The State of the World's Children 2003
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Ivan Blacev/Right to Know Initiative/United Nations/2002

Myth: Child participation means choosing one child to represent children’s perspectives and opinions in an adult forum.

Reality: Children are not a homogeneous group, and no one child can be expected to represent the interests of their peers of different ages, races, ethnicities and gender. Children need forums of their own in which they can build skills, identify their priorities, communicate in their own way and learn from their peers. In this way, children are better able to make their own choices as to who should represent their interests and in which ways they would like their viewpoints presented.

Child participation involves adults handing over all their power to children who are not ready to handle it.

Reality: Participation does not mean that adults simply surrender all decision-making power to children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is clear that children should be given more responsibility – according to their “evolving capacities” as they develop. In many cases adults still make the final decision, based on the “best interests” of the child – but with the CRC in mind, it should be a decision informed by the views of the child. As children grow older, parents are to allow them more responsibility in making decisions that affect them – even those that may be controversial, such as custody matters following a divorce.

Children should be children, and not be forced to take on responsibilities that should be given to adults.

Reality: Children should certainly be allowed to be children, and to receive all the protection necessary to safeguard their healthy development. And no children should be forced to take on responsibilities for which they are not ready. But children’s healthy development also depends upon being allowed to engage with the world, making more independent decisions and assuming more responsibility as they become more capable. Children who encounter barriers to their participation may become frustrated or even apathetic; 18-year-olds without the experience of participation will be poorly equipped to deal with the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Myth: Child participation is merely a sham. A few children, usually from an elite group, are selected to speak to powerful adults who then proceed to ignore what the children have said while claiming credit for ‘listening’ to kids.

Reality: Children’s participation, in many instances, has proven to be very effective. Rather than setting up an ineffectual system, it is up to all of us to devise meaningful forms of children’s participation that benefit them and, in turn, society as a whole.

Child participation actually only involves adolescents, who are on the verge of adulthood anyway.

Reality: The public, political face of children’s participation is more likely to be that of an adolescent than a 6-year-old, but it is essential to consult children of all ages about the issues that affect them. This means participation within schools and families, when decisions about matters there are being discussed. At every age children are capable of more than they are routinely given credit for – and will usually rise to the challenges set before them if adults support their efforts.

Myth: No country in the world consults children on all the issues that affect them and no country is likely to do so soon.

Reality: That’s partly true. However, all countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child have committed themselves to ensuring participation rights for children, e.g., the rights to freely express their views on matters that affect them and to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, association and peaceful assembly. And almost every country can now show significant advances in setting systems and policies in place to allow children to exercise these rights.

Myth: Children may be consulted as a matter of form but their views never change anything.

Reality: Where children’s views are sensitively solicited and sincerely understood, they often change a great deal: they may reveal things that adults would never have grasped independently, they can profoundly change policies or programmes and in some cases protect children from future harm. The consultation of even very young children can produce remarkable results. The problem is that such careful consultation of children remains rare.

Myth: Children’s refusal to participate negates their rights.

Reality: Actually, resistance itself can be an important part of participation. Whether in the give and take of the home, in the refusal to accept punishment at school, or in one’s attitude towards civic engagement in the community, resistance can signal a child’s or adolescent’s opinion about an issue or feeling about the terms of their involvement. Adults should recognize resistance as a form of communication and respond to it through understanding, dialogue and negotiation, rather than by trying to prevent it through force or persuasion. In no situation should children be forced to participate.