Democracy begins with children’s rights

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How we treat children determines whether they will grow up to create a just society, writes
Jonathan Levy.

Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind, said Charlie Chaplin. ‘We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.’

At the end of 2014, the Executive Director of UNICEF stated that as many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. These include those who have been displaced in their own countries as well as those living as refugees outside their homelands. An estimated 230 million children live in countries affected by armed conflicts.

As an educationalist, my whole adult life has been centred on children. This has taught me that the key issues with which the world is grappling come back to universal values of humanity. These
issues include injustice, corruption, undemocratic processes, lack of trust and integrity, conflict and power struggles, racism, cultural intolerance and discrimination. They are important, but they are the symptoms of something deeper, which touches on our relationship to our fellow humans.

Participation is the building block of democracy. It creates active citizens and thriving civil societies. It can hold governments to account and challenge corruption and undemocratic practices. Where do we teach people that their input is a valuable resource?

Our relationship with humanity starts in the womb. Then we are born. During our formative years, we build our understanding of society, first in the family, then at school and through recreational opportunities and our encounters with health centres and social welfare. We learn from our elders’ behaviour. We observe whether we are respected or humiliated, whether we are protected, under-protected or over-protected, whether our opinions are taken seriously. We see whether we are enabled to find our unique place in democracy, whether we are thought of as true competent partners. These elements will determine our way of understanding our world and its complexities. They will decide whether we acquire a critical consciousness which allows us to make informed decisions so as to transform ourselves and our society for the better.

Many thinkers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onwards, have pointed out that an upbringing which does not respect the values of democracy (such as choice, decision-making and individual opinions) will not produce a just society.

These fundamental elements are nothing more than the rights that we universally promised to the world’s children 27 years ago through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

George Orwell said, ‘Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’ Really? Maybe we need to change this.

Jonathan Levy is the programme director of the Children as Actors for Transforming Society (CATS) conference at the Initiatives of Change Caux Conference Centre.

Photo credit: CAUX-IofC Foundation