The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is important to note, however, that no matter how attractive an idea child participation might seem, it is not a “free good” as is most commonly assumed, nor does it necessarily bring more rationality to any project. It carries both direct and opportunity costs. Nonetheless, the skills of participation must be learned and practised in light of the medium and long-term costs to society of not facilitating participation: a world of young adults who do not know how to express themselves, negotiate differences, engage in constructive dialogue or assume responsibility for self, family, community and society.

Most importantly, however, child participation is a responsibility and an obligation of all those whose actions are guided by the convention on the rights of the child. Participation, in the context of the convention, entails the act of encouraging and enabling children to make their views known on the issues that affect them. Put into practice, participation involves adults listening to children — to all their multiple and varied ways of communicating, ensuring their freedom to express themselves and taking their views into account when coming to decisions that affect them.

The principle that children should be consulted about what affects them often meets with resistance from those who see it as undermining adult authority within the family and society. But listening to the opinions of children does not mean simply endorsing their views. Rather, engaging them in dialogue and exchange allows them to learn constructive ways of influencing the world around them. The social give and take of participation encourages children to assume increasing responsibilities as active, tolerant and democratic citizens in formation.

Caution is in order as child participation can take various forms of involvement, engagement and commitment and not all child participation is active, social, purposeful, meaningful or constructive.

Too often, the participation of children, even when designed by well-meaning adults, amounts to non-participation if children are manipulated, used as decoration or as tokens. Too easily, child participation can drift into being “adult-centric”, can be imposed on unwilling children, or be designed in ways inappropriate for a child’s age and capacities. In its worst manifestations, child participation can be repressive, exploitative or abusive.

In contrast, authentic child participation must start from children and young people themselves, on their own terms, within their own realities and in pursuit of their own visions, dreams, hopes and concerns. Children need information, support and favourable conditions in order to participate appropriately and in a way that enhances their dignity and self-esteem.

Given the proper space, authentic participation is about valuing people — children — within a context of others and in relationship to others and the world. Whether a child effectively participates in the world depends on several conditions including the child’s evolving capabilities, the openness of parents and other adults to dialogue and to learn from children, and safe spaces in the family, community and society that allow such dialogue.

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