University Paper - Scholarly submission to the Canadian Children's Rights Council
The Issue of the Childs Right to Self-Determination
By Justin McNeil, student, Cape Breton University, November 25, 2005
The issue of child self-determinism has always been a central one in the struggle for childrens rights. For virtually every other civil rights movement, it has been the discriminated themselves who have provided the drive towards liberation, and the ability to self-determine was assumed to be present. The Childrens rights movement is fundamentally different, however, in that children, almost by definition, require somebody else to see to their needs until they are ready to assume control of their own lives. Thus, the concept of granting children the freedom to make their own choices must be tempered by the understanding that a childs cognitive capacities are fundamentally different from those of an adult. Children should have the right to decide on the matters that affect them most directly. writes Richard Farson This is the basic right on which all others depend. To him, the fight for childrens rights can only be completed when children are not discriminated against when they are denied the right to control their own lives to the extent that every adult is. He outlines ten self-determination rights that a child should have, that every adult already possesses. Logically, the argument is sound. Self-determination is an extremely important foundation for the development of any rights movement. However, it does not take into account that children have fundamentally different cognitive capacities then adults, and that they need adult direction in order to ensure proper development. So while children should be given the right to self-determination, the reality is that sometimes for their own good their freedom must sometimes be curtailed to reflect the childs still developing cognitive capacities.
The defining message behind the banner document of the Childrens Rights Movement, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is that decisions affecting the child be made with the best interests of the child in mind. This is stated in Article 3 of the Convention, and all other articles are drawn up with this guiding principle in mind. While Farson argues that total self-determination is the only non-discriminatory way of granting a child equal rights that any other citizen would have, I would argue that such freedom is not in the best interests of the child. The Convention itself recognizes that the child is more vulnerable then an adult, and thus in need of more protection, and as such stipulates that special care must be taken to meet the childs needs. Article 5 of the Convention states that the parents, biological or surrogate, should have their own rights to provide direction for their children, consistent with the childs evolving capacities. While the exact definition of evolving capacities can sometimes be a prickly subject, especially with adolescents, it often serves the best interests of the child if the parents err more on the side of caution by protecting their capable children then by forcing children to make decisions that they are incapable of understanding the full ramifications of.
Farson would likely respond to Article 5 of the Convention with his second point in his Childs Bill of Rights, in that the parents are not always the optimal caretakers for their children. Many parents are neglectful, if not forwardly abusive, and are not willing or able to create an environment that would allow the child to develop to their potential. It is difficult to argue that in many cases it would be beneficial to the child if social services took a Read More .. aggressive stance with regard to parenting standards, especially when one considers how difficult it is to extract a child from an obviously unsuitable household. However, this also stands as a decision that young children are cognitively unsuitable to make. Very young children, especially those who have not reached Piagets Formal Operational stage and are unlikely to be able to think in abstract terms, are highly unlikely to be able to understand the ramifications of their decision. They would be unlikely to properly consider or even understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of a variety of different arrangements. Stability is important for a childs development, and for a child to be able to leave a home when they are the least bit dissatisfied would do Read More ..rm then good to the child, especially since young children can become intensely upset over extremely trivial matters, such as being told to eat unpalatable food or a parents refusal to purchase a toy. He correctly judges that parents often are not properly able to raise their children, but the systems that he proposes to replace parents could instead be used to supplement and enhance parental care, by educating adults in proper parenting techniques, providing social supports to single parents, or even a stipend to adults who choose to stay at home and raise their children instead of working.
While the current compulsory education system leaves something to be desired, for Farson to claim that it should be abolished ignores the many benefits gained by such education. His proposal that the current education system should be abolished in favor of a system where by children educate themselves, as they would enjoy learning if they were self-taught, is laudably optimistic, but likely impractical. Children are simply unlikely to master complicated concepts such as grammar and arithmetic without instruction. Children who choose not to attend school due to a lack of interest, motivation, or aptitude will be seriously disadvantaged in any industrialized society where literacy is a necessary component to successful development. Those children who choose not to attend school, and who are not home schooled in a proper manner, will likely have a difficult time adjusting to the hectic pace of modern industrial society. While school has many drawbacks, with rote learning and acquisition of impractical, almost useless knowledge being two major concerns, it teaches young children many fundamental skills required to prosper in modern society. In certain levels, especially in junior high and high school, more respect for a the adolescents evolving cognitive abilities should certainly be given, with more input from students towards the curriculum and with more engaging teaching techniques, but for young children starting grade school every society has a certain set of skills that a child is required to know in order to facilitate proper development.
According to Article 28 of the Convention, the State is obligated to provide the child with compulsory education. For any child that does not attend compulsory schooling, alternative education methods should be made. The State must realize that it is obligated not only to provide public education, but to ensure that the education system it has in place is actually effective in educating children. In many cases, the State fails in that obligation, considering the high dropout rates for males in Canada. As children grow in cognitive ability, the education system itself does not evolve to reflect that growth; in fact, in many cases it seems to regress. In many cases, there is actually more class participation, and less rote learning, in Kindergarten and early grades then there is in high schools. Student governments, where they exist, are almost universally ineffective, and thus children are denied the right to voice their opinions on a system designed entirely to meet their needs (Covell, Howe 2001). If the existing education system is to be effective, it must accept the fact that the existing style fails to meet the needs of many children, and that fundamentally different styles of teaching may be needed to stem the high dropout rate of male students. Authoritative teaching, where the teacher takes input from the students into account in class, provides the students with a means to have their opinions heard and to become more engaged in the learning process (Covell, Howe 2001). Public education is not an unsalvageable project, nor is it without merit; indeed, the benefits of it still exceed the costs. For a child to forgo compulsory education is unlikely to work in his or her best interests.
Farson claims that laws that restrict the sexual activity of children are discriminatory, and from a purely logical perspective such a view is correct. It is undoubtedly discrimination where there is in place a double standard in the law, as in this case where sexual behavior is acceptable for adults but unacceptable for children. It is also illogical, however, to expect young children to be able to understand the ramifications of sexual behavior. To revoke certain age of consent laws as they exist in Canada and other nations would likely increase sexual exploitation of children, rather then to liberate children by making them free to express their sexuality as Farson claims it would. Studies have shown children to be impressionable, and they display tendencies to show reactions that they believe will please others, even to the point of fabricating stories in response to leading questions. This tendency leaves children open to exploitation from adults, and it is unlikely that increased sexual education would compensate for the relaxation of legal restrictions on adult-child sexual relations as far as protecting children from sexual exploitation is concerned.
The dangers involved in unrestricted and State sanctioned sexual activity for children go beyond the emotional damage that results from sexual exploitation. Sexually transmitted diseases remain a concern for those sexually active individuals who are either ignorant of the risks or do not believe themselves vulnerable. When one considers the difficulty involved in educating adolescents about the potential dangers of unprotected sex, it seems difficult to conceive that pre-teen children would be more susceptible to take the initiative in adopting appropriate safety measures. Sexual activity can also carry other physical dangers to young children, especially young adolescent girls who happen to conceive. The dangers involved in pregnancy are enhanced when a girl whose body has not finished developing seeks to carry a child to term. Adolescents without proper social supports also are unlikely to have sufficient levels of emotional maturity required for parenthood, much less have the economic resources required to properly rear a child. While restrictions on sexual activity of children is, by definition, discriminatory, it is in place because the State recognizes the unique cognitive abilities that children possess, and that it does not believe that children should be forced to deal with such issues until they have had ample opportunity to develop those abilities.
While the concept of allowing children to gain economic independence from their parents or guardians is a noble one, it is also not without its pragmatic difficulties. In countries with no laws against child employment, or lax enforcement of those laws, the exploitation of child labor is not uncommon, especially in impoverished areas. Children who work generally lack the skills necessary to be employed in well paying, intellectually stimulating jobs, and are often relegated to monotonous, low paying, often dangerous jobs with little stimulation or hope of promotion. For those children who work such jobs instead of attending schools, the likelihood that they will develop the skills required to achieve a higher economic status grows increasingly slim as the children grow older. Children in impoverished families who need their children to attend work instead of school to remain financially viable usually find their children subject to poverty when they grow older, limiting any sort of social mobility. It is unlikely that children will be able to attain more then low paying, low status jobs without significant training, and pressures to achieve financial independence may cause those children to work instead of seeking such training. When one considers the difficulties faced by minorities and women in the Canadian workplace, it is highly improbable that children would be likely to rise to high paying, skillful jobs, or to positions of leadership or power. Allowing children unfettered access to the workplace would likely not benefit children as much as it would encourage exploitation, and as such is likely not in the childs best interests.
It is true that children possess little input into the Canadian political system, and that has slowed the evolution of childrens rights and resulted in inequalities and discrimination towards children. Giving children the right to vote at any age would seem to be a step in ironing out such inequalities by allowing children to become a viable constituency instead of relying on adult advocates to argue for their rights. In reality, however, it is unlikely that most children possess the cognitive capacities to understand complicated political issues to an extent that would allow them to cast an informed vote, especially considering the fact that many adults are unable to do so.
Childrens suffrage would be just as likely to increase political exploitation of children as it would be to increase a childs political power. Aggressive marketing campaigns geared towards children would likely focus not on political issues, but on more superficial qualities of candidates, as such a style over substance approach has already been proven to be successful in marketing to children by fast food and toy companies. Children would also be under pressure to vote for the candidates that their parents or adult guardians vote for; in many cases political allegiance seems to be almost hereditary, but with the current system children are unable to vote until they have reached a level of development that allows them to view candidates more objectively. Considering how susceptible children are to adult influence, it is feasible for each child that votes with a clear understanding of the candidates and their platforms, at least one other child will vote for the candidate their parents voted for. Childrens rights are not necessarily served by such suffrage, as elections will be skewed toward those who can fashion the slickest advertising campaign aimed towards children, even more then under the current system.
The determination rights of the child are best served by targeting and supporting adult parents and guardians to adopt a more authoritative style of parenting. Parents should allow children input into decisions reflecting their lives, with a growing level of discussion as the childs cognitive capacity increases. While Farsons call to end discrimination against children resounds on some points, it encourages exploitation on other points that would likely do more harm then good to the childs development. With his Childs Bill of Rights, as with the Convention, Farson argues for the best interests of the child, but in reality childhood is a state in which children are vulnerable and must be protected from exploitation. Contrary to Farsons belief, the best interests of the child are sometimes more appropriately served by limiting a childs freedom in the interests of protection then allowing them to deal with decisions that they are not ready or able to make informed choices about.
Covell, K.,& Howe, B. R. (2001). The Challenge Of Childrens Rights For Canada. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press.
Farson, R. (1992). Birthrights. Ideologies of Childrens Rights. Dordrecht: Kluwer.