If I tell you I don’t believe in children’s rights, don’t misunderstand me; I do believe in supplying children’s needs. It’s not that I don’t believe that children should be loved, cared for, treasured and nurtured, whatever their race, culture or perceived social status. I do. The problem is that I have difficulty in seeing this as a right which can be distilled into a charter and separated from everything else which is enshrined in a healthy society. In a healthy society it is the village that raises the child and that has little to do with formal laws and charters. I believe that by formalising rights we are in danger of not supplying needs.The whole movement for children’s rights is embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been in force since 2 September 1990. And this charter illustrates the whole problem with the concept. They are difficult to define, they depend upon culture and circumstance, and they are impossible to enforce.
I don’t disagree with much of the contents of the Convention. Where I do disagree is its acceptance that in some states standards can be lower than in others.
But the whole step of formally setting out ‘rights’ attacks the natural, understood and unwritten rules by which a society raises its young. It is impossible to lay out what a child’s rights should be.
What is a child?
First there is the difficulty of defining what a child is. Now we all know what we mean by a child – just like we all know what the colour blue is. A four-year-old is a child – but when does a child turn into an adult? As soon as a line is drawn it can be argued that it is in the wrong place. We know instinctively who is a child and who is not, and it changes according to circumstance. But formal rights demand a formal line.
The UN has set out its own definition. I quote, “For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” So, according to them, you are a child until your particular law system says you are a grown-up!
These same Articles then outline the age at which ‘a child’ can go to war – fifteen, if you didn’t know. And that particular Article screams out the difficulties in such a concept. In a perfect world no one goes to war. In our imperfect world they should be at least 18 – if not older. So now we have a charter of children’s rights which says it’s OK to send a fifteen-year-old to fight.
Throughout the UN Charter there are get-out clauses for different rules in different countries. In other words different cultures have different attitudes to children. This is not surprising. Children’s rights are not a universal empirical. They even vary from family to family – and that doesn’t make one family right and another wrong; it is usually down to circumstance.
It is the old conundrum embodied in the question: when is one child’s right to play curtailed by another child’s right to sleep? It is a nonsense to try and define a right answer, and any family will try to balance the available resources to get the best outcome for each child. (A child’s right to play is embodied in the Convention by the way but it does not define what play is and as any adult knows some play is more dangerous than others).
By setting out ‘rights’ I argue that we are taking steps towards removing the responsibility of every adult member of society to make their own sensible judgement when caring for children. What a child needs at any moment in time is so variable and sometimes so intangible that to try and distil it into a legalised package destroys the very thing it is trying to achieve.
Sometimes a child needs an impromptu cuddle, sometimes when their behaviour is bordering on the unacceptable they need to feel the cool aloofness that spells disapproval. Is this denying the right of a child to be loved?
Perhaps I have misunderstood and the rights are for big things – not little things. Like protecting children from being sent to fight in a war. Big things like those outlined in the United Nations Convention of 54 Articles.
Big things like the child’s right to survive. Where this doesn’t happen, it relates much more to the economy of a society than the natural instincts of that society. To ensure survival, wealth needs to be spread.
While governments talk about such grand aims as children’s rights then they can divert our eyes from the real problem. It is wealth that needs to be spread, not righteousness.
The well-intentioned attempt to crystallise children’s rights is yet another crowbar in the crack that is destroying our natural tendency to tend, care for and protect children.
They are a part of the pattern which no longer allows us to use our natural tendencies to protect and preserve children – even if they are not our own.
We are social animals and all successful societies tend and care for their children in the best way that they can. We know that some individuals do not conform to this norm and we abhor such behaviour. But in our genuine attempt to improve, we are showing contempt for natural goodness.
By setting out children’s rights we are establishing a negative model. The campaign for children’s rights necessarily assumes that before it came along children had been denied these rights. “Stop denying children their rights” is the cry. Well, when did we start? Such campaigning denies that caring is our natural tendency and it promotes the idea that the norm is to abuse and corrupt.
The idea of children’s rights formalises adults’ positions in the life of children.
It comes from the same philosophy as the neighbourhood watch which sets out who is watching whom on a street. It is initiated by a group outside the street – the police – who then are part of appointing a formal structure of who reports to whom about what.
Gone is the informal involvement when neighbour A tells neighbour B about strange callers to neighbour C and the following debate about its relevance or not to the welfare for the community. Now neighbour A has to make a formal decision. Should it be reported? Gone is the pragmatism and tolerance, which is the web which builds communities.
So it is with children’s rights. It kills our natural instinct that adults are in charge of children. It is our responsibility to care, whoever the child might be. We do not need a handbook of 54 Articles outlined by someone else. It is our duty, everyone’s duty, to care for children. The parent, the neighbour, the aunt, the bus driver, the nurse, the postman – and so on. It is after all the village that raises the child.