16 January 2012

Let's Talk About Rights

The toddler, sitting comfortably in his pushchair, was wheeled close to our table in a café in Amsterdam. My companion exclaimed:

“Look at your children in their wheels!”

By my children, he meant ‘European’. He was the director of an orphanage in Ghana and this was the first time he had left the country. He could now observe the differences between the ways of life for the children here and there. One of these differences, he found, was the sense of entitlement the children he met on his travels seemed to have. He told me,
"If you don't let them have something, they will cry until they get it. They think nothing is out of their reach. Children in Ghana never behave this way."

The view of the street where I stayed in Lome, Togo.
Next to the tree trunk, you can just see a woman carrying a baby on her back, as is common in the neighbouring country of Ghana too. No "wheels" in sight.

Children and their Rights

Thousands of miles away, in Cape Town, I found some parents were also having problems involving children who believed they were entitled to certain things. In this case though, it was their rights, rather than material objects. One mother I spoke to at a children's event in Cape Town complained wearily,

"They come home from school and say they have rights, but if you ask them, 'What is your right?' they don't know! They don't understand, and they use it to argue with us."

This seems to mean that someone at her children's school was trying to teach them about their rights, but perhaps was not going about it in the most effective way. There are international legal instruments which are concerned with children’s rights. One is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which all the countries in the world are party to, except the USA and Somalia (a somewhat unlikely pairing!). Another is the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. You can find more information about the Convention and the Charter on the Child Rights Information Network (CRIN) website. South Africa also has national laws concerning children’s rights, which can be seen here. It is important that children know what their rights are, so it is essential that they are taught about this in a way that ensures they have a proper understanding of them, unlike the children of the mother quoted above.

One teenage boy seemed to know at least what one of his rights were, but his father did not like his attitude which accompanied this. He exclaimed,

"Once my son came home from school and said that he has RIGHTS. And his rights meant I couldn't hit him. This infuriated me so much, I actually felt like hitting him!"

Luckily I knew this man was speaking with some degree of sarcasm, and would most likely not hit his son. We were in the middle of a discussion during a conference held by the Working Group on Positive Discipline (WGPD) and this father was firmly in favour of banning corporal punishment. However, he illustrates a very valid point. What is a good way to teach children about their rights? It may be difficult to know how to do this, especially, for instance, with regards to corporal punishment, when the children are part of a society where parents feel that it is socially and culturally acceptable to hit them.

Corporal Punishment and What Children Think

On looking at better ways of disciplining children, rather than using corporal punishment, one participant at the meeting, said:

“Positive parenting and child participation are indivisible. With positive discipline, we are talking about talking to children.”

One point that was made obvious during the conference was that it is essential to engage with children, as well as with parents and teachers, to try to combat the problem of physical punishment, which is so common in South Africa. South Africa has joined the growing number of countries which have banned corporal punishment in schools (although, sadly, the practice still does take place). Like many other countries in the world, it has not yet prohibited corporal punishment in the home.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children website has a page dedicated to research on corporal punishment which has involved children. The following are quotes from some of the children themselves.

In Cambodia, corporal punishment has been legally prohibited in schools, but a study was done before this was the case. The different quotes showed that the children had mixed views on whether or not the teacher should beat them:

“Yes, if I am doing wrong I would prefer the teacher to hit me."

"No, the teacher should ask me to clean the rubbish or classroom or kneel down."
"They should not beat them all, just the lazy ones."

One participant at the WGPD conference drew attention to the fact that some children are in favour of corporal punishment. With regards to child participation, she said children should be able to listen to the arguments for and against corporal punishment, and then make up their own minds. They should not just be told to say what the adults want them to say, as this goes against the whole idea of listening to the views of children.

In Spain, children were asked their opinions on parental corporal punishment. Some of their answers, as follows, are very thought-provoking.

"I liked very much my rights. The one I like the most is not to get raps with knuckles from my parents when I am a bad or a good boy depending who says so, me or my parents."– Boy, twelve years old

"My parents feel, like me, lost many times, the only thing I can't understand is why they refuse to talk about it with me." - Girl, 11 years old

"When they spank us, we cannot explain ourselves, and express our feelings." - Girl, 11 years old

The last two quotes show that these children would much prefer to have a dialogue with their parents, than be physically hit. One woman from Ghana, who has now lived in England for a couple of decades, told me that, although she does not believe that children in the UK are disciplined too well, she does like it that they have more of a chance to express themselves than she did as a child growing up in Ghana.

The next two quotes, from the Spanish children, show some of the negative effects of using corporal punishment as a method of discipline:

"If they hit me, I learn to hit."
- Girl, 12 years old

In other words, using corporal punishment shows children that it is acceptable to hit others and that violence can be used to solve problems, rather than talking about them.

"I don't understand why they are spanking me, but I do what they tell me so I don't get the spanking."
- Boy, 11 years old

This highlights another issue when corporal punishment is used as a method of discipline. The child will do what he or she can to avoid the punishment. This can involve carrying on with the behaviour in question, but hiding it from the parents. If a parent explained to the child why they had a problem with their behaviour, it is more likely the child will understand what they did wrong, and may then behave differently the next time. By talking with children, parents will be able to impart their values to them… which is probably what they are hoping to achieve through discipline anyway.

Teaching Children about their Rights

As shown with the example of corporal punishment above, it is positive, and necessary, to involve children and hear their views on issues affecting them. During my children’s rights course at UCL, my lecturer asked us to raise our hands if we had been taught about our rights, or the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, at school. In the class were students from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. One girl from Colombia put her hand up. Nobody else had been taught about their rights as children.

Purely by chance, as I was writing this entry, the director of one of the organisations my charity supports, here in South Africa, asked me to develop a children’s rights volunteer programme for her. The aim will be for volunteers to go in and teach children in the last two years of primary school about their rights in general and also to focus on what happens when children come into conflict with the law (in the hope that this will deter them from committing offences in their teenage years.) I am excited to be working on this, but I understand that it is a very challenging and sensitive area and must be done properly. (It would therefore be great to hear from people with experience in programmes teaching children about their rights.)

Children at school in Ghana.
Is school the best place for children to learn about their rights? If so, what is the best way for them to be able to do this?


As mentioned at the beginning, sometimes children do feel entitled to things. I have heard demands back home in London like:

“I NEED a Nintendo Wii. Everyone else has one! It’s not fair.”

Something I like about the African Charter is that children’s responsibilities are outlined, as well as their rights. According to Article 31, children have responsibilities towards their family, society, state and the international community. I feel it is important that children are given their rights, and the protection, they all deserve. An essential part of this includes teaching children about their rights, although it is vital that this is done in an effective manner. I also think it would be a good idea to teach children about their responsibilities. If we respect their rights and protect them, we are giving them a good environment to grow up in safely. If we teach them about their responsibilities too, we will help them to develop into well-rounded individuals. Then, they would probably be able to create a much better world for all the children who come after them too.

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