Living with young people: understanding children’s rights.


12/01/2014 by RFB

What are children’s rights?

When adults consider how they are going to behave towards young people, it is generally done from an adult perspective. In discussions on parenting, teaching, and early years provision, the starting point tends to be what adults are going to do in order to create a desired result from young people, and for themselves in their role. This view however is missing a critical, and in fact legally binding aspect, which totally changes the way in which adults must consider their role in the lives of young people: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

The UNCRC is a list of human rights protected by international law, which applies to everyone from birth until the age of 18. It is the most widely accepted human rights agreement in history, having been ratified by 193 countries since it was created in 1989. The convention covers all aspects of young people’s experience, including the right to education, to family life, good health and protection from harm. The rights described in the UNCRC are held automatically by every person from their birth, no matter what their background, wealth, religion, race, or any other distinguishing factor.

“Article 1 (definition of the child)

Everyone under the age of 18 has all the rights in the Convention.


Article 2 (without discrimination)

The Convention applies to everyone: whatever their ethinicity, gender, religion, abilities, whatever they think or say, whatever type of family they come from.”

–       ‘A summary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF”

While detailing the rights of young people, the UNCRC is just as important for adults, as adults have a key responsibility in ensuring that all young people are able to access and experience their rights. Everyone, including Government, public and private businesses, educators and institutions as well as parents, families and individuals share a duty, codified in the UNCRC, to support young people in living in an environment that respects these human rights.

“Article 42 (knowledge of rights)

 Governments must make the Convention known to children and adults.


Article 3 (best interests of the child)

The best interests of the child must be a top priority in all things that affect children.


Article 5 (parental guidance)

Governments must respect the rights and responsibilities of parents to guide and advise their child so that, as they grow, they learn to apply their rights properly.”

–     ‘A summary of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF

What does it mean for those living with young people?

Young people from birth hold the rights as laid out in the UNCRC at all times, and in all places. This means that all adults must make it their business to respect and implement young peoples rights in accordance with the UNCRC. The Convention is upheld by international law, and supersedes national government legislation. Young people are a vulnerable minority group and can only access and realise their rights with the support of adults.

“They [young people] depend upon adults for the articulation and protection of their rights, and they depend on adults for survival and loving care. Every adult citizen is, in this sense, a representative for children. It’s a social and political responsibility for all adults.” – ‘Childism: The Unacknowledged Prejudice Against Kids’,Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, April 26th 2012, TIME.

There is a misconception that children’s rights are only relevant to young people living in extreme poverty or highly abusive situations. While some of the articles in the UNCRC are more relevant to young people in these situations, there are other equally important rights (no single article in the UNCRC has priority over another) that apply to all young people on an everyday basis. These rights include the right to have their best interests held as the primary concern by adults in all decisions that affect them, the right to have their rights respected and promoted by their parents, the right to a voice and for their views to be listened to and taken seriously, and the right to be protected from all forms of physical and psychological harm.

Article 3: Best interests of the child.

 Article 3 states young people’s right to have their best interests held as the primary concern in all decisions made by adults affect them:

“Article 3 (Best interests of the child): The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and law makers.” – FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF

As stated above, Article 3 applies to government, but it also applies to all individual adults that are interacting with young people, including parents and family members, childcare providers, and teachers. In accordance with article 3, all adults must make young people’s best interests the ‘primary concern’ when making decisions. This means that young people’s interests are given greater weight in decision making than the interests of adults.

37. The expression “primary consideration” means that the child’s best interests may not be considered on the same level as all other considerations. This strong position is justified by the special situation of the child: dependency, maturity, legal status and, often, voicelessness. Children have less possibility than adults to make a strong case for their own interests and those involved in decisions affecting them must be explicitly aware of their interests. If the interests of children are not highlighted, they tend to be overlooked.” – ‘General comment No. 14 (2013) on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration (art. 3, para. 1)*’, Committee on the Rights of the Children, 29th May 2013

In practice, this means acknowledging that young people are fundamentally vulnerable and have more complex needs than adults due to their stage of development. As they are highly dependent on adults, adults have a responsibility to prioritise young people’s best interests in all decisions. Young people, especially as infants and when very young, are not able to advocate strongly for their own best interests. Adults must be highly sensitive to this and not abuse their inherent position of advantage.

Article 5: Parental guidance

Article 5 identifies the responsibility held by parents to ensure that young people are able to realise their rights within the family, and government’s responsibility to support this.

“Article 5 (Parental guidance): Governments should respect the rights and responsibilities of families to direct and guide their children so that, as they grow, they learn to use their rights properly. Helping children to understand their rights does not mean pushing them to make choices with consequences that they are too young to handle. Article 5 encourages parents to deal with rights issues “in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child”. The Convention does not take responsibility for children away from their parents and give more authority to governments. It does place on governments the responsibility to protect and assist families in fulfilling their essential role as nurturers of children.” – FACT SHEET: a summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF

Parents have a legal duty to acknowledge the rights of the young people in their family. They must also ensure that their family has a full understanding of their rights, and support and facilitate their rights being respected within and outside the home. Parents are in a unique position of trust and responsibility and they have a critical and powerful opportunity to facilitate young people in realising their rights. In order to do so “in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child”, parents need to develop an understanding of child development and normal biological and psychological capacities of young people. They must also acknowledge that young people are individual, and so their capacities and needs will differ from each other. By doing this they can establish age. developmentally and personally appropriate expectations of young people, which acknowledge their abilities and limitations. Thanks to recent neurological, biological and psychological advancements, evidence based information on this is now available. However adults can develop this understanding by spending time living with young people in an open minded, non-judgemental and mutually-dignified way. This enables parents to see through culturally constructed views on young people to reach a true understanding of them.

“When I say that children are competent, I mean that they are in a position to teach us what we need to learn. They give us the feedback that makes it possible for us to regain our own lost competence and help us to discard our unfruitful, unloving and self-destructive patterns of behavior. To learn from our children in this way demands much more than that we speak democratically with them. It means that we must develop a kind of dialogue that many adults are unable to establish even with other adults: that is to say, a personal dialogue based on equal dignity.” – Jesper Juul, ‘The Competent Child’

Article 12: Respect for the views of the child

Article12 (respect for the views of the child)

Every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously.” – ‘A Summary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF

Article 12 protects the rights of young people to be listened to and to have their opinions authentically valued. Listening to young people starts from the moment of birth – infants and very young people are ready and able to communicate before they can verbalise their opinion.

‘A child is ready to communicate from birth. They will amaze you with how quickly they use movement, facial expressions and noises to try to communicate; it’s simply a case of reading the signs.’ – Clare Bolton, National Literacy Trust.


“Children can’t always put their feelings into words, so listening to them includes paying attention to their actions and behaviour.” – ‘Listening to Children: Improving Communication with your Child’, NSPCC

The views of young people must be taken seriously from birth, even before they can use words to communicate. This is an important point for adults to accept, as it challenges the view that young people’s cries and early communication lacks meaning, and is unimportant. Respecting a young person’s right to a voice and taking their opinion seriously is a critical foundation to establishing a respectful relationship between an adults and young people. It is also intrinsic to the implementation of Article 3, as the best interests of a young person can only be fully understood when their own opinions have been listened to. Article 12 is also particularly relevant for early years professionals and teachers, as young people hold their rights at all times and in all places, including childcare settings and schools.

Article 19: Protection from all forms of violence

“Article 19 (Protection from all forms of violence): Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments are bound by the UNCRC to ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them. In terms of discipline, the Convention does not specify what forms of punishment parents should use. However any form of discipline involving violence is unacceptable. There are ways to discipline children that are effective in helping children learn about family and social expectations for their behaviour – ones that are non-violent, are appropriate to the child’s level of development and take the best interests of the child into consideration.” – Summary of the UNCRC, UNICEF

Article 19 protects young people from all physical or psychological harm. The UNCRC is upheld by international law, meaning that it supersedes laws made by national governments. Whether or not a government has legislated against a harmful act, young people still hold the human right not to be harmed. This is particularly relevant in regards to smacking. The definition of ‘violence’ is ‘to cause hurt’, and this applies to feelings as much as it does to the body. Behaviour towards a young person that involves shaming, emotional withdrawal, bullying or any other hurtful act is in breach of a young person’s human rights in accordance with article 19. In regards to discipline, Article 19 identifies a ‘non-violent’ approach. This does not just mean an approach with the absence of violence, but an approach that is peaceful, respectful and that causes no harm. Article 19 also highlights that discipline must be “appropriate to the child’s level of development and take the best interests of the child into consideration”. Young people’s rights apply at all times and in all places, including childcare settings, schools and the wider community. The government has a responsibility to support adults in realising Article 19 for young people, and the UN has demanded that they do so:



…Governments should support parents in providing a violence-free home. Components of this education should foster increased understanding of the physical, psychological, sexual and cognitive development of infants, children and young people; expand child-rearing and parenting skills, emphasising respect for children’s views and evolving capacities; promote non-violent relationships and non-violent, non-humiliating forms of discipline, problem-solving skills and management of family conflict…” – “Eliminating Violence Against Children’, Handbook for Parliamentarians No. 13 – 2007, Inter-Parliamentary Union/ UNICEF

Realising awareness.

While the UNCRC has been in existence since 1989, there are significant challenges that must be overcome to ensure that young people are able to realise their rights. A critical step in this process is increasing awareness and understanding of the UNCRC:

“If the adults around children, their parents and other family members, teachers and carers, do not understand the implications of the Convention and above all its confirmation of the equal status of children as subjects of rights, it is most unlikely that the rights set out in the Convention will be realized for many children.” – Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 5, on general measures for implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, para. 66

Young people’s rights exist right now, and this must be understood and accepted in order for them to be realised in every-day life. There is currently a lack of awareness and understanding of the UNCRC, and this plays a part in the continued misunderstanding of the role and status of young people in society.

“The persisting view of children as property, rather than as individual people holding equal rights, is reflected in laws in many countries that consider violence against children by their parents as ‘discipline’.” – “Eliminating Violence Against Children’, Handbook for Parliamentarians No. 13 – 2007, Inter-Parliamentary Union/ UNICEF

This false perception of the young as the property of adults rather than individual people with equal rights perpetuates the social acceptance of behaviours that are in breach with the UNCRC.

“Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights.” – UNICEF

On an everyday level this can be seen by the continuing social acceptance of authoritarian parenting methods such as ‘cry it out’ and ‘controlled crying’ sleep training, smacking, shame-based practices and emotional withdrawal such as ignoring, ‘naughty steps’, ‘time outs’, and verbal shaming. It can also be found in the classroom with ‘behaviour management systems’ that identify young people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and in authoritarian power dynamics between adults and young people that undermines the right of a young person to be seen as a dignified person with human rights. The UN is applying pressure on governments to reflect the rights of young people in legislation, but while this happens it is the responsibility of individuals to initiate change.

“For the first time, we are ready to create genuine relationships that bestow equal dignity on men and women, and on adults and children. Never before in the history of mankind has this happened on such a large scale. The demand for equal dignity also means openness and respect for differences, which in turn means that we must abandon many of our impressions about what is generally right and wrong. We can no longer just replace one “parenting” method with another; we can no longer continue merely to modernize our mistaken assumptions. Together with our children and our grandchildren, we are literally staking out new territory.”

– Jesper Juul, ‘The Competant Child’

To support young people in realising their rights we can:

–     Familiarise ourselves with the rights held by young people in the UNCRC.

–     Respect the rights of young people within our own families, in our work and in the community.

–     Insist that government, institutions, organisations, and individuals acknowledge and respect the rights of young people outside of the home.


For further information:

‘A summary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’, UNICEF


UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in full


General comment No. 14 (2013) on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration (art. 3, para. 1)*, Committee on the Rights of the Child


‘Listening to Children’ – NSPCC 


“Eliminating Violence Against Children’, Handbook for Parliamentarians No. 13 – 2007, Inter-Parliamentary Union/ UNICEF


Introduction to ‘The Competant Child’ by Jesper Juul



5 thoughts on “Living with young people: understanding children’s rights.

  1. Marissa Webb says:

    Well said. I’m glad you mentioned cry it out and controlled crying. Been having a tough week with that topic and I really want to get the word out about respect for babies and their emotions. Keep up the good work.

  2. Becky says:

    This is an interesting article with some important thinking points. However, you note that some parenting methods such as CC and CIO for example are in breach of the UNCRC : is this purely your viewpoint?

    What appears to be highlighted again and again here is that the primary concern is what is in the best interests of the child. What is in the best interests of the child of course could be subjective. For example, it is widely accepted that breastfeeding is best for a baby, however, if the mother for example is suffering from or at risk from PND and significant problems with breastfeeding are exacerbating her negative mental state, should she continue? Or is it in the best interests of the child for her to formula feed and the child to then have a mother with better mental health and better equipped to care for him/her? OR another example, a mother who already has another young child, and has a baby or toddler still waking hourly throughout the night. The mother finds herself mentally and physically exhausted and is therefore unable to fully attend to all the emotional and developmental needs of both children during the day and is short-tempered with them and at risk of depression. Is it in the best interests of the child or children to continue like this? OR to use a method of sleep training, which would potentially mean a few nights of upset for the child but ultimately leave the family with better sleep and a fully attentive mother who feels she can cope? Surely it cannot be as black and white as you suggest?

    • schristophy says:

      Hi Becky, thank you for your comment. In response to your questions: CC and CIO breach articles 12 (respect for the views of the child) and 19 (protection from all forms of harm) in addition to article 3(best interests). The UNCRC does not discuss sleep training as it does not address points specifically in that way, however I have had positive feedback from both UNICEF UK and CRIN (Children’s Rights International Network) regarding this article. The issues that you mention regarding PND, breastfeeding, night-time parenting, and support (or lack there of) for families in caring for young children are all really important, but the issue is with the cause of these scenarios and not with the interpretation of children’s rights. Rather than asking if it is in the best interest of a baby to be left to cry because the alternative is a parent unable to meet their needs, we should be asking why in our society parents are so unsupported in living with their young families that they become physically and mentally exhausted. Are there ways that families could approach sleep and night times that resulted in more sleep for everyone without compromising the rights of a child? Instead of asking if formula is in a babies best interest for the reasons that you gave, we should be asking why is our society failing families in adequately supporting breastfeeding and why our mothers are experiencing such high levels of PND. We are confined to social norms, practices and beliefs that act as barriers to being able to realise the UNCRC, and our government does not prioritise resources to meet the needs of families or children’s rights. Our focus must be on overcoming those barriers and challenging the government to be true to their commitment to the UNCRC.

  3. Becky says:

    Thank you for your response. These are excellent points and I completely agree with your questions regarding society as a whole and implementing change to help better support families. However, in the interim, while lobbying and campaigning for these changes to be met, there are perhaps no short term solutions for parents such as those given in my examples. Unless there are magic solutions you are able to give to allow a mother to be able to breastfeed successfully for example, or get the sleep she needs in order to function properly, I maintain that the best interests of the child may not always be as straight forward as you propose.

    • schristophy says:

      It is not that these things become the young person’s best interests, it is that it might be inevitable in some situations that their rights can not be realised. There are many different options that can be explored by families in society as we live in it now in response to the problems that you suggested, before it is necessary to use the methods mentioned.

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