The Radical Notion of Children’s Rights

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Screenshot of summarised UNCRC Article 42 from http://www.cypcs.org.uk

I’d been a parent for about three and a half years before I snapped. Having followed and engaged in the ‘parenting discourse’ on social media, read blogs, books, researched the history of childhood, child development, education and family policy. Having done my best to get to the bottom of what and why we treat children in the way we do, I sat on my sofa, laptop on lap, and said to the Gods:

“Don’t children have any rights?”

Maybe they actually do, I thought. So I got googling, and guess what, low and behold, there they were.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

With nervous anticipation I started to go through the UNCRC.

Children are people, it said. Not people of the future, but in there here and now.

Everyone under 18 has the right to be listened to, and to have their opinion taken seriously.

Children have the right to be free from discrimination of any kind, and to be treated as individuals.

The best interests of children must be a primary concern in all the decisions made that affect them. They have the right to a say in those decisions.

Children have the right to be protected from all emotional and physical harm, including neglect.

Children should be treated with dignity and respect, they have the right to privacy. They have the right to information, they have the right to play.

In all of the discussion and debate about parenting, parenting styles, and parental choice, one thing was always missing.

The rights of the children themselves.

And here, in front of me, was a 25 year old agreement between almost all of the countries in the world, saying that children are in fact rights holders. That they are entitled to agency and voice. That they are people, not the possessions of their parents or the state. That their best interests matter, their voices matter.

Listening to and respecting your children, advocating for their best interests wasn’t a type of parenting. It was respecting children’s rights.

I thought I had found the magic key to it all. I thought this webpage I front of me was the great panacea to the marginalisation and normalised mistreatment of babies, toddlers, children and young people in our society. But I was wrong.

This agreement had been signed 25 years ago, but had anyone heard of it? Had anything been done with it? Noticeably, I mean, in the public sphere? Where were children’s rights in the everyday mainstream? It was the first time I had heard of them. I started asking around. I even went to the UNICEF HQ in London to ask them what was going on.

I struggled to find anyone in the mainstream who had any awareness of the UNCRC or the concept of children’s rights. I asked other parents, I asked teachers, I asked childcare workers. The people who have the most everyday contact with children.

It seemed like children’s rights were the best kept secret ever.

I got into the politics of it. The Department for Education are responsible for ensuring everyone knows about the UNCRC. They decided not to put it on the national curriculum.

I realised that the DfE wasn’t interested in promoting or even raising awareness of children’s rights. I realised that plenty of adults are uncomfortable with the idea of children as rights holders.

I educated myself about the historical roots of this and the causes of the sustained oppression of children’s rights. I soon realised that this was a social justice issue of epic scale.

And I came to the conclusion that, the most useful thing I could do, was to respect and promote the rights of my own children, the rights of other young people, and to invite other people to do the same.

Capitalism vs. the Stay at Home Parent

In the eyes of capitalism, children are an unfortunate burden. Not only do they not participate in paid work, but they are a drain on resources. The best place for them, is out of the way. Or even better, reconceptualised as a product that can be traded.

From the earliest of our days, our belief system is woven with capitalist values. Real work is something that you are paid to do. Your value and contribution to society is measured in terms of the work that you are paid for. The more pay, the greater your status and value. It doesn’t particularly matter what it is that you are doing, the key part is that money is changing hands.

Then, all of a sudden you have a baby, and are working harder and for longer hours than ever before. Only no one is paying you a single penny for it.

The Window of Approved Caring

To start off with, that isn’t a problem. It’s expected. There is a window of time where our capitalistic bosses allow us as parents to care for our babies. If you are lucky that window of time is two weeks if you are a dad, and up to a year if you are a mum.

Then, it stops. Hope you had a nice time and all, but back to the real stuff now, you know, ‘actual work’.

And the babies? Do their needs suddenly become less, in line with your availability to be the one to meet them? Well no, not at all. They need you just as much as they did before. Now though you can start paying someone else to look after them. Congratulations capitalism, you’ve got babies making money for you.

What if you don’t go back?

But what of the parents that don’t go back to paid work? What happens to them?

Two things happen:

  1. They are convinced more than ever that their hard and loving work as the primary carer for their child(ren) is of immeasurable value.
  2. They are marginalised more than ever by their internalised capitalism and the internalised capitalism of others.

It is quite a trippy place to be. I mean, you literally become an island of insignificance. Whilst working your ass off, and doing something so essential, capitalism gas lights you to the max by saying it means and is worth nothing.

Is it just that we don’t place a high value on the well being of children in our society, that we don’t see them as real people deserving of respect and quality human care? There is that.

The low status of babies and children also impacts the status of other people who spend their time with them – nursery workers and teachers for example.

But even those people experience greater respect and recognition than parents caring for their children themselves. Those people are getting PAID for their work, which makes them valuable.

Parents are just doing it for free. Which makes them either mugs, deviants, some kind of anti-feminist time travellers from the 1950s, or just plain lazy. It’s a stigma reserved for those perceived as ‘dependents’ in our society.

But What do you Even Do All Day? 

Parents that care for their children themselves, not only have to be incredibly self motivated and resourceful to navigate a society that has no place for them, they also have to coach themselves into positive self-esteem in order to combat the internalised capitalism that tells them at every available moment that they are doing literally nothing of value.

So, we reach out to each other. We form online support groups. We get together to validate and love each other.

And when we do that, we quietly and creatively destabilise the foundation of capitalism (patriarchy’s bedfellow). We say that despite all the odds, the financial, social and personal compromises, despite what our socialisation into a capitalistic belief system would have us believe, we still ACTUALLY believe that what we do is IMMENSELY valuable work, more than worthy of our time and dedication. We say that, even though they can’t pay us for it and make it ‘real work’,  our children are deserving of us.

And because of this, despite what others might believe and what we might sometimes find ourselves thinking, we are able to get on with what is probably the most important and socially active work we will ever do.

Fear of women, attachment to schooling.

this-day-in-world-history-9-22-11-photo-witches

Edited thanks to reader feedback: this shows a ducking stool, a punishment used when women talked back to their ‘master’. Women suspected of witchcraft had their ankles and wrists tied together, and were thrown in a pond. If they sank and drowned, it showed they  were innocent, if they half-drowned or swam, they were guilty and burnt to death.  

School is necessary. Or is it?

It was the demands of the Industrial Revolution that resulted in mass state schooling. Now we all take it for granted and it shapes our understanding of childhood, teaching and learning. We’ve all been through the system, we accept the system, we believe it’s necessary. We believe that learning and education requires school.

Except that an increasing number of parents are questioning this. In the same way as people are questioning many aspects of parenting and the parent child relationship, so too are parents applying critical thinking to education. Doing so leaves the system sorely lacking.

Fundamentally, it becomes clear, that schools are not institutions in which children’s rights are realised. Traditional schools are based on patriarchal models of power. The head teacher at the top, the patriarch, the other adults in the setting sub patriarchs, and the children take the role of children in patriarchal society – submissive to the patriarch, of lower status than adults, and with strictly limited and controlled opportunities for participation.

Intersectional feminist parents. 

To progressive, intersectional feminist, critical thinking parents, this is just not a model of socialisation that is acceptable. These parents are aware of the oppression of children in society, of the prejudice and discrimination they experience on the basis of being not adult. They see that schooling undermines children’s agency and best interests, their well-being, voice, and experience of the world.

Why would you want your child socialised into building a patriarchal mindset and belief system when you are actively trying to deconstruct patriarchal dominance? Schools nurture the minds of society, what happens within them determines how our society looks and acts. Studies have shown that the environment created in school directly influences the nature of the society around that school. If you want a socially just society, you need to create a socially just environment in school. Patriarchy has to go and children’s/human rights must prevail.

What to do?

In this situation, what options are there for parents? Try to find a school/teacher that has an awareness of this dysfunctional and oppressive power dynamic, and who tries to mitigate it’s impact in their own classroom?

Try to find a school that has implemented children’s rights?

These are golden unicorns.

What is more possible, is to opt out of the system all together. To forge your own education system and community. One based on children rights, respect and dignity for all. One based on the principles of human and environmental rights. One that is actually inclusive and embracing of individuality. One that trusts the learner, that doesn’t undermine self belief.

One that puts the power of learning in the hands of the learner not the patriarch.

And what is the name given to this revolutionary, progressive, transitional form of education?

‘Home education.’ 

How inadequate. This gives no indication of the intention of this grassroots system in the making, any more than ‘house wife’ explains the role being performed by dedicated intersectional feminist mothers.

It is a grassroots education movement that will lead the way to a society who believe in, can envision and who are deeply committed to justice for all, in their direct community and globally. Some call it unschooling. There just isn’t an adequate descriptive term.

And what do people think of ‘home education’?

People do not understand education outside of school. I didn’t understand it before I found myself in the middle of it. I was the patriarch’s favourite child throughout my schooling – I pleased and appeased ‘him’ in many ways, and I experienced enhanced privilege within the system because of it. Because of my favourited status, I was blind to the reality of the system. I believed I was participating – I realise now that my participation was a reward, in exchange for pleasing and complying.

I believed my privileged status was earned, that I was deserving because of my ability, because of my hard work. I was blind to the invisible barriers in school that advantage certain students and disadvantage others. Like in an abusive family, the favourited child fails to be aware of or believe in the possibility of the abuse of another child within the family. To them the patriarch is benevolent and loving, and any one not in receipt of that love has themself to blame.

Women lead the movement.

Because our entire society is patriarchal and founded on misogynistic beliefs, there is a deep distrust and suspicion about home education.

In most home educating families, it is the mother that shares the majority of her time with the children, who builds and networks with other parents in this grassroots system. It is this fact that causes people to resist and be alarmed at the thought of education outside of school.

As we all know, women that deviate in any way from their assigned role, or have taken action outside of what is approved by patriarchy, have been treated with mistrust and suspicion, as witches. This misogyny is deeply rooted in our subconscious, a legacy of mistrust.

We tell women not to spend too much time holding their babies/sleeping with their babies/loving their babies because it is bad in some way.

Rather than foster intergenerational community, we say children must be separated from their mothers for their own good (the mother’s and the child’s), and the earlier the better, by being sent to nursery/pre school/school. That a mother’s presence is negative and undesirable, that it detracts from a child’s experience rather than enhancing it.

We even say this when a child is crying and screaming, and demonstrating trauma at separation. We still believe that trauma is better for them than spending too much time with their mother.

Too much love is bad for a person – it will make them weak and lesser. A mother’s love is suffocating and overbearing. That is the prize jewel belief of the patriarchal mindset. It totally distracts us from the potential of love for liberation.

And so, the thought of a mother being the primary adult present in a child’s learning journey? How dangerous, how risky, how problematic. Misogyny screams at the very idea.

What is so much better and safer is passing the children over to the patriarch, the state, the headteacher. Much better for a child to be socialised under the oppression of patriarchy, than in the freedom and empowerment of a parent’s love and support.