2.11 Balancing participation and protection

Although it is important to respect children’s capacities to take responsibility for their own lives, it is also important to recognise that children are still developing and that they are entitled to protection to ensure they are not forced to take on adult responsibilities too early. No universal rules exist to determine what level of protection children need at any given age or stage of development. Indeed, if you look at the situations to which children are exposed in different cultures, you will see that it varies widely indeed. These differences highlight the fact that, to a large extent, children develop capacities to cope with challenging situations in accordance with the opportunities they are given and the expectations placed upon them.

Differences in protection in different cultures

The nature and extent of care seen as necessary by parents varies widely according to cultural, economic and historical factors. For example, children in fishing villages in South East Asia are actively encouraged to take part in survival strategies that build up their strength. Children in the Arctic are taught survival strategies by experimenting with uncertainty and danger in order that they acquire the skills necessary to cope with problems as they arise. Boys in pastoral communities in East Africa are expected from a very young age to tend to cattle and goats on their own. However, in most European countries, young children are not expected to go out alone. They are taken to school by their parents, and are not left alone at home without adult supervision. In other words, the expectation that children will take care of themselves or younger siblings is considered normal and functional in many societies, but dangerous and neglectful in others.

There is no simple way to decide the levels of protection needed by children or to decide the most effective means of providing protection. Respect for children’s evolving capacity to take responsibility for decision-making must be balanced against their relative lack of experience, the risks encountered, and the potential for exploitation and abuse. It is also important to recognise that protection is not just a one-way process, with adults as protectors and children as recipients. The reality is more complex: children can contribute significantly to their own and other children’s protection.

Case study: Children protecting others

In West Africa, a network of children and young people has been established to explore ways of building safer and more protective environments across the region. They are developing practical ideas on how to support each other to challenge violence and reduce the levels of physical and sexual violence against children.

For example, they observed that children with disabilities in rural communities were particularly at risk of sexual assault during the daytime. Parents were at work in the fields and their brothers and sisters were at school. They are often left alone in their hut. During this time, there was a high incidence of men approaching the children and raping them. Children with disabilities find it difficult to defend themselves, for example, if they are deaf/mute, they may not be able to scream and if they have mobility impairments, they cannot run away.

The children in the network decided to provide the children with disabilities with a mobile phone with a number to text which will alert someone who can then call the police, alert the resident magistrate or the child protection committee. In this way, children are finding solutions to violence and ensuring that the responsible adults are aware of the problem and encouraged to take the necessary action.

The extent to which children are likely to be at risk of harm from any potential activity or situation will be affected by a number of factors:

  • Whether the expectations of children are widely similar within the community – for example, in a society where all girls are expected to undertake child care responsibilities from an early age, or where young boys or girls are expected work on the land, the negative impacts on the child are likely to be far less than if this was being demanded of a child in a society where this was not normally expected. However, this needs to be balanced against the harm that might be caused by denying girls or boys opportunities for education and play.
  • Level of support provided by the key adults in the child’s life – for example, where parents provide appropriate and positive guidance and encouragement to support the child’s engagement in a particular activity and help a child to learn from its mistakes, rather than using threats and punishment.
  • Degree of control experienced by the child in coping with the situation – for example, if children feel they are in control of a situation, and can make informed choices about what they are able to undertake and how, this will help them feel confident and better able to cope in the future.
  • Child’s personality and strengths – the child’s individual personality will influence how much responsibility he or she can take. Children who are healthy, strong, self-confident and with high self-esteem can cope better with adversity and challenges.

Activity 2.5: Balancing protection and participation

Imagine you have a 13-year-old daughter. Think about the activities she increasingly wants to engage in and your concerns about her safety and protection. List all the issues you need to think about in trying to balance her growing need for independence with her continuing need for protection.

Compare your answers with the discussion below.

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The challenge for parents is trying to assess what level of independence is appropriate as children grow up. Obviously, the levels of protection will decrease as the child gets older, but the question is how much autonomy is appropriate and at what ages. There are a number of factors to take into account in making those decisions:

The case for protectionThe case for more independence
If you do not provide consistent boundaries with reasons for imposing them, children can become insecure. They do not have guidelines on what is expected of them.  If you over-protect children, they do not get the chance to start learning how to make their own decisions and choices. Gaining these skills will give them confidence and ability to make informed choices and take responsibility for their own protection.
Children may think they know more than they do. This may mean they take risks without understanding the consequences. If children are subservient, and not used to making choices or challenging adult authority, they may be more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by adults.

Parents do have experience and knowledge that can be used to make informed assessments of potential risks.

Giving children appropriate information is a key to promoting their protection, and helping them make safe and appropriate choices. If you just say no, and don’t help them make decisions for themselves, you are denying them the chance to learn and begin to make safe choices for themselves.

2.10 Respecting children’s capacities to participate