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Interview with Felton Earls: The Next Step From Children's Rights is Citizenship

  • Tue, Jan 4 2011

How much should children’s opinions count in the process of developing programs and policies aimed toward them? Harvard University professor Felton Earls says children’s voices should not be underestimated. In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Earls, who is the special editor of The Annals volume, “The Child as Citizen,” discusses the significance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to his experience promoting youth citizenship in Chicago, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. Earls is a professor of social medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health.
 

 

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    • Felton Earls

  • Felton Earls: The Next Step from Children's Rights is Citizenship

Stephanie Marudas:  Much of your career has been devoted to children. You have been a pediatrician, a professor of child psychiatry, and your research has focused on issues around child and youth development and health. Plus you raised two kids with your wife, Dr. Mary Carlson. Given your experience with children, what is unique about childhood, especially when compared to adulthood?

Felton Earls: Children are more curious and more open to new experiences, more inventive, more innovative, capable of more novel thinking than adults are. Unfortunately in many ways these positive attributes of children are not viewed in the same way or given the same merit that more negative thinking about children is. It is that they do not know how to do things, that they are irresponsible, that they need to learn how to do this in ways that adults approve of.  They have to behave themselves and so forth. So I think one of the things that has really been a remarkable achievement, a remarkable trend I should say, because it is not really an achievement yet, is this kind of turn in the history of childhood from focused on negative and preparation and incompetence, if you will, to the recognition of positive attributes, openness to new experiences, the novelty, the inventiveness.  So over my career I sort of made that turn, from being trained as a child psychiatrist, to think about disorder and misbehavior, to be much more open to positive experiences and skill development and manifestations of competence and responsibility and justice that children show. 

SM: You bring up the word justice and that brings to mind the idea of rights and children having rights, and as we know in 1989 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or what is commonly known as the CRC. The Annals volume “The Child as Citizen,” which you edited, marks the twentieth anniversary of the CRC’s adoption by the UN.  Tell us a bit about why the CRC was so unprecedented and the basic rights that it does protect.

FE: The CRC was ten to fifteen years in the making and was a slow process that interestingly the United States had a lot to do with. In the end the United States did not ratify the Convention, still has not ratified the Convention.  But it is remarkable in getting special attention, in taking the human rights agenda that started with the Declaration on Human Rights.  But taking a general document of human rights and being more specific about how those rights apply to children.  And there are classes of rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child; protection rights, participation rights, provision rights.  And perhaps the most significant thing about the Convention is that it specifies these participation rights.  Protection rights are already codified in laws around the world in many countries, and so are provision rights, the provision of healthcare and economic security, the protection against work and abuse and neglect; these were things that were not so difficult to develop a consensus around.  But the participation rights say that children should have a voice and opinions that matter in a legitimate way in a society.  That even though they may not be old enough to vote, given legal criteria for a particular country, that their opinions still matter and their opinions should be given weight that reflects their political maturity.  So the participation rights are perhaps the most radical part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and despite it being radical in that way, every country in the world except the United States and Somalia has ratified it, and many countries have taken another step in essentially developing a bill of rights for children in their constitutions. I am thinking of Brazil and the Philippines.  

SM: As you indicated, the United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the UN that have not ratified the CRC, and one message or goal that we perhaps see from The Annals “Child as Citizen” volume is the urge to push the United States to get on board with the CRC.  What is holding the United States back from ratifying it? 

FE: Well, there is sort of a general disposition that the United States law is to protect itself in a way from international law, and so it is not just the Convention on the Rights of the Child that has not been approved or ratified by the United States.  There are various other charters, human rights documents, that have not as well.  For a long time, however, one of the specific issues I should say, two specific issues that the United States had reservations about, one was the use of capital punishment for serious crime.  And there the issue was the use of the death penalty for persons under the age of eighteen.  Of course, with the Supreme Court’s decision that reversed the use of the death penalty for children, that no longer is a reservation.  The second reservation is one that essentially gives parental rights where parental rights will trump children’s rights.  And that set of laws is codified in most states in the United States and perhaps still is the major reservation that the United States would have for ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

SM: What would it take to get the United States to ratify it? 

FE: It would take the Senate approving it at this point.  Bill Clinton signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, so it has been signed by the White House, by a president of the United States.  It has come up to the Senate a couple of times, even during the Bush administration it came before the Senate.  So at this point it would take approval by the Senate and by the Congress with a strong probability that the current administration would agree, would sign off. 

SM: This journal really highlights a lot of key issues around it and perhaps could be useful to policymakers as they weigh this decision.    

FE: Of course. That is not our goal so specifically, however, I mean there is a movement in the United States to, a political movement, to ratify the Convention, to get the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  I think our goal in this volume is a more intellectual and, to some extent, social science set of goals; to establish a historical, philosophical, and scientific basis for children’s participation and children’s voice and opinions counting in the slow process of democratization.  So while we think it is important that the United States join the rest of the world and ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are looking beyond that, to the notion of not just rights but rights and obligations and rights and responsibilities that reflect true membership, legitimate membership, in a democracy. 

SM: This is the notion of child citizenship. 

FE: Exactly. My introductory chapter is entitled “From Rights to Citizenship.”  And many of the entries in the volume are reflecting on philosophical ideas of how children are in the generational context, where their rights and opinions should count, and that we should be providing spaces and opportunities for children to exercise their political maturity. 

SM: And an example of this is the Young Citizens Program, which you and your wife, Dr. Mary Carlson, have been so greatly involved in.  And in The Annals you have written an article [Adolescents as Deliberative Citizens: Building Health Competence in Local Communities] together about your work.  Tell us about how the Young Citizens Program got started in Chicago and made its way to Tanzania. 

FE: I was doing a large social science project on the community causes of violence, neighborhood causes, neighborhood determinates of violence in Chicago.  And one of the things that we realized in preparing this study and beginning to actually conduct the study was that we had lots of ideas about how children were exposed to violence and what the consequences of that exposure were.  But we had really not spent much time talking to children about the concepts and the experiences they had.  We assumed we understood various things from an adult point of view or from a psychiatric point of view, and so we were constructing questionnaires and collecting data without really giving appropriate time to reflect on children’s discussion and having a dialogue with children that generated their own point of view about this.  And so we decided to do that, to stop what we were doing that was based on an adult, professional point of view, and consult on an equal basis with children; where children were put in the situation where they really did feel like they were entitled to say, and protected to say, what they really thought.  And it was a great revelation.  We learned things about our questionnaires and about our interview techniques that we did not know about.  And the children benefited by appearing more confident and more secure, if you will, in their place in society in the city of Chicago.  So the project started with those kinds of long sessions, two or three hour sessions with small groups of children where we were really spending a lot of time making sure that the playing field was level.  As we gained confidence that our theories and our experiences were really being transformed by this, we started thinking of how to do a proper scientific study to see whether or not we could evaluate how effective including children’s voices and opinions was in combating a serious health problem.  And the opportunity opened that we could work in Tanzania on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and so that led to us building the Young Citizens Program into a more formal curriculum so that we could test the efficacy of that curriculum.  And of course we worked for ten years in Tanzania and accomplished that. 

SM: Here are clear examples of child citizenship at work where children are a stakeholder in the process and were given ownership. And that is what you have discovered, children are capable and should not be underestimated. 

FE: Right, exactly, yes.  One of the other places we have worked is Costa Rica and one of the reasons we have worked in Costa Rica is because we admire the democracy that Costa Rica has.  It has a very strong democracy without a military that invests heavily in child development and education.  And they have been very excited about the Young Citizens Program and adopted it in a national program that was described in the last chapter of The Annals [Promoting Children’s Capacities for Active and Deliberative Citizenship with Digital Technologies: The CADE Project in Costa Rica].  In Costa Rica, there was an early introduction of computers in classrooms as a way of advancing education or educational skill and sort of anticipating how important computers would be in occupational success.  But in adopting computers in education, one of the things that they were concerned about was not to increase disparities among children, not to have those computers go to children who already had advantages, if you will, who would only have accelerated advantages if they had privilege to computer education where other children did not.  And so one of the strategies that the government used was to introduce computers in the most marginalized communities first, and then to gradually expand the use of computers as the model, as the educational benefits became clearer, to all children.  In the process of doing this, the idea was how to use these computers, for educational reasons as well as for civic reasons, and this is where the democracy comes in, that education is not seen as something separate from democratization in Costa Rica, and so the use of computers in classrooms became focused on how they improved civic life, how they improved community life.  And it was around those concepts that they adopted the Young Citizens Program and it has been in operation now for over a decade. 

SM: In this case we have an example of access to information as a fundamental right for children and youth to make informed decisions and to be part of the process.    

FE: Right. They also use the computers to communicate with each other.  Costa Rica is a very small country of four million people but it is mountainous, and communities that are geographically close to each other can be separated by mountain ranges and forests and that sort of thing.  And so the computer became a device where children from different communities could come up with ideas about civic life, improving civic life or engaging civic life in certain ways, and have an exchange with kids in communities that were adjacent to them but ones that they could not easily transport to. 

SM: Going forward, what are some other research projects that you are hoping to do perhaps? 

FE: The kinds of projects that we are envisioning are projects that bring the world’s attention back to the United States, just because the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that we not vigorously incorporate these ideas and research findings and strategies into studies in the United States.  And so my focus for the next few years is really going to be working more in the United States than in other parts of the world, bringing experiences in the reverse transfer way from other parts of the world back to the studies that we are doing in Boston, in Cambridge, in New Orleans, and in other places in the United States as well. This idea of children being citizens, we are not just sort of arguing for a political platform for children.  We are really talking about the nature of society and the integration of children into society in a way that protects, that strengthens society, and in the process has all kinds of positive, health, and educational outcomes. 

SM: You think about the history of childhood, and even two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and children working and terrible conditions and to where we are today and where that movement continues to go.  Obviously there are still some disparities around the world where children’s rights are being neglected, but it is progress. 

FE: It is tremendous progress. And The Annals volume, The Annals as a journal, contributed greatly to thinking and planning for child labor laws in the 1900s.  There were a series of articles in The Annals that really laid the sort of political policy, intellectual ground for child labor laws.  And we see this volume as setting the stage for children’s citizenship in the twenty-first century.