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Protecting children’s rights or our own?

It is a widely held belief that children are not competent to perform certain tasks, because they have not yet reached a certain age. As a consequence, we tend to limit or restrain their autonomy as well as their freedom of choice.

However, can we really be confident in saying that under a certain age, they are incompetent to perform a particular task?

Does the age-based boundary between childhood and adulthood clearly delineate their cognitive functions and life skills, or it is only an arbitrary demarcation?

Is it then fair to deny children the appropriate degree of respect for their decision-making ability leaving them unable to demonstrate their ability to accomplish certain tasks?

Are we protecting or depriving them of the opportunity of practicing their newly learned skills, leaving them less likely to further expand and enhance these skills and competencies, and so hindering their overall development?


Review of some scenarios

We rang an ambulance… and then suddenly, because I sounded like a child on the phone, so suddenly he said, how old are you, and I said 14, and he said, well you have to get an adult to ring us up then…’ (source: 12 year old quoted in Young Equals, 2009:9)

In this case, we are not only depriving them of the opportunity to learn essential life skills, but are also being a cause of danger to those needing immediate help.

Another scenario is from a school in a well-developed country. 

A female student came across a stranger in the girl’s toilet and felt threatened by him. It was after school hours.

Nothing happened and the man’s motivation remained unclear. 

But during a Parent-Teacher Association meeting, parents demanded the school building be locked after school hours and after hours activities be restricted to certain areas.

Students disapproved of the plan and proposed they accompany each other to the toilet, as well as develop a prompt system of reporting strangers.

What needs to be questioned is whether the plan of the Parent-Teacher Association is to protect the children or does it take away their right to decision-making?

We also need to ask if we are hindering their social development and problem solving skills?

A third scenario occurred in a city in a developing country.

A boy was stopped by a shopkeeper on suspicion of shoplifting. The shopkeeper beat him up badly and told him, “You are lucky that I do not ask police to come. Otherwise you would be charged and locked up with a criminal record. Your future would be finished.”

Can the child be presumed innocent under law until proven guilty in accordance with Article 40 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? Should the child insist on being protected from violence and being given access to justice?

In Common Law, there is a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court?

Is there a single chronological age when all individuals possess a specific competency for the first time, thus entitling them to the possession of corresponding rights?

Children do possess rights as human beings, although this does not imply that all children should be allowed either to determine or even contribute to decisions about their own welfare.

These examples beg the question, “Are we protecting the children or ourselves?”

We must not assume that it is solely the task of adults to protect children. Adults can be over protective and limit children’s freedom and even their decision-making development. This may increase children’s helplessness, despite good intentions to protect.

Children can become dependent rather than independent. Under 24-hour surveillance nothing would happen to them and they would be under complete control.

But we should assess the current capacities of the child so we can have an idea what level of decision-making can be expected of them. 

Empowering their participation in the decision-making process not only respects them, but also enhances their ability by providing a safe environment in which they can learn and practice decision-making.

It is always assumed that the decisions made by parents on behalf of their children are in fact in the best interests of the children. 

However, that is not always the case. Otherwise there would be no cases of child neglect and abuse.

We cannot simply assume that all parents or guardians truly have the child’s best interests at heart. There is also the risk that adults may use the guise of child protection to implement their own interests.

What constitutes the best interest of a child can change over time and depend on their developmental stage, cognitive deculture and current environment, rather than the age of the child.

We should consider the future adult that the child will become and look at the decision as one this future adult would make.


Rights not solely physical protection

In early 1970s, Richard Farson, a promoter of children’s rights in northern America, advocated that child protection should not be limited to protecting their right to physical safety only.

Children can also contribute actively to their own protection and let themselves be sensitised and learn certain rules and techniques.

The Convention of Rights of Children (CRC) Article 3 (1) states:


In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private… the best interests of the child shall be primary consideration.

… ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being taking into account the rights and duties of the child’s parents… Article 3 (2)

… care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health…

… all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatments, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any others in care of the child.


Children formulating their own rights

The children’s rights vote organised in 2005 by the Children’s Commissioner of Munich has provided an example of individually formulated rights by children. 

The 3,000 children who took part in the vote (at schools, children’s events and some mobile voting stations) expressed their priority of needs for rights as follows:


 Right to health (14.8 per cent)

 Right to play, leisure and rest (14.3 per cent)

 Right to parental care (12.3 per cent) children expressing their suffering with little time or contact with parents

 Right to special protection and assistance when affected by war and when being a refugee (10.2 per cent)

 Right to equality (9.1 per cent)

 Right to education (8.7 per cent)

 Right to private sphere and personal dignity (8.4 per cent)

 Right to express opinions or information and to be heard (6.7 per cent)


At a meeting of children from South African townships held between May 27 and 1 June 1992, a Children’s Charter was adopted which also states:

All children have the right to be protected against political violence and violence in townships, and to find a safe place and they have a right to institutions to turn for assistance and protection

Children have the right to say NO to violence and protect themselves from abuse

Children have the right to demand health and medical care even without permission from parents or guardians

All teachers should be qualified and treat children with patience, respect and dignity. All teachers should be trained and prepared, in order to guarantee protection of children’s rights


Consent by minors for medical treatment

If a child lacks the capacity to consent, consent for treatment can be provided by anyone with parental responsibility for the child.

If a child’s parents refuse treatment which the doctors believe to be necessary, the doctor or child care professional may consider applying to the court for a declaration for the treatment to be lawful (In ‘Re D (A Minor) (Wardship: Sterlisation) [1976] 2 WLR 279).

An educational psychologist applied to have an 11-year-old girl made a ward of the court in order to challenge her doctors’ and parents’ decision to sterilise her.


Medical treatment for minors

The guidance of the General Medical Council on treatment of those who are under the age of 18 lists the following considerations for the best interests of children (2007):


the views of the child or young person including any previous expression

 views of parents

 views of others close to the child

 the cultural, religious or other beliefs and values of the child

 the views of other health professionals involved in providing care

 which choice will restrict the child’s future options least


Decision-making by children

Children ought to be involved in the decision-making process about their own lives rather than let adults make all their decisions for them without any engagement from the children.

This involvement is not only a sign of respect, but also teaches children about their inherent values and increases their self-efficacy in life skills.



•  Albert Lee
Professor of Public Health and Primary Care Chinese
University of Hong Kong 
Guild of St Luke