Children's Rights and Early Childhood Education: Links to Theory and Advocacy
Smith, Anne B., Australian Journal of Early Childhood
CHILDREN'S RIGHTS HAVE been argued about for centuries, and the concept touches raw nerves when adult decisions and actions are put to the test (Stainton Rogers, 2004). 'Rights are entitlements, valuable commodities' which we 'do not have to grovel or beg to get', according to Freeman (1996, p. 70). Children's rights do not receive widespread public or political support in New Zealand, and perhaps even less so in Australia. Children's rights have often been perceived as 'a political hot potato', which, rather than advancing children's interests, jeopardise them (Melton, 2005, p. 655). This is a disturbing state of affairs, and one I would like academics and professionals working on children's issues to fight. There is a responsibility for education about children's rights to be implemented in countries which have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention). Article 42 obliges the state 'to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike'. It is particularly important, therefore, for early childhood teacher education and professional development programs to ensure that the principles of the Convention are understood and implemented in early childhood services.
Those who are nervous of children's rights tend to focus on the issue of civil and political rights (participation rights). The idea of children having rights tends to be interpreted as being permissive and giving them too much power and control, while at the same time taking power and control away from parents (or others in authority over children, such as teachers). This 'ideological blindness to the facts at hand and the interests at stake' (Melton, 2005, p. 647) is not productive. Both Australia and New Zealand have signed the Convention and have an obligation to implement it. New Zealand's current relative economic prosperity gives us no excuses for failure to implement, although money is far from the major consideration in children's rights. It is important that the ratification of the Convention (in 1990 in Australia and 1993 in New Zealand) should be more than a public relations exercise, with the earliest ratifying countries often having made little progress in implementation (Boyden, 1993, cited by Burman, 1996). In my view, it is a responsibility for researchers, professionals and agencies working for children (including teachers) to keep governments honest and insist they fulfill the promises they made when they implemented the Convention.
Professionals working with children have an important role in advocating for them: by taking a proactive approach towards recognising the rights of all children; and responding by trying to change systems, policies and individuals. Child advocacy involves raising the status of children, increasing their self-determination and the responsiveness and accountability of institutions affecting them (Melton, 1987). Professionals should be educating government and local agencies about the Convention and using it to provide a common basis for understanding, and a framework to plan and operate services for children. Child advocacy is not about undermining the role of parents, families or teachers, nor is it about denying children their childhood.
The Convention provides legal and ethical grounds on which to argue for changes to policy in favour of children's rights. Greater collaboration between agencies concerned with the rights of children in different spheres, and even between different countries, could do much to speed implementation. The Convention is a powerful international treaty, ratified by all but two countries in the world (US and Somalia), which is being used proactively in many countries to persuade governments and communities to support better policies for children. Even if countries do not fully comply with the Convention, ratification of it signals an intention for them to progressively implement it and incorporate it into their domestic law, policies and practice (Ludbrook, 2000). …