There has been a lot of debate about whether children have rights or not. This has ranged from philosophical discussions of the nature and value of rights to debates about the moral status of children.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides a synthesis of a wide range of human rights that children have been accorded. This includes a right to be treated with respect and dignity, a right to freedom from discrimination and exploitation, and a right to protection from violence and other harms.
Despite the emancipatory potential of these human rights, questions about the legitimacy of their existence and apprehensions about how they should be granted have also been raised. This has led to the formulation of an agenda for critical child rights studies, aimed at challenging the moral imperative that has been put forth in mainstream research on children’s rights (Quennerstedt, 2013; Reynaerts et al., 2012; Vandenhole et al., 2015).
Some have argued that if children are not capable of acquiring the capacity required to own rights then they should not be entitled to them. This has been defended in different ways, for example by arguing that capacity for choice is minimally defined and thus a child can make choices but cannot own them.
Others have argued that it is important to consider what a child really needs in order to make wise choices, such as the ability to understand and appreciate the importance of the options available to them. This is a far more complex and demanding task than merely expressing preferences and making unwise choices in the context of a broader social and cultural setting.
Many children are deprived of the capacity for wise choices because their parents or guardians have been unable to secure the preconditions necessary for them to acquire this capacity. These include access to education, employment opportunities, health services and other forms of social security, as well as a safe place to live and sufficient food, water and sanitation.
The problem with this argument is that it does not address the issue of whether children should have any rights in the first place. Rather it seeks to argue that children should have certain legal rights, such as those under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (most notably the ‘best interests of the child’, which is the central principle).
These arguments are often presented in a positive or’moral’ way. However, it is a mistake to take them as such.
Rather they should be taken as an expression of a set of duties that adults should have towards children in particular and which can only be fulfilled by caring and concerned citizens who are able to make the best possible decisions.
This is a difficult set of obligations, but not impossible. Nevertheless, the way in which these obligations have been fulfilled has been criticized as being largely unjustified and unfair.
These issues are not only relevant in terms of the ascription of rights to children, but are also key to understanding the way in which the idea of governance can be used in the construction of child rights. This is because, through mainstreaming processes and implementation strategies, governance can shape the ideas and conditions over what it means to have a proper childhood.