as speakers and panelists in a number of conference sessions and, in retrospect, it was more a token involvement than an example of real youth empowerment. Many of the adults present were not so much impressed by what the youth were saying, but rather by the fact that they could get up in front of six or seven hundred people and say anything!

However, several of the workers involved and some of these young people began to talk about the need for creating some form of organization, a network of youth in care who could support each other, and help each other to take action on their own behalf to improve the caregiving system. Modest funding was secured, and a small office with desks and a telephone was made available on the premises of a non governmental organization in Ottawa. Over the next few years, a small group of youth in care, and recent graduates of the care system, began to meet, to share, to cry, to argue, and to laugh together, and to formulate a plan of action. They began to review proposed legislation, and to articulate their concerns. One of them even published a book which has become a frequently used and cited reference within the Child and Youth Care field (Raychaba, 1988).

In 1989, two of the members of the Canadian Youth in Care Network, as it was now called, were involved on the planning committee for the 1990 Canadian Child and Youth Care Conference to be held in Montreal. I distinctly remember the day we met in a planning meeting about eight months before the event. A number of the planning committee members did not attend, and we wondered if there was enough support for the conference to go ahead. Those of us at the meeting were discouraged and our own commitment was wavering. Then, after having been patiently listening for over an hour and a half, the two youth in care representatives said: “We have a proposal to make. We met for a full day last week with the head of the National Association of Young People in Care from England, and we would like to see full collaboration and participation of youth in this conference.” They then tabled a 5 or 6 page report which re-ignited the adults involved and proved to be the inspiration and saving grace of the conference. At that 1990 Conference, about 60 young people participated, not in a token way, but as major presenters with key roles and a number of workshops totally conceived and carried out by youth. The four hundred or so adults were impressed, gave the young people standing ovations, and left considerably more enlightened about the capacities and potential of youth. The youth left having experienced a truly empowering event in their lives.

In May of 1992, the Child and Youth Care Association of British Columbia and the University of Victoria hosted over 700 participants, including almost 100 young people, at the 8th Canadian Child and Youth Care Conference. In a special pre-conference day, the youth met with a panel charged by the Provincial Government with rewriting our Child and Family Services Act. The panel reported later that it was the most informative, relevant and inspiring day in their first six months of consultation. The Superintendent for Child Welfare made an informal commitment on the spot to financially support the provincial Youth in Care Network to enable it to have a continuing role in the development and operation of the Child and Youth Care system in the province. The new legislation for children and youth resulting from this process will very likely be significantly different and improved as a direct result of the efforts of these courageous young people.

It is clear that we still have a long way to go to achieve the dreams and to fulfill the faith of our great child care pioneers, such as Janusz Korczak of Poland, Anton Makarenko of Russia, Maria Montessori of Italy, Johan Pestalozzi of Switzerland, Fritz Redl of Austria and America, and many others. And yet, I think they would be pleased to know that, finally, the world has adopted a significant statement of children's rights, and that we now have a critically important tool for cultivating the magic beanstalk of youth empowerment. The pioneers planted the seed, and it is for us to cultivate the soil so that it can support the rapid growth of this new vibrant organism. In my own back garden, Canada, we are beginning to awaken from our slumber, to open our ears, and our hearts, and to involve young people in a common project. I would suggest that we all need to find ways to enable our young people to speak for themselves, to discover their own meanings, and to work with us to build, in the eloquent words of Walter Robert Corti, “a world in which children can live”.


Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. (1991). Rights now? A workshop kit on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for youth-serving organizations. (Available from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child, 55 Parkdale Avenue, 3rd Floor, Ottawa, Ontario, KIY IE5, Canada. Cost: $ 23.49 (Cdn.), including postage and taxes.)

Castelle, K. (1990). Children have rights, too! A primer on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Canadian Edition). Etobicoke, Ont. Defence for Children International.

Melton, G. B. (1983). Child Advocacy: Psychological Issues and Interventions. New York. Plenum.

Raychaba, B. (1988). To be on our own... Ottawa. National Youth in Care Network.

This feature: Anglin, J. (1992). The magic beanstalk: Youth empowerment and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Fice Special: The Realization of the Children's Rights in Extrafamiliar Care. 1993.

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