Brian Morgan looks at lessons for social
workers from health research on the competence of children to make
decisions for themselves.
Research at Teesside University on children’s
rights published this year in the Journal of Advanced
Nursing should be of considerable interest to social workers
as well as its intended readership.
The paper tackles children’s rights ostensibly
to inform the health practitioner. But the author’s widely read
analysis in this complex area ought also to make social work
practitioners think very hard about what is “in the best interests”
of looked-after children. She suggests a radical reassessment of
the capacity of many children who have experienced adversity to
make competent decisions for themselves.
Ideas of childhood are changing, and recent
formative events have been the ratification (1989) by the UK of the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children
Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998. The Children Act introduces
the concept that “the child’s welfare is paramount”. But the report
reminds us that this act was drafted by adults with their own
definition of what is in a child’s best interests.
There are adult “prejudices” about children’s
abilities and there are frictions between two opposing viewpoints –
protectionist and liberationist. Liberationists are criticised for
neglecting protection, protectionists for assuming all young
children are incompetent.
Lowden argues that adults must develop a more
pragmatic ideology concerning children’s competence to make
decisions for themselves. For example, the idea that childhood is a
series of stages implying the crossing of boundaries of increasing
levels of competence is being challenged.
There are no hard and fast “transitions”.
Writing in 2000, David Buckingham said that children growing up in
the electronic age “will only be able to become competent if they
are treated as though they are competent.”1
The author does not go as far as more forceful
children’s rights campaigners have done in the past. For example,
Cathy McCulloch from the International Children’s Parliament once
suggested: “….that children’s rights were an anathema to many
adults….. many people viewing children as a threat and a
problem…. and unsure of how to communicate with
Importantly, children’s life experiences equip
some differently from others, the report explains. It includes case
studies of children with chronic illnesses having knowledge and
ability superior to their chronological age: “…. they grow up
quickly, and greater credit should be given to their advanced
It is possible that social workers might see
this kind of relatively more advanced maturity in children who have
experienced being in care.
– J Lowden, “Children’s Rights: a Decade of
Dispute”, Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol 37(1), 2002
Brian Morgan is a freelance journalist
specialising in medical and social care issues
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1 D Buckingham, After
the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic
Media, Polity Press, 2000
2 C McCulloch, Seminar –
Children & the Human Rights Act, Scottish Human Rights
Trust, September 1999, see www.scotrights.org/events/children.htm#mcc