Child rights and the daily life of children: Eight things we know

In November 1959 the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which led ultimately to the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the assembly in November 1989. The UN has designated 20 November as the official date for World Children’s Day, although countries differ on the day they choose in November — in South Africa, we celebrate National Children’s Day on the first Saturday in November. The intention is to highlight ongoing efforts to promote children’s welfare and securing child rights. 

For many, and particularly for those not embedded in the tough daily work of fighting for child rights, the enterprise of child rights can appear at times to be somewhat of an ivory tower endeavour removed both from them, but more importantly from the daily lives of children. 

This is understandable, as it really can feel as if child rights are something that governments, nongovernmental organisations and UN agencies talk about in Pretoria, Geneva and New York. The idea that in fact children rights are also about the everyday, about what we know children require to thrive, and what we know is good (and bad) for them — and thus about child rights — is not always a connection that is easily made.  

In this piece in observance of World Children’s Day, I will outline eight things that I believe are unequivocal facts about what children are, what they need, and how this knowledge might help frame the child rights agenda in a way that brings it closer to home for those who might feel that child rights are other people’s business.  

Children are social beings: From the first moments after birth, infants are primed for social interaction with others. They will, for example, seek out the smell and sounds of familiar adults, something they can do having been surrounded by, and immersed in the sounds of their mother (predominantly), for all those months in the womb. But they are also able to recognise the voices of others if those voices have been a frequent presence such as those of fathers. Mimicry, and noting the facial expressions of others is key to developing social understanding, and we know that very young infants are able to mirror the facial expressions of others from as soon as 27 minutes after birth, as research by American psychologist and expert on infant and child development Andrew Meltzoff has shown. Infants are not waiting for a magical moment in the future when they can now interact. They can and want to do it from the very beginning and facilitating this is essential for optimal child development.  

Hitting children is a bad thing: We have decades worth of research showing how corporal punishment leads to stress, aggression and even mental health difficulties in children. It is also clear that societies that have effectively stopped all forms of corporal punishment also have lower levels of violence across their societies. Corporal punishment is particularly bad for children, but it is also not good for parents and for the relationship between parents and children. One of its many ill effects is that it results in adults making absurd rationalisations for hitting their own children such as “I was hit by my parents and I turned out alright”. This is an admission of exactly the opposite — “I have grown up to be a 90kg adult who believes beating up a 20kg child is good for them” — a quite literal admission of sociopathy. Stop hitting children.

Quality time is great, but quantity time plus quality time is even better: Many parents are holding down more than one job, may be travelling long distances to work and back each day, fetching wood and water and leading altogether incredibly busy and often difficult lives. Spending a great deal of time with children may simply not be possible. One response to this has been to place the focus on the quality of the time that is possible. And of course this is true and a good thing. To a point. Children, particularly the youngest children, need quality and quantity time with adults. If your time is limited make sure it is quality. But if you do have time, and what you are doing is mindlessly scrolling through your mobile phone, or leaving young children in the care of others so you can party and play golf, you are doing your children (and yourself) a disservice. Children need as much of their caregivers and parents as they can get. 

Children need their fathers:  Many children in South Africa grow up without the daily presence of their fathers — and frequently without any contact at all. This is bad for children. I have also heard it said from fathers that are in the lives of children, that their role is to be with their sons — and that daughters are the responsibility of mothers. This is not true — boys and girls need fathers in their lives.

Every child requires at least one adoring adult: At the start of my career I worked in a residential child and youth care home. Children had been removed from their parents and placed in the organisation for a variety of reasons. For many, their experience of the world had been one of neglect and a sense of never truly feeling loved by a caregiver. One of my mentors at the time said to me, “Every child needs at least one adult who unreservedly adores them.” Get that right and you will have made a singular contribution to improving the life of that child.  

Face-to-face connection is better than digital:  We live in a hyperconnected world.  But we need people and we need them because we are social beings. There is no question that for many children and adolescents connecting digitally to their peers is an essential means of social connection.  But this cannot replace face to face connection — for most children and for the youngest children in particular. 

Children need to play: It is not too much of a stretch to state that the origins of creativity, exploration, social skills and perhaps even entrepreneurial skills lie in play. Play is not about toys (although they may help) but about wonder, joy, learning, exploration and discovering how the world works. The child development expert, Alison Gopnik, has a wonderful way of describing this when she says, “The youngest children need mud, livestock and parents.” Creating environments in which children can play safely and engage in responsive interactions with their peers and caring adults is one of the single most important actions we can take in meeting the day to day rights of children.

Listen to children: We are increasingly aware of the agency of even young children but undoubtedly of adolescents. They have a vital take on things, and they thrive when they are engaged with in a genuinely equal manner, and when we listen to what they have to say. Starting from an assumption that we can listen to them, that we can let them lead, and that they might just know better than us what is in their best interests, might be a ‘lived way’ of us ensuring we create the kind of enabling environments that might bring the realisation of the Convention for the Rights of the Child a little closer.

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Mark Tomlinson
Professor Mark Tomlinson is a clinical psychologist by training and is currently the co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University.

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