What do children say?
(Quotes from The Children's Charter of South Africa)
- All children have the right to express their own opinions and the right to be heard in all matters that affect his / her rights and protection and welfare.
- All children have the right to participate in the government of the country and special attention should be given to consultations with children on their rights and situation. From the National Children's Summit – 1992.
What do adults say?
If participation is understood as children having responsibilities and sharing in the chores at home or tasks at school, then there is general agreement from adults. But when it comes to children voicing their opinions on decisions that affect them and having their opinions taken into account, adults may disagree, saying that children are ignorant and immature.
Adults tend to forget that children are in fact experts when it comes to their own feelings and life-experiences. Even small babies are experts! They know better than anyone else if they are hungry, wet or lonely! All children know how they feel about their first-hand daily experiences. When asked their opinions about this, their statements are valid and should carry weight.
As children mature they gain in capacity to weigh alternatives, consider short and long-term consequences and evaluate what is best for a good outcome. As they participate in family, school and other groups, they learn values and these have a major influence on their decisions. Research shows that at 12 years most children are as sensible in making decisions as adults, if they are fully informed and well-briefed.
'Participation' means being part of a relationship: being involved, taking part in an action, inclusion, having a voice, sharing in decision-making, partnerships.
What does the UN Convention say about participation?
The right to participate is not just 'being heard and having opinions given due weight according to age and capacity' (Article 12 on the UN Convention). It includes the right to receive and impart information and ideas (Article 13), the right to access diversity of information (Article 17); the right to form ones own opinions on matters (Article 14), and the right of association (Article 15) so that they can form lobbying groups or forums. Other rights are also relevant such as the right to privacy and the right to equality.
There are benefits to children and young people, to adults and to society when children participate.
Children and young people benefit:
- They become clearer about and understand their own wants and needs, in the light of the values of the community and the rights of the child.
- They explore the possibilities of their lives by being offered choices and having to prioritise them.
- They also learn to consider the needs of others and to gain social skills as they negotiate, debate and problem-solve together. As they have a voice, so do others, and different views demand the same respect from all.
- Their developmental needs are met, particularly the need for responsibility, respect and recognition, which increases their confidence and self-esteem. Participation also meets their need for new experiences.
- Because they are part of the process by which decisions are reached, they feel more committed to make those decisions work.
Adults and society benefit:
- Children can help shape policy and practice. lnsights gained from children and young people help adults to be more effective in meeting their changing needs. These needs are best defined by children from their everyday interests and problems, because what they actually experience may be different from what we had intended or expected.
- Children can change our perception of ourselves as adults and help us to avoid assumptions about what we think 'childhood' is. We will be more effective if we do not generalise, for example we should not say that "all children are helpless against violence" or "cannot reason until they turn seven".
Children who participate are more likely to go on to become capable and involved citizens as they grow up. They learn democratic procedures and responsibilities by participating.
Stage One: Babies and Toddlers
"Me and My Mother"
The foundations for empowerment in children are laid in very early childhood when the child learns both trust and the beginnings of independence. The most important element in building trust is that the caregiver will respond to the child, particularly when the child is in distress.
Empower babies by listening to them, observing their needs, and responding to them with love and attention. To develop autonomy, the caregiver allows limited freedom for toddlers to explore and find out for themselves.
Stage Two: Pre-Scholars (3-7 years)
"Me And My Family and Friends"
This is still the foundation phase for the empowerment of children. It is now that they can be given the opportunity to develop as we would wish - strong and confident, friendly and caring, competent and creative. It is at this age that children learn to co-operate and work in a group. They also learn to take decisions about what they plan to do, to solve simple problems and learn to take leadership roles in the group.
Examples of participation of children 3-7:
- Participation in play: For most of the day pre-scholars choose which play activities they want to do. Within limits they decide and plan how they play, for how long and with whom. They can also help adults to decide on the limits that are needed, for example that sand should not be thrown at others.
- Leadership roles in adult-organised activities - Children can choose activities for the group, and take leading roles in group activities, such as discussion times, stories, music and games.
- Ground rules for acceptable co-operative behaviour within the group are negotiated and drawn up with children from the earliest age and reviewed from time to time. A picture chart of Our Rules made by the children is a good reminder. (Minimum rules are often most effective).
- Helping organise the environment: Children help set out and tidy up equipment. They hand out paper and crayons to others. They help with pets and the garden. They help to protect the environment.
- Helping resolve conflict - from an early age children can learn that unacceptable behaviour is a problem to be resolved, peacefully. Five year olds can seriously discuss in a group, the problem of a child who continually harasses them, how they feel about it, and different ideas on what can be done to manage the conflict.
Stage Three: Primary School Children (7-13 years)
"Me And My Family, Friends and School"
At this age children have reached a stage where their horizons are wider. They are developing a social conscience and are concerned about human and animal rights, the rain-forests and other issues that they see on television, read about in books or are taught by adults. Justice and what is fair or unfair is very important to them, and it is an ideal age for joining clubs and youth groups to help build a better world.
They still generally enjoy being accepted as part of a team that includes adults. Adult approval is very important to them but peer approval is gradually becoming more important. Adults are still in charge, but gradually take a lesser role.
Most of them still enjoy uninhibited creative work, drama and a chance to take the lime-light and express their views.
Note that many of the examples of how to help children to gain confidence and express their views, as suggested for younger children, above, can also apply to this age group.
Stage Four: Older Teenager (13-17 years)
"Me and My Friends"
At this age the influences of their friends and peers have the most power over them. They enjoy belonging to clubs and groups that are seen as "cool", but they are idealistic and enjoy planning campaigns and activities that can "save the world".
They have the right to develop a growing independence, in their participation in the adult world. However they still need love and support, particularly in their worries about their physical appearance and whether they are attractive or not.
Their moods may swing between adulthood and childhood. They have the right to indulge in a certain amount of risk-taking and experimentation - and safety procedures need to be negotiated in quiet discussion.