The London Borough of Redbridge has joined a select group of local authorities in the UK that is working in partnership with UNICEF with a shared commitment to make their communities “Child-Friendly”. This is something for which voluntary children’s organisations in this borough have been campaigning for fifteen years or more. Whatever the outcomes it is surely a good thing.
However it was on a very well-run training and awareness day by a member of the UNICEF staff that one or two deep-seated queries began to surface. We were reminded that the basis of the initiative was the concept of children’s rights, specifically the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. For some reason I have always been uncomfortable with, and wary of, the notion of “rights”. And the current COVID-19 pandemic has served to confirm the substance of a number of my fears.
Needless to say, for the time being, the work on becoming a more child-friendly borough has been effectively suspended, and for several weeks most children have not been able to go to school and are unable to play outside in parks with their friends. They are confined to households that in some cases are unhappy, and in others, downright dysfunctional. You can add to the list from your own knowledge and experience.
This, it may be commented, is no surprise. The global health crisis necessitates such restrictions. But what, I wonder, has happened in the process to the rights of children? I am not sure how many have been infringed, and perhaps someone has been monitoring the situation. Presumably they are in cold storage, ready for reinstating when the crisis is over. If so, in what sense are they still rights? What substance, status, or leverage do they have?
Now I hope you will agree that this is neither a trivial, not temporary matter. Worldwide millions of children are continuously and chronically deprived of their rights as guaranteed by the UNCRC. When famine, disease, war, migration, and much more come to dominate the life of their community, nation or region, their rights are denied. There is no legislation that is introduced to do this: it simply happens without notice, and usually without mention. This is the truth of the matter. And on a massive scale.
According to Eurochild’s April roundup (email@example.com), 60% of all children worldwide are now living in countries with either partial or full lockdowns (information provided to Eurochild by the United Nations). Many face challenges of social connection, stress, abuse, neglect, domestic violence and trauma. And all of this is exacerbated for those children living in poor households where they have disabilities or act as carers for others. Specifically, in relation to education, Eurochild has joined with the European Public Health Alliance, calling for governments to ensure that children from vulnerable groups are not left with lower educational opportunities.
Yet there are still those countries, organisations and people who speak of rights as if they are in some sense solid, real, inviolable. That was how they were presented during the recent training session. And this is a characteristic of our age. It is possible that future historians could identify the period in which we are living as one framed largely by the rights discourse.
Which brings me back to children and child-friendliness. It is a comfort to think and speak as if rights were indeed non-negotiable and therefore solid. But we all know that there are times and places where they are demonstrably not. Would they not better therefore be described as aspirations or even dreams?
So what? My point is that many children and young people know that rights are not being respected in their own lives and communities, and have to live with the contradictions between the world as it is portrayed in the UNCRC on the one hand, and the ugly and often brutal reality of their daily lives and situations, on the other.
Of course it could be that rights make adults, particularly professionals who care about them, feel better, but that they risk making things worse for children.
COVID-19 is a new, and in some ways perhaps a unique, period in world history because for once we are all aware of a common issue. And it is something that has come upon us, taking us unaware, and in the process has threatened treasured and hallowed aspects of personal and social life. In more wealthy countries this comes as a shock. But for the rest of the world it is but another variation on the same old theme. And that theme is the contingency of human life and existence that threatens, and sometimes mocks, our aspirations desires and dreams.
When I was a little boy there were times when I was afraid of the dark. And I really do mean afraid. Just occasionally I was terrified of particular places. What I wonder was that about? It is worth pondering because my experience of listening to children suggests this is a common phenomenon. I can suggest particular elements that might go to make up the scale and intensity of the fear, including the terrifying possibility that a violent stranger might be lurking in the shadows. Knowing some of Dickens novels did not help particularly!
But my growing intuition is that deep down there is a universal fear of a void, of death. This is not a particularly original idea as a passing knowledge of say, Pascal’s Pensees, and Freudian psychoanalysis would testify. But it is worth holding on to.
The truth of the matter is that all human beings are mortal, and there comes a time in a child’s life when she knows that she will die. Life is not assured: it is contingent.
And COVID-19 is an eloquent reminder of this. We are all in it. And for those children in refugee camps, and war-torn cities, hungry and anxious, bereft of any comfort that can be offered with assurance or conviction, this is the simple, bedrock reality of things. Nearly all the nations on earth have vowed to respect children’s rights. But none of them have it in their power to guarantee them.
So while welcoming the progress that the UNCRC represents, and the significance of rights as markers and indications of what is valued, we do well to be humble and cautious in what we say to children. Promises could resemble those that turn out to be unfulfilled on bank notes not backed-up by sufficient reserves of gold.
In a recent issue of The TCJ I wrote about fairy stories. Since then I have continued to muse on the importance of stories for children. And it seems to me that good and honest stories offer more of substance to many, if not all children, than the all too easy promise of rights.
The stories will deal with the reality of life: unfairness, loss, bereavement, mistreatment, double-crossing, poverty, hunger and death. But in the process, they offer hope that is consonant with a child’s experience. That hope is not about easy maxims or solutions like the promise of a child-friendly world. But it will encourage children to dream of one.
One such story that has moved me for decades is from West Side Story. It provided me with the title of the book, A Place for Us. And the way this happened is instructive. I had written the bulk of the text, but struggled (as I usually do) with a title. I shared this problem with some of the children at Mill Grove. One of them responded that she didn’t have a title, but she did have a tune. This didn’t sound very promising, until she began to sing, Somewhere, with its opening words, There’s a place for us. I knew that this was exactly right for the book.
But it also took me closer to her own sad life experiences. She had suffered the loss of both her parents, at different times, and had not been able to come to terms with the separation and grief this was causing her. There was nothing that could be offered her by way of rights, but this song, a childlike dream, offered hope. She is now a grandmother, who still struggles with her memories and anxiety, but I know she has not given up on the dream. That’s the truth of the matter for her, as I understand it.