Rights of Childhood

Julee Newberger
January 23, 2000

At some point after the fireworks, the barbecue and the sun, maybe we'll stop and reflect on the fact that we're really celebrating our country's independence, and we'll recall a declaration that ensures every American's "inherent right to property, life and liberty."

Or maybe we'll recall a kid staring up at the exploding colors in the sky, or our own childhoods memories of Independence Day. And maybe, just maybe, we'll pause to think about how far we've come and how far we have to go in ensuring all children's rights in our country.

"When we think of children's rights," says Renee Wessels of Save the Children, "we are really just articulating a framework of basic guarantees for what children need to thrive and develop into productive members of society." Wessels' group is part of international alliance that published a report in November 1999 on how governments deliver these rights to children.

Although we may not necessarily think of children as having "rights" the way adults do, children's rights underlie policies and services that improve their lives. The United States has a long history of contemplating and working to protect children's rights. U.S. children, however, don't fare as well as one might think when compared to those in other industrialized nations.

Child advocates remind us that the United States ranks first in gross national product and health and technology, but 18th in overall infant mortality. It is the only industrialized nation not to provide health insurance for all its children, and has the widest income gap between rich and poor children. We also struggle to protect our children from random acts of violence: compared with children in 25 other industrialized nations, U.S. children are 12 times more likely to die from gunfire.

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a forerunner in the children's rights movement in our country, reports that one in five American children lives in a family receiving food stamps, one in seven has no health insurance, and one in eight never graduates from high school. When child advocates talk about children in our country, they talk about all children. CDF's motto says it best: Leave No Child Behind.

What is the Children's Rights Movement?
Today we take for granted the idea of public education, laws against child labor, and concepts like "parens patriae"—that doctrine that enables states to intervene on behalf of children. But in reality, they were all hard-won in the struggle for children's rights.

Joseph Hawes, Ph.D., author of The Children's Rights Movement (Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1991), defines the children's rights movement as "a long history of efforts to use public power and pressure to improve the lives of American children."

Hawes says that like any rights movement in our country, the children's rights movement has reinvented itself many times. What early reformers and the advocates of today have in common is the desire to shape the future by building a better society for children.

Says Wessels of Save the Children, "Children's fundamental needs haven't really changed, but all those things that compete with them are changing."

In his book, Hawes traces the evolution of the children's movement through major periods of American history. He describes the burgeoning sensitivity to and awareness of children during the colonial period; the creation of public schools for all children and institutions for troubled children in the nineteenth century; the organized campaigns on behalf of children during the Progressive Era; and the beginnings of regular national conferences to assess children's legislative needs during the twentieth century.

A Federal Agency for Children
One milestone in the history of children's rights was the creation of a federal agency for children in 1912. The role of the U.S. Children's Bureau evolved from that of a research and promotion agency to an administrator that worked on reducing infant and maternal mortality, improving child health, abolishing child labor and advocating care for children with special needs.

The Children's Bureau was put in place during the era of reform in the early 1900s to investigate and report on the best means for protecting "a right to childhood." According to Kriste Lindenmeyer, a professor of history at Tennessee Technological Institute and author of "A Right to Childhood": The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-46, "Most federal policy since that point has pivoted on that premise."

A report from the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children�an event that precipitated the establishment of the Children's Bureau�outlines a preliminary set of rights for every American child. These rights included health and dental exams, education, a place to play and a protection against labor that deprives them of their other rights.

The report outlines specifics such as proper seating, lighting, ventilation and sanitation in schools. It calls for "adequate study, protection, training, and care" for children with special needs. It also acknowledges community responsibility by mandating "proper provision for and supervision of recreation and entertainment."

Overall, the rights of childhood were more than rudimentary. They were rights to what was considered an appropriate American childhood. More than ninety years have passed since their enumeration, and advocates are still fighting for them today.

Children's Rights in the United States Today
All children's rights are good rights. Right?

Perhaps not. As Hawes explores in the Children's Rights Movement, there is a tension between granting children rights to keep them from harm and granting them rights that give them autonomy they may or may not be prepared for. "The very notion of rights," writes Hawes, "implies a certain amount of autonomy for the person who exercises them, but children are inherently less than fully autonomous."

The rights of children in the juvenile justice system are constantly the object of debate. Should children be tried as adults and subject to incarceration in adult facilities because they have committed what some call "adult crimes?" Should they be subjected to adult punishment, including the death penalty? The debate will surely continue.

Should children's rights serve to protect them from harm, as they were originally outlined in 1909? How do we ensure a "right to childhood" that allows children's needs to be met and voices to be heard without stripping them of the protections that early doctrines sought to provide?

It's something to think about as we reflect on children's contribution to all people's rights in our country.



Julee Newberger is a writer, and the former assistant managing editor of Connect for Kids.