Children are routinely thought of as our future and take a symbolic place in our culture when considering innocence, hope and imagination. But we also have a societal tendency to demonise children – especially teenagers – for their lack of adherence to social norms and a will to push against dominant narratives of how things should be.
Listening to children and valuing their experiences is rarely a core consideration for policymakers. Yet doing so has benefits for all. For children, it can help develop self-esteem, enhance their understanding of the world, and give a greater appreciation for democracy. And for policymakers, listening to children opens opportunities to create processes and systems that respond to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens; it creates opportunities to see policy problems from a new angle; and can also help us take a more imaginative approach to our aims.
The instrumental benefits and intrinsic value of listening to children are such that they are recognised by the United Nations. The UK signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1991, and this gives all people below the age of 18 additional rights to adults. It is governed by core principles of seeking to balance ‘provision, protection and participation’ for all, and includes a commitment to non-discrimination, acting in the best interests of the child, and ensuring an adequate standard of living for all. Among these rights is also Article 12: the right of children to participate in all matters that affect them.
The nations of the UK differ in their approach to children’s human rights, with the UK government noting commitment and seeking to implement the UNCRC across a range of mostly child-centred services through policy. Meanwhile, Wales has integrated the UNCRC into their own law in as far as their devolution settlement allows, and Scotland is currently awaiting royal ascent on a bill that enshrines the UNCRC fully into Scottish law. These changes in the devolved administrations help to make it clear that children’s rights and needs are not only the domain of child-focused services, but all services that have any impact upon them.
To give an example of children’s exclusion from policymaking and the impacts, I turn to town planning. Over the last 50 years, there have been dramatic increases in the amount of traffic on our roads, which significant evidence shows is reducing the will of parents and carers to allow children to roam local neighbourhoods by themselves. For example, recent research by professor Helen Dodd showed that on average children in the UK are only allowed to play out by themselves from age 11, which is two years older than their parent’s generation.
When children are asked about their favourite places to play, the playground is rarely their first choice. Most adults will also often agree that they favoured places other than the playground when they were children: parks, woods, riverbanks, fields and beaches were the places that captured imagination. Adults are more likely to favour order and efficiency in public space, while children are more likely to be comfortable with informality and unstructured activity that provides ample opportunity for exploration.
Policy that does not take children’s views into account perpetuates these exclusions and misunderstandings of what children really need. It also contributes to environments that favour adult priorities, such as efficient road networks, over children’s priorities, like safe spaces for unstructured play in the neighbourhood street. This can leave children feeling disempowered, discouraged, inactive and dependent on the adults around them.
Another example is children’s education. During the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have closed on and off for around a year and children have been unexpectedly thrust into a world of remote learning and limited social interaction. While we routinely read about the impacts of this on children from the perspective of parents, teachers, and a range of experts, we rarely see reporting that highlights the perspectives of children themselves. Meanwhile, a participatory study I co-led with children and young people across Scotland – #ScotYouthandCovid – has uncovered ideas for small changes that could make a big difference to their lives in terms of education and access to outdoor spaces, as well as ideas for a post-pandemic future that prioritises mental health, addresses climate change and tackles inequality.
Bringing children’s views into policymaking requires us to do things differently, recognise the expertise children have in their own experience, and make a commitment to really listen. This involves methods of participation that are sensitive to the existing understanding and capabilities of children, rather than expecting them to give views in an adult-oriented system. While this can be quite a change for policymakers, there are a wealth of resources available from the third sector and academia to assist in different situations. The expertise of child and youth service professionals can also be drawn upon to ensure children are brought into policy discussions in a fair and authentic way. Giving children the space to participate in policymaking is thus paramount for improving our understanding of their needs and recognising their competence as social agents with valuable experiences, perspectives, and insights. It will ultimately benefit all of us.