Once upon a time, it was common to expect that children should be seen but not heard. Now, as countries around the world re-examine their human rights agendas, children are becoming increasingly visible members of society.

With recognition under the United Nations (UN) Charter for the Rights of the Child, children are being empowered to become active agents, entitled to influence and alter the course of what happens in their lives. With children’s rights now firmly on the agenda, Will Venn explores the revolution of childhood.

Think of children in fiction – the way they are portrayed by the author is often a commentary on the real times in which they live.

French author Philippe Ariès once said that in medieval society the idea of childhood as a social concept did not exist, and in the literature from the time children are conspicuous by their absence.

Leap forward a few hundred years to the novels of Charles Dickens and children are everywhere. Mainly viewed through the lens of social injustice, they are victims of poverty, abuse and abandonment in Victorian England. Oliver Twist’s plaintive request for “more” reflects the desperation of a period in which children were more likely to be found labouring in factories than learning at schools.

By the 1950s, with the birth of American youth culture – and as the word “teenager” enters the language – literary anti-heroes such as Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield begin to rebel against society in a way Oliver Twist would never have dared.

Professor Stephen DobsonProfessor Stephen Dobson, Dean and Head of School of Education at UniSA, has traced the evolution of the child’s role in society, from the subservient child of the 17th century to today’s child, whose right to speak and have their opinions taken into account is now enshrined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

“The role of children in society is one that has progressed from subservience to recognition to consideration and negotiation,” Prof Dobson says.

“It wasn’t until the breakthrough of modernity that childhood was created, and later research shows that parents started to adjust care and play to the cognitive development of children and emotional age.

“On the one hand, modernity is defined as the rise of mass society, including mass industrialisation and mass education. On the other hand, it also means the rise of belief in the rational, reasoning powers of the individual against the pressures of tradition.

“We are now in an age, at least in many Western societies, where we are capturing the voice of the child and encouraging children to participate and negotiate in a world where they are citizens and individuals in their own right.

“Children still have a long way to go in garnering a significant voice in society. Right now a small minority of better educated and more affluent children tend to dominate, and quieter or disengaged children go unheard.

“The hope is that all children’s voices can be heard equally.”

So how can society capture the voice of every child in a meaningful way? How can young children realistically contribute to the political decision-making processes that touch on their lives?

It’s an area of research that Professor Pauline Harris, de Lissa Chair in Early Childhood Research at UniSA, is passionate about and an area that has yielded practical policy results.

“Children are insightful human beings, as anyone who has had the privilege of really tuning into children knows. To listen to a child with all of our senses is to wholly encounter the child in all of their fullness of being and richness of thought,” Prof Harris says.

“Loris Malaguzzi, pioneer of the Reggio Emilia Approach to educational philosophy, spoke of the ‘hundred languages of children’ – the variety of ways children express their meaning through talk, visual arts, dance, movement, song, music, poetry, photography, drawing, drama and writing.

“Just hand a young child a camera and the photos the child captures will literally give a child’s eye view of what’s important for them in their communities. This provides insight and can be a springboard for adults to have conversations with children.”

Through a research partnership between Prof Harris and the South Australian (SA) Department for Education and Child Development and its Child Friendly SA initiative, more than 3,000 children across 50 public and private community-based education and care services have been involved in expressing their views and opinions across a range of subjects.

“In this work, partnerships with schools, early childhood educational centres, and local communities have been vital to ensuring authentic engagement with children,” Prof Harris says.

“Children and young people’s views have informed the review of SA’s Strategic Plan and a review of one local government’s social plan. Children’s views have also been used to inform proposed legislation and the State Government’s Every Chance for Every Child policy.

“By engaging across South Australia with 350 children and their educators, we registered what children were telling us and tracked how their views have influenced SA’s Strategic Plan.”

This engagement has resulted in the publication of Prof Harris’s book Children’s Voices: A principled framework for children and young people’s participation as valued citizens and learners.

“We found that children were most concerned, and interested in, their family and friends and the natural environment,” Prof Harris says.

“For children to be able to make a difference, to have input that is authentic, not just tokenistic, it requires society to rethink who children are, and what they are capable of contributing, and then to provide ways of making it possible for that contribution to have effect.

“There is a change of thinking that is happening right now. Children count and their views absolutely can make a difference. It’s important to listen.”

While it is important to listen, there are strong indications that not all children’s voices are heard, and that children’s participation is an uneven affair, especially for those living in marginalised circumstances.

“We are concerned about the need to include the voices of children across different circumstances so our new focus is on young children living in impoverished and low socioeconomic circumstances,” Prof Harris says.

“Funded by the Lillian de Lissa Trust Fund, a new project will examine the understandings and experiences of preschool children and their educators and families in relation to children’s active citizenship and voice in matters affecting their lives.”

The importance of listening to and empowering children to express themselves becomes even more critical when viewed in the context of their own safety and protection. Until recently, misperceptions – such as the view that child involvement in research regarding sensitive issues is ‘too risky’ or beyond the comprehension of children – have largely prevented children from having a say in their own safety.

But this is slowly changing too.

In one pilot study, several children involved in child protection investigations in Western Australia used a unique communications tool developed by the UniSA Australian Centre for Child Protection to express how well their case workers engaged them and how included they felt during the child protection investigation.

Children aged between six and 14 used the tool to map their responses to simple statements such as ‘my case worker listens to me’; to images on a board indicating words ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘sometimes’.

UniSA’s Dr Mary Salveron, who is leading the research, says the tool has already demonstrated significant value.

“The ratings tool is designed to help children communicate simply and in a way which registers their feelings about their case workers. It’s designed to have their opinion taken into account when it comes to matters concerning their own future,” she says.

“Being the subject of a child protection investigation can prove daunting for many young people who may be reluctant to speak, or are not even given the opportunity to speak.”

Being denied the opportunity to speak out as children is a damning theme in the current Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses into Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, evidenced by the testimonies of thousands of adults regarding instances of abuse that took place when they were children.

The work of the Royal Commission also comprises an extensive program of research, and the study into children’s views of what makes them feel safe and unsafe in institutions led Justice McClellan, Chair of the Royal Commission, to say that it  “may prove one of our most valuable pieces of research” to come out of the Commission.

Associate Professor Leah Bromfield, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection and head of the research program for the Royal Commission, agrees.

“In my experience, giving children a voice about their safety and protection empowers an otherwise silenced population,” she says.

“Children are able to identify problems within their environments and provide responses previously unknown to adults and to offer viable solutions.

“Where research is undertaken with care and thought into the needs of children, involvement is empowering for those children who participate and can make a meaningful contribution to the way in which we can better keep children safe in the future. It’s a win for all involved.”

The revolution in the place of children in society is moving swiftly. In 1979, in a bid to diminish serious child abuse, Sweden led a world movement that has seen corporal punishment of children banned in 35 nations. In the first world, children are becoming visible players in society with their own rights and unique knowledge to offer.

And research is proving that giving children a voice has a positive impact on their safety and well-being.

It is a steady evolution that is moving children out of silence and the shadows to take up their human rights.

Find out more online: School of Education
Connect with the School of Education: @UniSAEducation
Connect with Prof Harris: @paulinejharris