A nation is democratic to the extent that its citizens are involved, particularly at the community level. The config-dance and competence to be involved must be gradually acquired through practice. It is for this reason that there should be gradually increasing opportunities for children to participate in any aspiring democracy, particularly in those nations already convinced that they are democratic. With the growth of children’s rights, we are beginning to see an increasing rec- cognition of children’s abilities to speak for themselves. Regrettably, while children’s and youths’ participation does occur in different degrees around the world, it is often exploitative or frivolous. This Essay is designed to stimulate a dialogue on this important topic.
It might be argued that ‘participation’ in society begins from the moment a child enters the world and discovers the extent to which she is able to influence events by cries or movements. This would be a broader definition of partici-passion than can be handled in this Essay, but it is worth bearing in mind that through these early negotiations, even in
infancy, children discover the extent to which their own voices influence the course of events in their lives. The degree and nature of their influence varies greatly according to the culture or the particular family. This Essay, however, focuses entirely on children in the public domain: schools, community groups, other organizations, or informal groups beyond the family. It does not address preschool children or some of the important issues of children’s social and economic participation- within their families.
The term ‘child’ needs some qualification, particularly in light of the recent U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which extends the meaning of ‘child’ to any person up to eighteen years. In many Western countries, teenagers lead such protected and constrained lives that it may seem appropriate to label them ‘children’. I will follow the more common usage, however; here ‘child’ will refer to the pre-teenage years, and ‘youth’ or ‘teenagers’ to the ages thirteen to eighteen. The term ‘young people’ will be used to embrace both age groups.
This Essay is written for people who know that young people have something to say but who would like to reflect further on the process. It is also written for those people who have it in their power to assist children in having a voice, but who, unwittingly or not, trivialize their involvement.