The phrase ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is an old adage drawn from the Victorian era, which unfortunately, is still a common phrase thrown around by parents today with a somewhat antiquated and misguided attitude towards children’s rights. In actuality, children’s rights could not be more conflicting with that statement.
Every child has rights, no matter what their age, where they live or what they believe. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention), one of the most internationally recognised treaties in the world and which Australia ratified in 1990 (UNICEF Australia). The Convention sets out a series of 54 articles governing basic human entitlements which early childhood educators have an obligation to ensure that every child in Australia enjoys and understands, as well as ensuring they are respected and understood by others.
As we celebrate the 25th year of the ratification of the Convention, it is no longer a question of ‘why’ we should promote children’s rights and active participation in our early childhood services, but more ‘how’ this should be achieved. In looking at implementation, it is important that we include the observations of adult child interactions within our practice as these are the key to understanding where to begin. Services are starting to assess their adult child relationships in order to ascertain which principles of active participation need initial focus.
Having a thorough understanding of how to engage children in genuine opportunities to participate will allow children to build confidence into the future, and can only be supported through shared understanding with children, and viewing the child as a valued citizen and social actor. The confidence of children to be involved does not occur instantly or overnight, but takes time- gradually acquired through practice. It is for this reason that educators are building their understanding of these principles to be fully equipped with the knowledge of how to engage each child to contribute in a supported way. This will happen in collaboration with educators who can provide safe and secure contexts in which ongoing consultations with children can occur.
These principles are relatively straight-forward and yet putting these into practice demands time, careful consideration and understanding on the educator’s behalf. Although we are at different stages of professional development, building respectful and reciprocal relationships is essential to this process, and is where most educators have begun their journey in educating children about their rights. These relationships involve the ability to demonstrate a genuine interest in the thoughts and ideas of the children we work with.
Building safe and secure relationships with the children in our services will provide a foundation for meaningful interactions with children into the future. Once a secure context has been established, the next challenge is to take into consideration why and how a child is being invited to take part, what the purpose is, and how each child can contribute in their own meaningful way. This shared understanding enables a deeper exchange of ideas and information with the group of children involved in the consultation. Shared understanding is not a one off event, it is an on-going practice of monitoring and developing each consultation to suit the children as it evolves.
Children are much wiser than you may think, and under the appropriate circumstances, they have the power to express their thoughts and views quite simply and with authority. In cases where active participation is embedded in the service, educators ensure consideration is taken to pitch engagement fittingly in terms of children’s age, individuality and culture; however, where appropriate, children are consulted on the things that affect them and allow them to provide their thoughts and concerns on the agenda. Eventually, as the opportunities to participate increase and children’s confidence levels grow, they will be able to provide genuine representations of their understandings, theories and ideas and be valued contributors to their communities.
Educators, who truly understand how to implement the education of children’s rights, will engage in child-initiated, child-led programs throughout their daily practice and not tokenistic adult-initiated, adult-led interaction.
Educators are beginning to foster authentic child engagement in children’s rights within early childhood services and it is clear they are making intentional arrangements to understand how best to facilitate the active participation of young children, but this understanding needs to continue to develop. Our national curriculum document, The Early Years Learning Framework, which considers the developmental needs, interests and experiences of every child, seeks to embody children’s rights and active participation in educators’ daily practice and this is, in a number of ways, the central tenet in how we work with young children.
It is imperative that children understand they have a right to grow, to survive, to thrive, to reach their full potential and to make their voices heard. Active participation is the fundamental right of every child and treating children as competent and capable is paramount as this ensures their rights are truly valued and understood.
As we continue to advocate for the education agenda to shift into the hands of the children, we are genuinely embracing the ideals in the United Nations Convention on Children’s rights. This does not mean to say that educators should provide free rein to children without support or guidance in daily practice, but allow them ample opportunity to engage in collaborative discussion with adults, to have their voices heard and to positively influence the aspects of their lives they can have control over.
Our ultimate goal is to transform children from passive recipients to active engaged participants (Hydon, 2014) and allow for possibilities to capture their involvement in learning about the basic fundamental rights directly relating to them- to provide them with a voice in the communities they belong to, and to empower them to share in their understandings of what their rights are. Let us not be dispirited implementers, but re-create the future for our children.
UNICEF (2014). 26 years of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved [7/11/2014] from www.unicef.org.au/Discover/What-we-do/Convention-on-the-Rights-of-the-Child.aspx#sthash.PeMkLDht.dpuf
Hart, R. (1992). Children’s Participation, from tokenism to citizenship. Innocenti Essay No. 4. Florence: UNICEF.
Hydon, C. (2014), New Frontiers in Practice presented at the Early Childhood Australia national conference, Melbourne, Vic.5 September, 2014.
We were at craft time in the library today coloring and pasting pictures of animals and geographical features on a cut-out of Africa. One of the animals was a tiger, which, if I’m not mistaken, lives in Asia. My kids didn’t mind, though, so I won’t make a big deal about it. I’ll just have to supplement their education about the continent of Africa on our own.
At the table next to us, a woman sat with her daughter, who I guessed to be about 3 years old. Her daughter was animatedly talking about the animals and the crayons she was using to color them.
“Do you hear anyone else yelling?” her mother hissed at her, loudly enough that I could easily hear her about five feet away. “You’re embarrassing yourself!”
Her daughter looked up at her nonplussed and then went back to her coloring. She didn’t say anything over a whisper the rest of the time we were there.
Soon after the mother scolded her daughter, my son started talking loudly about the characters painted on the wall and which ones were wearing hats. He busted into the theme song to “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That” TV show on PBS, as I reflected on the other mother’s reaction to her child’s exuberance.
As someone who is naturally quiet and who was trained from birth to be even quieter (my parents were big fans of the adage, “Children should be seen and not heard, and seldom seen,” which they applied in conjunction with a witticism attributed to my maternal grandfather: “Every child deserves a pat on the back: often enough, hard enough, and low enough.”), I can relate to this other mother’s discomfort with her child’s noise level. My children seem wild and unruly to me, and they seem to have just one volume setting. I frequently find myself shushing them in public places so they don’t bother other people, even when none of the other people have indicated that they were bothered. And while I disagree with her technique of shaming her child into silence, I can’t say that I’ve not tried the same technique when my own discomfort with my children’s expression of happiness was too great. Let she who is without sin, right?
Just this morning, my friend Tucker shared a link to a 1992 essay by Barbara Kingsolver entitled, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby.” In it, Kingsolver reflects on the impatience and outright rudeness with which children are received in the United States, and contrasts that with how they’re received in Spain, where she was living at the time.
“For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do.”
The essay brought me to tears thinking about the wide gap between how children should be welcomed in our culture and how they actually are (or aren’t).
I was at the library fresh from reading that essay, and it led me to wonder what had happened in this mother’s life to cause her to feel so embarrassed about her daughter’s volume of speech, particularly in a children’s activity on the children’s floor of the library with another little heathen-child belting out “You Are My Sunshine” just five feet away. If this is what our culture encourages us to do, I opt out. I reject the idea that my children should consider the comfort of strangers before expressing their happiness.
In the wake of this experience, along with my focus this month on sharing my own happiness, I’ve recommitted myself to allowing my children to express themselves in the manner that seems right to them, provided it truly isn’t hurting anyone else. As Gloria Steinem noted in a speech of hers I attended at Duke University many moons ago, we put up with so many other sounds in our environment—cell phones, airplanes, traffic, car alarms—the sounds of children shouldn’t bother us at all. In fact, they’re probably the most pleasant of the noises that interrupt our peace.
We all were children once. As adults, we may have chosen for whatever reason to squelch our own exuberance, but that doesn’t give us a right to diminish the joy of today’s children.
If anything, I want to learn from my children how to shine bright, not extinguish their glow.