“I’ve got a right to play!”—the angry reply given by a seven-year-old when his mum says it's time to tidy up his toys and get ready to go out.
“I’ve got a right to an education!”—the petulant retort from a misbehaving boy to his teacher who's told him to leave the classroom.
Is the fruit of the Children’s Rights obsession in our schools a generation prone to selfishness and defiance? Are schools undermining their own authority by incessant “rights” education?
Let’s start at the beginning. Who is behind the current children’s rights campaign? Ultimately, it is the United Nations, particularly through its child-focused agency, UNICEF.
What exactly are these children’s rights that they claim to be promoting? There are too many to list here; 54, to be precise. They embody a host of noble ideals and practical steps to promote the wellbeing of children (by which their exponents mean those up to 18 years old). They include provision of education and healthcare, prohibitions of torture and unjustified separation from family, and many articles that mirror the rights of adults, at least in the human rights framework.
All fairly straightforward, and all pretty irrelevant to the lives of almost all schoolchildren in the UK. Serious infringements of these rights in other countries can be challenged through reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but children’s rights campaigners in the UK have slim pickings. They are left scrabbling around to find where existing systems were not quite operating as they should or where laws in force were technically being broken.
So what’s the problem? A summary of sound principles to protect and promote the best interests of children surely sounds ideal? Yes, it does. The problems commence when this minimal framework is pressed into service as a complete ethical system, the ultimate touchstone of moral objectivity. Rights discourse has become an ersatz religion in many schools, its sacred texts adorning classroom walls and being read in assemblies. There are even songs to sing about children’s rights. With these rights, we live in happiness and harmony. They alone, ostensibly, stand between children and boundless horrors.
There’s a big problem, though: the UNCRC is woefully inadequate as a moral system. You’re never going to derive the most basic moral precepts from it. Don’t steal. Don’t tell lies. Help those in need—no sign of these. The rights promulgated via UNICEF are basically about what the state should do for you, not what you should or shouldn’t do to or for others.
Now, if you are of a new-leftist or progressivist persuasion, this trivialisation of personal responsibility and substitutionary emphasis on state provision will align nicely with your political philosophy. Thus, children’s rights serve as a Trojan horse for skewed political influence, if not outright indoctrination.
The problems are magnified when activists interpret the articles of children's rights in ways completely unrelated to the intention of the authors and only tenuously connected to the actual text. These activists are both within and outside of the UN’s agencies. The UN agencies have been captured by “progressive” campaigners, so “progressive” governments can claim supreme endorsement for every policy step that breaks down the proper distinctions between childhood and adulthood.
To take an example, Article 28 of the UNCRC stipulates that “school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity”. Who could argue with that? But what does it mean? What was it meant to mean when it was introduced in 1989?
I’ll tell you what it is taken to mean in Scotland today: that there should be no punishments in schools. The policy of pushing schools away from any system of punishments, towards “restorative” approaches, where any and every disciplinary incident is dealt with by a mini-counselling session, is justified as a fulfilment of children’s rights. It is plain that this is not the original intent of Article 28, but every opportunity presented by imprecision in the text is gleefully exploited by campaigners eager to impose their own philosophy.
To compound the error, children are being given the strong impression that they have a “right” not to be punished. This school-apprehended doctrine then causes disruption in families, when parents do exercise reasonable discipline of their children.
Article 12 of the UNCRC is similarly wrenched from its proper context to justify a hyper-progressive approach to children. It accords:
the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child […]
To provide context, the article goes on,
the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child.
Again, the original intent is clear. Children should have a say in weighty matters such as custody proceedings. Hear, hear.
Even UNICEF’s simplified version of this right betrays rampant mission creep, gold-plating it into this:
Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right applies at all times, for example during […] day-to-day home life.
By the time this is filtered into schools through progressive teachers, it becomes the right for primary school children to have a say in the appointment of a new head teacher! Every aspect of school life is to be democratised, with an underlying assumption that children can never just be told what to do. To cement this restriction on adult authority, children are told that adults must listen to them, on any issue at any time. The line between “listen to” and “listen to and do what I want” becomes very blurred indeed. The message that children hear can be indistinguishable from “No-one has the right to tell you what to do.”
Children so emboldened respond with bemusement to an adult issuing an instruction instead of engaging in negotiation. When teachers face defiance as a result of their own denigration of adult authority, there is an element of desert, at least; but when children take their new-found rebelliousness into the family home, proper parental authority is eroded and family concord suffers.
In both cases, perverted invocation of the UNCRC is harming children by preventing the formation of the structure and discipline that is vital to character development and for secure adult-child relationships, both within the family and beyond. Schools bemoan disobedience and falling standards of behaviour while simultaneously actively promoting defiance and barrack-room lawyering through children’s rights programmes.
In the world of children’s rights, there is no room for gratitude.The state has to provide its services. Schools have to care. Parents have to provide, protect and nurture. Failure in these regards can be condemned, while perfect service rendered flawlessly elicits nothing more than a tick in a box. Encouraging children to relate to the world primarily through their demands of it is corrosive of good character.
This applies particularly in the family, where warm appreciation should engender reciprocal cooperation. Instead, children are led to believe that the state has delegated responsibility for children to parents, who must do their job properly because the United Nations says so. The obscured truth is that patents generously bestow love naturally, out of their love for their children.
Similarly, gratitude to the community of one’s nation is squeezed out. Never mind the mutual bonds of compatriotism that induce the sharing of resources and provision for all in their hour of need; entitlement overrides appreciation and dismisses individual responsibility.
These rights, ostensibly so fundamental to children’s existence, are accessed and policed by the state. The state thus inserts itself into children’s thinking, or even affections, as their ultimate guardian. The state is now there to make sure parents do their job properly. Rights always lead children to seek agents of the state as their protectors, advisors and advocates, and diverts them away from those who love and care for them most: their parents. Children’s rights empower professionals and undermine parents.
When you see a UNICEF “Rights Respecting School” flag flying outside a school, the odds are that the head teacher is susceptible to educational fashion, has an eye to the main chance, or both. In Scotland, the lack of dissent from within and beyond the teaching profession is staggering. What should be a proposition repeatedly being called into question for the controversial imposition of progressive educational ideology that it is is instead disregarded as entirely unobjectionable. If teaching is to be regarded as a profession, it must show the collective capacity for critical thought. Unquestioning pursuit of educational fads is the mark of quackery, not professionalism.
When you express any reservation about the children’s rights movement, it will be suggested that you wish to torture children, send them down the mines and pack them off to fight in wars. In reality, you are just recognising the promotion of an extreme “progressive” ideology of childhood that undermines and sidelines parents, erodes the authority of teachers and, worst of all, harms children by restricting their character development and damaging the most important relationships in their young lives—their bond with their parents.