The rights of the child as an individual - Samantha Long

At secondary school in provincial Ireland in the 1980's, the rules were summarised in pithy pairs:

Rights and responsibilities. Uniformity and conformity. Respect for parents, respect for teachers. Seen, not heard.

All of these were expanded upon in detail whether the occasion required it or not, especially when discipline was being meted out verbally, and at great length. Except for rights. I don't recall any exposition of our rights as children, what they might be, or how to access them.

I really loved school, but this group of words has stayed with me since I left, because it bothered me as a teenager, and still bothers me as a parent.

What are children's rights? Can each of us provide them, understand them and uphold them without getting bogged down in legal terminology and weighty tomes on human rights.

At the most basic, we have a responsibility as parents or guardians to provide shelter, food, warmth, education, and a secure loving environment. We do the same for our pets, and that could just as easily be the mission statement of an animal shelter. So what marks children out as more important or different, what else do we need to give each of them as a child?

The right to be treated as an individual. A person who is as important as each and every adult with whom they come into contact.

Children have lots of rights, but not many choices. As parents we choose for them, especially when they are very young – what they wear, eat, watch, who they meet, where they go. When we leave aside the staples and delve into their greater individual rights it gets a little more complicated, but not necessarily difficult. When our first child was born, I was a little overwhelmed by the array of nursery items, toys and baby equipment on offer. The marketers would like us to believe that we need everything and many fall for this ploy, feeling bad if their baby doesn't have it all. One thing I have learned by parenting and observing it's that children don't actually need much "stuff". They need us, they need time, and they need their little voices to be heard.

I have noticed a tendency in some adults to casually refer to their own or other children as though they are a nuisance, a distraction, tiring. I read an open thread of comments on one of the top news websites this week, the question being posed was "Is it ever right to slap children?" We won't solve that debate here but the language used by some contributors to describe children was deeply disturbing and verbally abusive. Many of the commentators were themselves parents.

I can remember only two occasions when I have been stopped in my tracks in noticing how children were treated remarkably respectfully and with overflowing love by their parents. On both occasions I was observing interactions within families in the Travelling Community. I have rarely seen such an overwhelming sense of self worth being instilled in children by their elders, and so publicly. It struck me that the children were aware that each was an important individual, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That they really mattered as a person within that whole community, irrespective of age.

Children need to be told, shown and bear witness to their own value as individuals. That who they are is more than ok. Their appearance, their name, their ability, their disability, their achievements, their address, their preferences, and eventually their sexuality. It's all fine, because they are innately individual and loved unconditionally.

This takes some work, thought and patience in our demanding and sometimes stressful lives, especially now, and we must keep trying.

Blog Post from Samantha Long posted on in August 2012

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