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Judith Williamson on the rights of children

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The neglect we tolerate

Children have no political power, so their needs and experiences are ignored

Judith Williamson
Saturday June 22, 2002
The Guardian


Our country seems to be in a continual panic about children. The papers are full of children playing truant, children committing crimes, children running wild: children behaving so badly that their parents must be imprisoned or have their benefits docked for failing to control them. From time to time children's role switches from aggressor to victim - and the panic becomes a temporary hysteria about children being preyed on by paedophiles or abducted by evil strangers.

No wonder, then, that the deputation of 10- to 16-year-olds from the Children's Rights Alliance who addressed the parliamentary committee on human rights last week posed a problem of tone for the press. It plumped for comedy: accounts of this meeting were nearly all "sketches", caricaturing the committee but also patronising the children either through personal comments or by making light of the issues they raised.

Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail noted that Diana Savickaja, aged 10, had a "steely glint"; Simon Carr in the Independent claimed wearily that "children are always aggrieved"; and even this paper's Simon Hoggart couldn't resist a joke about children's right to choose bedtimes, while the straight news report picked out many of the "cuter" quotes - for example, a 12-year-old boy's proposal that a children's rights commissioner should be "an adult, but not an old adult".

The CRA's case is simple. They want a children's rights commissioner for England - an ombudsperson for children's concerns. And by "not an old adult" they mean, surely, an adult who has not made that amnesiac shift to seeing children from the outside: as possessions or problems, villains or victims, or, indeed, as comically serious little campaigners. Children are not only like us, they are us - just at a different stage in life.

Yet children have fewer rights in our society than we do, and policies which affect them profoundly are rarely framed in terms of their needs. Nowhere is a lack of joined-up political thinking more obvious than in the failure to connect the problems of children with the "problem" of children. According to David Blunkett, even those as young as three can be potential troublemakers - yet when has the experience of a three-year-old been seriously considered by anyone in government?

Rather, children constitute problems for social policy from birth. Parental leave in this country is among the worst in Europe. This is usually discussed in terms of parents' rights versus those of employers, but the person most acutely affected is the child - whose stability and sense of self will be bound up with the availability of parent figures at the start of life. Three months is very young to leave a baby - but babies' needs come last. By the age of three, any child who has lacked consistency of care and attention is certainly likely to be troubled: ready, perhaps, for Blunkett's chilling assessment.

Yet there is very little free, high-quality state childcare in this country - and its rates of pay reveal the low value placed on children and those who care for them. There are many good childminders, but in childminding legislation, too, the rights of children come last. This government has stuck defiantly to its policy of letting minders smack if parents agree, so that one child can be legally hit but not another. There is no right to equal treatment: it is parents' "right" to decide.

Similarly, it is their "right" to decide on a child's education and beliefs: in the debate about faith schools, while parents' rights were posed against issues of social inclusion, nobody mentioned the rights of children themselves to educational equality.

However, school is yet another area where children's needs count less and less. Grading schools in league tables is meant to help parents, but there is no evidence that it helps children, who increasingly become exam fodder. Even primary school children are now tested repeatedly, and earlier this month some teenagers had to sit five AS-level exams in one day. Our culture demands that children shape up to the work ethic very early. If they get through university, they begin adult life burdened with debts, while those whose adulthood starts on leaving care are crippled financially in a different way - their 42 a week benefit is simply not liveable on.

The essence of child abuse is the treatment of a child as an object to fulfil adult needs: adult subjectivity completely overrides the child's. This rightly horrifies us, yet it is actually reinforced by a wider culture in which children tend to function as the objects, rather than the subjects, of frameworks that shape their lives. We see the difficulties they cause for us - but are blind to the difficulties we cause for them.

In most legislation concerning children, their experience is ignored: but if they become "troublemakers", they can expect the punitive state apparatus of curfews, tagging and, increasingly, imprisonment, to crack down on them. Taking children's subjectivity seriously does not mean letting them choose their bedtimes, but it does mean listening to them and putting their needs and expe riences higher on our political agenda. The fact is, however, that when those needs clash with adults' wishes or political expediency, they can be ignored - for children have no political power. This is why it is still legal to hit them.

It says little for our democracy that the one group without a vote is the one with least protection. If you hit an adult, it is illegal assault; if you hit your child, it can be "reasonable chastisement". Of course, parents are voters - and a recent survey showed that 84% of parents thought they should decide how they disciplined their children. So, although children under a year old are four times more likely to be homicide victims than the rest of the population, the English government continues to allow "reasonable chastisement" at all ages - failing to see the link between a "smacking" culture and the more extreme cases of cruelty that hit the headlines.

Simon Schama's History of Britain on BBC2 recently discussed Victorian attitudes to women. For most of that era, husbands could legally beat their wives and even lock them up: Schama was able to announce this in a tone that assumed his entire audience would find it abhorrent. Yet it was once acceptable, at a time when women's rights seemed comical to many. Women had to fight long and hard before they stopped belonging to their husbands in law.

Children, of course, are in the unique situation of needing adult care; yet that does not make them the property of adults, any more than women are the property of men. People still get married, and people will always have children: but I hope a future historian will shock a bemused audience by recounting attitudes to children's rights today.