Keeping Control

There has been an increasing emphasis on children’s rights for the last twenty or thirty years. We have got well away from the era when children were meant to be “seen and not heard”, when adults took all the significant decisions and when children were generally not encouraged to think for themselves too much or assume that they could exercise choice.

We have now entered an era where children and young people are consulted widely, where they sit on the boards of charities (even if they cannot vote for legal reasons), where there are children’s parliaments, where there are Children’s Rights Commissioners, and a host of other signs that their views are now taken seriously.

There are a lot of changes which still need to be made, but a corner has been turned, and if all goes well, a permanent change will have been made, in which children’s status in society will have changed for good. It takes a generation or two for such major changes of attitude to become firmly lodged in the nation’s psyche, and the fact that the debate about smacking still rumbles on indicates that we are not there yet.

This article assumes that action is still needed to achieve the right balance and to give children and young people the right level of control over their lives. The point is, though, that while people are in campaigning mode – whether to demand more rights for children or anything else – they tend to argue their cases as strongly as they can, and sometimes they go too far and a little adjustment is needed afterwards to achieve a balanced society.

Some people are beginning to argue, for example, that demands in legislation for people working with children to be police-checked are going too far, and that the outcome will be fewer volunteers, so that children will actually lose out because of a measure designed to protect them. Or again, our emphasis on health and safety is seen increasingly as leading to an unhealthy avoidance of risk.

This article is raising the question therefore about children’s rights, their scope to choose and their control over their own lives. Have we got the balance right? What are the fundamental principles? Are they reflected in practice? Are there glaring anomalies? What do we still need to achieve?

As a basic principle we want children to be able to grow into responsible adults, capable of  their own decision-making. This entails having learnt how to make choices, – to gather the necessary data, to analyse and evaluate it, to select priorities, to check whether the selected approach will be viable, and then to persuade anyone else affected that this is the right choice. This process is the same for a toddler choosing the type of ice cream s/he wants and the young adult deciding on his/her life’s partner. Learning how to choose starts early, and we carry on learning about choosing throughout our lives. It is clearly for parents to teach a child how to choose.

Although the basic principle is that people should be able to choose for themselves, quite obviously we apply the principle to different people to different extents.

  • A baby has virtually no choice until it learns the power of refusal.
  • A toddler is not allowed to run into the road to play with speeding traffic, even if s/he cries at being taken back into the garden.
  • Young children may not have the range of experience needed to make informed decisions.
  • Older children also do not have total choice. Parents often decide on bedtimes, which schools they will go to, what they will wear, or where they are going on holiday.
  • Adolescents are said to have less ability to make balanced decisions than adults because of the stage of development of their brains.
  • By the time they are young adults it is too late for parents to insist on their compliance; all the parents can do is to threaten to cut their children out of their wills.

However, parents’ advice may be sought, and if the model has been established earlier, collaborative decision-making may still be the norm within families. Indeed, parents need to be aware that the norm that they set may be applied to them in old age when they are the dependent generation.

The basic principle of giving children choice is therefore compromised by another principle, that of keeping them safe and ensuring their welfare. The tension between these two principles is the cause of many an argument. Parents putting unwelcome restrictions on their children may be acting in the children’s best interests, but their actions are nonetheless seen as limiting by their children and denying them choice.

The situation is made more complex by other factors.  Disabilities may render children more vulnerable, less mature and less capable of taking decisions, and parents may come to assume that they will never be capable of making choices. Children with behaviour problems or mental ill health may behave responsibly and maturely at times, while at others they can become unpredictable, aggressive and exhausting, such that parents react out of exasperation or even self-defence. Again, alcohol and drugs can affect children’s behaviour, so that parents cannot rely upon their responses to be normal.

In all these situations, the usual wish to help children to learn to take control of their lives is undermined and subverted, and parents may need to vary their approaches, sometimes treating their children as responsible, and sometimes needing to take control in their children’s best interests. Sometimes they may need to take severe action with a view to greater independence later. Just as a surgeon may cause a serious wound in operating, with a view to improving the patient’s health, so a parent may need to take drastic action that reduces a child’s control over its own life with a view to long-term gains.

The moral of this line of argument is that parents face a lot of complex problems where it is unclear – with the best intentions – what line they should take. What is clear is that they should be open and honest in addressing who should take which decisions, they should talk things through as much as they can, they should bear their long-term aims for their children in mind when deciding on short-term solutions, and they should be consistent in their conduct having made their decision.

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