Monday, 5 December 2016

Expanding our ideas of childhood and children’s participation in decision making

CRFR co-director Professor Kay Tisdall asks, why do so many children and young people find it difficult to have their views given due consideration, in matters that affect them?

Children and young people’s participation is key principle embedded within the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. The Convention was ratified in 1989 –twenty-seven years ago – and it is the most ratified of any international human right treaty (only the USA has not yet ratified it). We know of notable initiatives, at national and local levels. But children and young people’s participation rights are still not consistently respected.

I had the chance to publish two journal articles in the past month, on children and young people’s participation. In some ways they are very different. One deals with children’s participation in family law proceedings in Scotland. The second considers children’s participation in child protection, including international child protection in humanitarian settings. But both have similar conclusions: that we need to expand our ideas of childhood and children’s participation, beyond concerns about their vulnerability and requirements for autonomous agency, to change how we both perceive and organise decision-making that impacts on children and young people.

In the first article, Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings, I investigate current and recent trends in family law proceedings in Scotland. Children’s participation has been institutionalised in Scottish primary and secondary legislation, as well as procedures. But it is limited because children’s views tend to be accepted only if they are judged to be rational, autonomous and consistent. If their views are considered irrational, manipulated or distressed, their views are given less weight. This misses that children are likely to be emotional at times of parental separation and divorce, and that over lengthy court proceedings, their views may well change. Concerns about children’s vulnerability increasingly results in them being excluded from courts themselves. I conclude that courts and their decisions may be child-focused in Scotland, centring on children’s welfare, but they tend not to be child-inclusive, involving children in decision-making.

Are there alternative ways of perceiving children and young people’s participation, which could assist? My second article, Conceptualising children and young people’s participation, considered three popular concepts. These are:
  • ‘vulnerability’ (i.e. what would the world look like, if we recognised that all people were vulnerable?),
  • ‘social accountability’ (i.e. civic engagement to hold duty-bearers to account), and
  • ‘co-production’ (i.e. involving lay people in designing and delivering services or research).
All three seek transformative relationships between the State and service users, that are more emancipatory and address power. Would one of these provide a very promising alternative?

By the end of my exploration, I find that vulnerability and social accountability have their contribution but still place children and childhood as especially vulnerable and then fail to adequately question adult power. Co-production, both on paper and when looking at recent local and international practices, has potential. It is co-production’s (re)claiming of children and young people’s expertise and knowledge that distinguishes itself from vulnerability and social accountability and makes it promising as a way to perceive and promote participation.

We know children and young people can influence decisions that affect them. There are many examples where practice and structures have improved, and initiatives have been developed. But we need to break through the familiar list of challenges, to find meaningful, effective and sustainable ways to recognise children and young people’s rights to participate.


Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Conceptualising children and young people’s participation: examining vulnerability, social accountability and co-production’ International Journal of Human Rights 10.1080/13642987.2016.1248125

Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Lawn, 38(4): 362-379. 10.1080/09649069.2016.1239345

Further information

For further information about CRFR’s programme of work on children and young people’s participation, see our partnership with Young Edinburgh Action and our support for the IMPACT project.

Professor Kay Tisdall and Dr Susan Elsley deliver a two-day continuing professional development course Developing innovative research with children and young people. The course is an opportunity for researchers and others working with children and young people to explore the latest methods and debates in childhood and youth research. Further information can be found on the CRFR website

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