So what do we think: is a child a person?

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Children are finding their voice and adults don't like the volume, writes Melian Mansfield

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS AND POWER: charging up for a new century. By Mary John. Children in Charge series. Jessica Kingsley pound;15.95.

This thought-provoking book provides a radical new context for teachers to consider the way in which they treat and work with children, and to examine how citizenship is being taught. The book starts with a question: is a child a person? Does personhood begin at birth, at conception or, as developmental psychologist Mary John suggests, when the child begins to influence the behaviour of others?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is based on the assumption that the child is a person, "an individual with rights". To be powerful, the individual needs to be understood, acknowledged, treated and represented as a person.

The author begins with her own experience as a seven-year-old in hospital with suspected polio. Her hair was cut off, no one explained what was happening to her, her parents were not allowed to visit and she felt abandoned and depersonalised. She traces her interest in personhood to this point, interweaving her account with illuminating references to relevant research and contemporary examples of ways in which children are still oppressed and their rights infringed throughout the world, including the UK - the concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child in October 2002 were highly critical of the UK Government's lack of action in implementing the UN Convention.

Children feel powerless, Mary John argues, when they are ignored or treated as anonymous "unpeople". She documents the ways in which she sees this happening, painting a bleak picture of children exploited by commerce and industry, their lives "dominated by consumption"; of young people portrayed by the media as in need of repression rather than understanding.

The climate of control in most schools, she says, means children "are denied the learning experiences which are fundamental to the sense of personal autonomy", in contrast with the emphasis in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools in Italy on developing "the richness of children's imagination".

In the UK, it is still acceptable for adults to hit children, except in schools. Children are humiliated by put-downs and punishments, in schools as elsewhere, in contravention of Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention, which protects individuals against degrading treatment. The results are predictable: truancy or behavioural difficulties sometimes leading to exclusion; intolerant and aggressive adults who were treated with violence when they were young and defenceless; bullied children who turn into bullies.

Why do adults find it so difficult to break this cycle by treating children as people: listening to them, respecting their views and taking them seriously?

Mary John points out that while children are entitled under the UN convention to"participate" - to be able to express their views in all matters which affect themI and influence policies - children actually doing so "may pose threats to established power relationships between adults and children".

She refers to children's involvement in the World Summit on sustainable development as "progress of a kind", but points out the influence they actually have is determined by the way the event is organised. "Being heard is one thing, having one's views acted upon is often quite another." This is also true of many school councils.

School would seem to be the obvious place for children to learn in a fully democratic way how to be citizens - "recognised players in decisions that are relevant to their lives". The emphasis, however, tends to be on the perception of the child as a passive vessel for accumulating knowledge, not as an active and reflective citizen.

Meanwhile, Mary John credits the mobile phone with bringing about a revolution in the exercise of personal power, by giving children a chance to be fully in charge of some part of their lives. This effect has been most obvious in Japan, where the rigid power relationship between adults and children has been legendary.

She concludes that children across the world are no longer prepared to be left out of decision-making, pointing positively to the Association of London Government's encouragement of local authorities to look at how they engage children and young people in local democratic processes. She shows how children exercise real power in the world's first Children's Parliament in Rajasthan, India, by "getting adults and decision-makers to accept their view of reality - it is the beginning of a system of power-sharing between adults and children".

This book is full of interesting observations on why young people feel alienated from the adult world. It challenges the many myths and assumptions that adults have about children, urging us to consider what changes need to be made in our institutions and our attitudes to children and young people. In particular, it questions the validity of a citizenship curriculum that educates young people for citizenship and not as citizens.

All teachers will find it worth reading because it points towards seeing young people as active participants in the education process rather than passive recipients - far more worthwhile for both teacher and pupil.

As children told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: "We are not the source of problems, we are the resources that are needed to solve them.

We are not expenses, we are investments."

Melian Mansfield is a freelance trainer and on the national executive of the Campaign for State Education

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today