Children are human beings with a moral status and that has implications for how they should be treated. They should not be conscripted into military service, they should be allowed to marry and buy alcohol, they should be given rights such as those relating to sex, their own choices about work and education, and so on.
However, many of these rights are not universally granted and some of them have serious ethical and practical problems. The idea that children should have rights is a controversial one and it has raised several important questions about how best to protect them.
A first challenge to granting children rights is that these are incompatible with the nature of childhood. Often this is argued on the basis of a misconception of what childhood is, or of what it is like to be a child. This can be a problem on a number of different levels, from the question of what it means to be a child to the question of how we should treat children in adult life (Liao 2015).
Second, there is the claim that ascription of rights to children is inappropriate because it displays a misunderstanding of what children are like and what relationships they do or ought to stand in to adults. This can be a problem on countless levels but is most obviously an issue of what it means to be a parent or a carer.
The third challenge is that ascription of rights to children misperceives what is of central importance and value in these lives. This is a serious problem because it obstructs our ability to understand how morally we should be owed to them in terms of their putative rights.
To a degree, this is true, because even when we have positive, legally recognised, duties in respect of children we do not have the full range of what is morally owed to them. For example, the parent can have positive duties to her child but these may not be exhaustively specified in law. Likewise the social worker who works with children can have positive duties to them but these may not be exhaustively specified in her professional code of ethics or within the law.
This is a very serious problem because it prevents us from understanding what it is that we should be owed to them in moral terms, and this limits our capacity to think about what is most important for their lives and what we should do to ensure their well-being and development.
For instance, when a person thinks about the rights of their child they are often thinking about the right to be healthy and to be safe. This is a very serious matter for children and we should take seriously the obligation to ensure that these rights are respected by all those who have contact with them in any way.
Similarly, when a person thinks about the obligations to their child they are often thinking about the right not to be impoverished or deprived of their basic goods. This is a very serious matter for many children and we should take seriously the obligation to provide them with these goods as a moral obligation.