Children’s Rights and Responsibilities

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) was an amalgamation of the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924) and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959). The 1989 version was adopted as part of international law in 1990 and was ratified by 191 countries (the exceptions being USA & Somalia). In the UK the 1989 version was incorporated within the Children Act 1989, “Enabling children to exercise their rights empowers them and enables them to participate in controlling their lives” (Curtis and O’Hagan 2008).

In recent years there has been a great deal of debate about children having rights and whether these should be placed above the rights of adults. We need to remember that Aries (1960) points out that in fact there is no such natural state as childhood; it is something which is constructed by society. Therefore, regardless of the rights of the child in some societies the state called childhood is disregarded, as can be demonstrated where you have 8 and 9 year old boys being recruited as soldiers and 10 and 11 year old girls being trafficked by sex traders.

According to Dahlberg et al (1999: 18), recent accepted terminology for rich countries in the world being in the minority and poor countries being in the majority, the UK is among the minority countries where there are strong opinions that alongside the concept of rights should go responsibilities.
Landsdown (1996) found that some of the common reasons put forward for this are that:

– children should not have rights unless they were capable of being responsible;

– children are not able to make decisions;

– giving children rights threatens family life and relationships, etc.

Sources of Conflict

These views have become more to the fore in the UK since we have had a number of incidents of knife and gun crime amongst teenagers. These young people have been viewed as being totally irresponsible. Contrary arguments to this analysis are that those who supply teenagers with guns and knives are at fault. Furthermore, the influence of TV and video games suggests that these types of attacks do not lead to death; for example, characters who are killed in films or television plays are seen alive and well in other programmes shown at a later date.In contrast to this we have seen in the UK during the past week, a 13 year old girl asserting her rights by refusing to have a heart transplant and taking the responsibility for this decision by explaining her reasons to the Child Protection Officer. She took one hour to explain why she did not want a transplant, in spite of the fact that if she does not have it at some point in the not so distant future she would die. The Officer was convinced by her arguments and arranged for the Court Order to take her into care to be abandoned (Guardian 2008).

In the minority countries commercial influence via television, advertising etc. has placed great pressures on children. As Piachaud points out, “The nature of advertising has changed. It is increasingly being directed at younger age groups. It is no longer restricted to toys but now encompasses a wide range of products. [Items] such as toothbrushes, stationery are being turned into branded goods linked with toys or movies in order to be sold to children’ (Piachaud 2008). If parents cannot afford to provide the items which the children see as their right to have, then it leads to family conflict.

Reaching About Responsibilities As Well As Rights

Some people say that it is not easy to teach children that they also have responsibilities. However, the following examples which I found will show that it is not so difficult, particularly if started at an early age.

From the website of Childline Gauteng, South Africa (2008), is the following sample:

  • Children have the right to be taken seriously and the responsibility to listen to others.
  • Children have the right to quality medical care and the responsibility to take care of themselves.
  • Children have the right to a good education and responsibility to study and respect their teachers.

From the UNICEF website leaflet:

  • If children have a right to be protected from conflict, cruelty, exploitation and neglect, then they also have a responsibility not to bully or harm others.
  • If children have a right to a clean environment, they also have a responsibility to do what they can to look after the environment.

With these ideas in mind, should we be striving to encourage our children to understand that having rights is not a ‘stand alone’ concept but one intrinsically linked with responsibilities or should we remain just telling them about their rights?


Aries P (1960) Centuries of Childhood Harmondsworth, Penguin EducationChildline Gauteng South Africa (2008) Children’s Rights and Responsibilities

Curtis A and O’Hagan M (2008) Early Childhood Care and Education 2nd Edition Routledge, London

Dahlberg G, Moss P, Pence A (1999) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Postmodern Perspectives Routledge/Falmer, London

Guardian Newspaper G2 Section (12/11/2008) Hannah’s Choice London

Landsdown G (1996) The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Progress in the United Kingdom in Nutbrown C Ed. Children’s Rights and Early Education Paul, Chapman, London

Piachaud D Freedom to be a Child: Commercial Pressures on Children. Social Policy & Society 7:4, pp. 445-456 2008 Cambridge University Press

UNICEF (2008) Children’s Rights and Responsibilities

Additional Reading:

Wheal A (2007) Children’s Rights. Respecting Children’s Rights and Understanding Responsibilities Britton Cottage Publishing, Southampton

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