Our institutions need to start listening to children

Children and young people have a lot to say – why aren’t our institutions listening?

Nov 22, 2019, updated Nov 22, 2019
Children and young people want their concerns to be heard. AAP image

Children and young people want their concerns to be heard. AAP image

On Wednesday we celebrated World Children’s Day – a day when governments around the world are being asked to reaffirm a global pledge to make “every right, for every child” a reality.

On this day 50 years ago, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This declaration set a key universal standard, stating unequivocally that “mankind owes to the child the best it has to give”.

Thirty years ago, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child – 54 articles to which they agreed all the world’s children were entitled. Australia was an early signatory, ratifying the document on December 17, 1989. Today, more than 195 other countries have also ratified this document, making it the most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history.

The past 30 years have seen the greatest and most rapid period of change ever experienced by humankind. Our 21st century children and young people, born since the year 2000, are living through social and technological transformation which is challenging and disrupting thinking about society, democracy and citizenship.

In this century, concerns expressed by children and young people, including growing inequality, increasingly fragmented societies, and the climate crisis, are emerging as key issues of social trust.

Given human rights can only be built on trust, it makes sense for us to reaffirm our commitment to children’s rights in 2019. This requires us to consider how best to articulate our obligations with reference to what children and young people have told us they most concerned about.

I think that young people have had a lot of things that they’ve seen governments & adults in general screw up – we now have to contend with the past generation’s mistakes, like global warming. We can see that some of the decisions made today by adults have very effectively screwed us over, and that is a big factor. Kids want to be included. The government & world leaders hold our future, yet exclude us from shaping it. If we are to trust others, they should trust us, and include us in what may very well shape our lives. Trust is a two-way street. (South Australian girl, 14-years-old)

Thousands of South Australian children and young people have consistently raised with me the challenges they face in finding opportunities to interact with and/or become involved with government, organisations and business in meaningful ways.

They say that many of the challenges they face can be attributed to their status as children and young people. They have told me that they experience a pervasive lack of respect, are rarely invited to be involved in decisions that impact on their lives, and lack opportunities to have influence over issues they consider to be important.

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Collectively children and young people have told me they want “the system” to seek their youthful contributions, perspectives, ideas and experiences. They want adults to learn from their direct experience of the systems and processes we have put in place, and inform adults about where these can be adjusted so that they remain relevant to their changing needs.

Young people understand that social trust is an essential element of a well-functioning society. They also know that their collective trust in civil society is built more effectively when they are valued, listened to, and respected, for their views and experiences.

Young people have repeatedly told me that they want to be able to trust leaders and community representatives. They want to be able to trust government and have faith in its effectiveness. They see this trust as a foundation of what it means to have a healthy democracy, where citizens can participate and freely express their points of view, confident that their views will be considered, respected and acted upon.

Young people want to engage directly with business, politicians and public institutions in real-time. Like me, they are convinced we would have better and more trusting communities and in turn societies, if children and young people had more opportunities to contribute and have their basic rights met.

Can we commit to moving beyond the rhetoric and use contemporary methods to enable young people to participate in our democracy in meaningful ways?

Can we be trusted to move out of our comfort zones and embrace new ways of building mutual trust through enacting the rights of children and young people?

Can we challenge our adult-centric view of the world and invite young people to the table as equals? Can we acknowledge that we are not the experts in the contemporary world of children and young people?

Our children and young people know how they experience the world and what would make it better for them.

When children and young people are empowered to speak and to have their voices heard, we send a strong message that their opinions matter, and perhaps more importantly that we can be trusted to deliver on their concerns as well as address their changing needs.

Helen Connolly is the inaugural South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People, responsible for promoting and advocating for the rights, interests and wellbeing of children and young people across South Australia.

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