Jonathan Bartley

Hearing what children are saying

By Jonathan Bartley
February 19, 2009

Psycho-historian Lloyd de Mause has said that the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we are only just awakening.

We are still to fully emerge from our slumber - if the recent report by the Children’s Society is anything to go by.

Last week it was debated in the House of Lords. But all this talk this may be as much a part of the problem as a move toward a solution. Another case of policymakers debating what we should do about or even to our children, rather than allowing children themselves to have a direct say in their own destiny.

Which is ironic. Because the whole point of the Children Society’s latest project was to hear what children were saying. To give them a voice. The report related their experiences and stories - their own accounts of what they thought should happen to them.

The Second chamber of Parliament has a reputation for a membership located at the other end of life’s journey. But children are excluded from participation in many other social institutions too – something that would just not be tolerated on the basis of gender, class, sexual orientation, race or disability.

This paternalistic model aims to variously protect, educate and control children. But an alternative approach is to admit them to full participation in our decision-making structures, acknowledging that they have something important to contribute, just like everyone else.

It’s a crying shame that we don’t do it. Children can often pose the most simple, but also profound and important questions that adults are afraid - or too caught up in the complexities of issues - to ask.

Opponents of course will argue that they aren’t able to concentrate, that they don’t know enough, or that involving them is just impractical. But it’s not a matter of co-opting them into the robust argument of their elders. Rather we need new spaces and mechanisms to empower them speak as children.

They should be allowed to influence the way we interact and debate. Breaking high brow discussions down into terms that are more accessible is a practice from which everyone benefits. It brings accountability with the values of differing positions laid bare for all to see.

It’s time to make our institutions age inclusive. And we could start with the House of Lords. Who knows, the persistent impatience of youth might even be the catalyst we need to finally get a timetable for its long awaited reform.

More on the report, 'A Good Childhood' -


(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This is one of a series of 'thoughts for the day' published by the Guardian newspaper and website. Jonathan used to broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot. But after he suggested, as a Christian, that it would be positive to include non-believers alongside believers in a national slot aimed at spiritual and moral reflection, he was told by the BBC's Religion & Ethics department that they would not be inviting him back.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.