Parents Rights are Children’s Rights

Good morning ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests.

Thank you for your welcome and for inviting me along today.

Before beginning I have to commend everyone who put together the Young Voices DVD – I know what a difficult task it is to write, direct, film and edit such an ambitious and informative DVD. I look forward to seeing it on many screens in the future!

Role of Commissioner

When I accepted this invitation I wasn’t sure whether I was being asked to speak as Commissioner or because I was a well known parent!

I’m presuming it’s because I’m Commissioner! However, I will speak a little later on about my personal experience of parenting and the impact it has had both on my outlook and how I do my job.

As Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job is described simply as:

Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people to help them challenge and change the world in which they live.

But most importantly – my job is to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.

And that’s all children and young people up to 18 in Northern Ireland. No exceptions. No exclusions.

I can also work on behalf of young people up to 21 in two special cases – disabled children and young people who have been in the care system.

My Role is therefore three fold:

  • To act as an Ombudsman for children and young people, through our legal and complaints work;
  • To carry out research and reviews into services to ensure the rights of children are met.
  • To communicate widely with children and young people and with the general public about the work of the office and about the rights children in Northern Ireland are entitled to

But there is also one part of my job that is sometimes missed. One of my aims when doing my job is to make sure I acknowledge and have regard to:

“the importance of the role of parents in the upbringing and development of their children”

Parenting Issues

Since the establishment of a children’s commissioner, we have heard a range of concerns from children and their parents about the absence of provision to support parents at stressful times in bringing up their children. We have been vociferous in expressing our criticisms about the lack of a strategic approach at policy and resource level which has resulted in inconsistent and inadequate approaches being taken by the statutory bodies charged with offering support to families and children.

I want to influence both strategic direction and funding for services from Government. The community and voluntary sector provide excellent programs across Northern Ireland but too often they are not supported by the Government.

They are forced to rely on a cocktail of funding to ensure their existence. Family support programs such as this should have ongoing recognition and secure support from the Departments of health and education.

As a parent myself I know just what a challenge raising children can be from the terrible twos to the rebellious teenagers.

There’s no manual, TV programme guide book or bluffer’s guide that can prepare you for the shades of disobedience, and colours of delight that a child brings. But what is available and what should be provided is help and support.

One of my favourite quotations from a book on bringing up children is from Dr Christopher Greene’s ‘Toddler Taming’. In the introduction he says:

“I used to be a childcare expert…then I had children”

I believe that this is the case. Parenting is no easy job, but equally it's a rewarding job. The leaps from rows to cuddles I’ve had with my own children are stunning in terms of how quickly they can happen!

And you may never be prepared for the moment when a child asks the ‘awkward’ questions, or persists in asking why, but there must be the support for when trouble, in all its various shapes, comes.

Assistance to parents can best be achieved as part of comprehensive policies for early childhood, including provision for health, care and education during the early years. The Assembly must make sure that parents are given appropriate support to enable them to involve young children fully in such programmes, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Support for families and parent’s is an overarching theme of the 10 year strategy for children and young people. But support for families is not co-coordinated by Government; support programs are not available in every community and are not evenly distributed across the North. Their policy commitment in this area must be matched with increased resource allocation and appropriate development in service delivery, structures and practices.

Most of all, there must be co-ordination that the promises made in the 10 year strategy are not broken – an arm of the Government, a requirement of the Executive to monitor the implementation of the strategy, to check that each Government department is committed to meeting and exceeding the targets in the strategy. Children and parents do not need more broken Government promises.

Children’s Rights

As a children’s rights-based organisation, NICCY’s guiding principles are founded on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). In signing up to the UNCRC the Government must be committed to bringing its law, policy and practices in line with it. I want to hold the government to account when it falls short of this benchmark.

Before moving on I want to emphasize that the UNCRC does not undermine parent’s rights. In fact it protects them! Article 18 of the UNCRC says this explicitly:

“Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child”

‘Rights’ – it is a word we often use but less often know about - I like to think of ‘rights’ as promises made to people by the Government.

Children’s rights ensure that all our children and young people are treated fairly and equally and given the opportunity to participate in society. It is important that our rights and those of our children are respected and upheld.

Children’s rights do not undermine those of their parents; they complement each other, in fact children’s rights include support for parents. The recent debate on physical punishment has sparked the argument on a parent’s right to choose how to ‘parent’ their child and a child’s right to protection from physical harm. In this case I do not believe these rights are conflicting. Parents have other options available in the form of positive parenting rather than infringing their child’s right by hitting them. As one former member of my youth panel explained:

“If my dad hit my mum she could call the police. If he hit me I couldn’t.”

That is the reality.

But, when I or others challenge Government to end physical punishment we need to be clear that it’s not about taking away the rights of parents to discipline their child but about finding alternative ways of doing it.

It is my belief that parents should be the best protectors of their children’s rights advocating on their behalf and ensuring that children and young people actually have a voice themselves

I would urge all parents to nurture children’s rights within the home.

My office has recently undertaken a major piece of research into children’s rights, in which we spoke face to face with over 2000 children and young people.

Young people told us of their concerns in detail – and raised many issues – both in this research and previous work undertaken for NICCY by Queen’s University – about home life. Some adults may see as trivial, some worrying for all

Children and young people felt that they were not involved in making decisions within the home. In some instances these were relatively small decisions, such as meal choices. However, in some cases children expressed concern about not be consulted when the family moved home.

Fair treatment in the home, mostly in relation to treatment of siblings, often came up in research – and for those of you with older brothers and sisters, you may remember the childhood conflict and agony that most parents can’t remember and certainly can’t mediate!

Lack of quality time in the home - parents work life balance. As a working parent I know how stresses have increased over the years and how this changes relationships within the home. When you are torn between work and things you want to do with your family, the family, of course comes first. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that. Sometimes even a little flexibility can make a huge difference at home.

Privacy within the home - private space is important to young people and that’s not just about keeping a diary, but the delicate balance between a parent needing to know important things and not needing to know everything!

By making relatively small changes to what goes on within the home, you can reinforce respect for children’s rights and empower your children to make informed decisions.

I would urge all parents here today to take away this message - respecting the rights of your children does not infringe your rights. I would encourage you all to make a few small changes to set an example of respect in the home.

Conclusion

To conclude: We are living in an era where children’s lives and experiences are changing fast.

At a time when technology is enabling them to communicate, create and develop online, offline and in a media dominated age they are being told on talk-shows and news bulletins that they are little more than louts.

When examination results across the United Kingdom are better than any time before, they are being told in the media the exams are easy.

When they are out with friends - because parents tell them they must not go out alone - they are demonized as packs of prowling teenage tearaways.

When they are at risk of coming into conflict with the justice system – or have been through that system – preventative action, and support for everyone in the family is the exception not the rule.

It is only through the work of the dedicated groups represented here that some families and young people are supported, backed and challenged – in the right way – to change.

As parents we can start to make changes at home – and we can tell Government it’s time to keep its promises to families.

As a society our task is to make sure the support is not just for ‘some’ but for all.

Thank you for inviting me to speak, and thank you for listening!