Cover Story: Kids Got Rights

Parents, not lawyers, are the liberators

Nov 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

In the women's locker room at the YWCA downtown, a daughter complains to her mother that the school isn't allowed to just cancel her classes and demand that her parents pick her up without any advanced notice. The mom says they can.

"I have rights," the daughter says.

"No, you don't," the mother responds. "You're a kid. You don't have any rights."

Legally speaking, kids do have rights, but as a nation we seem to be stuck on the idea that kids are the property of their parents, not citizens entitled to protections granted by the U.S. Constitution.

Reports by Human Rights Watch (visit chronicle a frightening list of abuses kids endure:

· "Girls Abused in New York's Juvenile Prisons: Violent Restraints, Sexual Abuse Must Stop"

· "Detained and Deprived of Rights: Children in the Custody of the INS"

· "Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States"

· "Violence and Discrimination Against Gay Teens in U.S. Schools"

We can say we "aren't as bad as" some other countries — we don't turn 10-year-olds into soldiers — and the United States has pioneered strategies to prevent child abuse, spending more money fighting this phenomenon than any other industrialized country, according to the Directory for Child welfare (visit But we also have the highest rate of child abuse in the industrialized world and rank below some pre-industrialized nations in other child welfare indicators such as low birth weight, premature births and poor school performance.

The right to an inner life
Discrimination is at the heart of the problem, according to Jim Mason, president of Beech Acres Parenting Center.

Even ageism — discriminating against a group of people based on their age — brings about a second-class citizenship for groups such as children.

"All the 'isms' are about 'I've got rights but you don't. All the stuff that applies to me that I have a right to doesn't apply to you because you're different,' " Mason says. "In any free society, regardless of your differences, you have rights and responsibilities to live within the law of the land but also to express oneself in becoming the person that you are uniquely meant to become."

Parenting as a way to reverse the trend of devaluing children begins by staying focused on rights and responsibilities while helping kids grow. While parents tend to focus on responsibilities and kids tend to focus on their rights, both need to recognize each is the flip side of the same coin.

"If you want to teach rights and responsibilities to someone else, it's important to understand where they are developmentally," Mason says. "There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach: 'I have a hammer, so you must be a nail.' There are people who are locked in their own values. If you are locked into that point of view as an adult trying to teach, you will not be able to reach a balance because you're more interested in imposing your ideas on somebody else."

People mature at different rates and understand morality and ethics at different stages. Number of years lived doesn't necessarily differentiate child and adult. Mason says, for example, adolescence is commonly defined as the period from the onset of puberty until a child is economically independent. But the age range can be as broad as 10 to 25. That means one kid might enter adulthood at age 16 while another takes much longer.

Understanding where a child is in the maturation process takes a commitment of time and attention.

"A parent needs to be emotionally responsive and in touch with the child's inner life, to look at them and know when they're anxious or sad or need reassurance or need comforting, to be able to pick up on those emotional nuances," says Gary Dick, associate professor with the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati. "The parent who understands and accepts their child and embraces them and builds them up for who they are is a very lucky kid. Yet the child whose parents also understand their inner life is a very blessed child emotionally because they've got that bond. In other words, they feel that their parents have their back literally and emotionally."

The right to make mistakes
One of the greatest stumbling blocks to accomplishing this is realizing the adult's focus needs to be on the child, according to Dick.

"When we talk about children's rights, it's really helping parents come to terms with who the child is," he says. "Parents have to get over themselves."

Mason and Dick agree that the most important role a parent or any adult can play in a child's life is to help her discover her own unique qualities and strengths.

"One of the things parents want to do is not only help the child achieve a task or achieve a goal, but help them be a human being," Dick says. "If a parent is really wanting a kid to be a jock and supporting them, that's great. But are you teaching your child to have empathy, compassion, to be a good neighbor, a good friend, not just a performer?

"Parents have to sometimes look at the kid's search for meaningful self, of 'Who am I?' as they're gonna go through an awful lot of testing and trying on," Dick says. "Not looking at it as 'Oh my God, my kid's got pants down to their butt and they've died their hair purple!' but 'My child's figuring out who they are! Isn't that wonderful? Oh my God, we've got an identity search going on!' "

Mason believes parents must forget the idea of the child they always wanted to have and accept and appreciate the child in front of them.

"Parents say they want their kids to be good people," he says. "In order to help the child develop their moral reasoning at a higher level, the child needs the opportunity to make decisions and make mistakes, and then the parents need to be there to help the child reflect upon the mistake and learn how to make another decision differently the next time.

"This is at the heart and soul of what we try to help parents to do. Yes, we want parents to help their children understand that they have rights as human beings, and we want parents and children to understand that they have responsibilities as human beings.

"It's not the parent telling the child, 'Here's what you need to do. Here's my way or the highway and the rules of the house. If you obey them, you're a good kid; and if you don't obey them, you're a bad kid.'

"A universal standard of ethical decision-making is where you think the great ethicists would be, the Gandhis, the Jesuses. These people who have reached a high level of moral development make decisions on what's in the overall best interest of the world and myself as a part of the world. They have a great balance of what my personal rights are and what my responsibilities are to the community." ©