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Children’s Rights and Responsibilities: The UN Children’s Bill of Rights

Children hold hands with the sky in the background.

What are children’s rights and responsibilities?

Human rights celebrate and advocate for the equal and intrinsic dignity of all human beings. Children’s rights and responsibilities focus on the protections necessary to ensure that people under the age of 18 are raised in safe environments with equitable opportunities based on their needs and interests. Specifically, these rights include physical, mental, social, moral, spiritual, economic, cultural, and political respects and freedoms. The application of children’s rights and responsibilities can be practiced both individually and collectively, with the goal to benefit one child, as well as an entire community of children. 

Why are rights and responsibilities for kids necessary?

Children remain vulnerable to harm due to their dependency on the surrounding adults, family, community, and institutions that make up their environments. Children begin non-verbal so cannot communicate if they are being harmed. Some remain non-verbal throughout life due to developmental disabilities and other conditions. Many develop the capacity to practice independence over time, while others will depend on caregivers for life. Any person vulnerable to harm or dependent on others for care, especially children, need to be centered in community protection and safety efforts. 

Many assume that children have equal rights as adults in the United States. However, this is not the case. Unfortunately, the development of children’s rights and responsibilities has had a complex and challenging history nationally and internationally. 

The history of harm due to the lack of children’s rights and responsibilities

The treatment of children in the United States has been full of violence and exploitation, dishonoring the intrinsic dignity defined by children’s rights and responsibilities. Indigenous children suffered genocide, kidnapping, violence, cultural erasure, land removal, exile, and/or forced assimilation through government-run legislation and boarding schools. Many children from Africa were forced into the transatlantic slave trade or born into chattel slavery and treated as the property of plantation owners. It is estimated that nearly one-third of these children were sold to others and separated from their families. Chattel slavery ended in 1865, but many recently freed children were reenslaved through apprentice agreements to the former slave master.

Children from European countries often came to the colonies to work as indentured servants in order to pay for their passage across the Atlantic. Otherwise, children were raised in family systems where they were required to be economically contributing by the age of ten years old, or when they were large enough to work, through apprenticeship, street selling, farm tasks, or domestic labor. According to the law, children were considered the property of their parents, masters, enslavers, or colonizers, and lacked basic protections. 

After the American Industrial Revolution, many children transferred from farm labor or seafood production on the coasts to working in coal mines, factories, and cotton mills, or becoming newspaper carriers and peddlers. The machines were specifically designed in factories to be so easily operated that a child could perform the labor. Long hours, poor pay, and maltreatment often defined the working conditions of children on farms and in mines and factories. Often children became the sole providers for their families because child labor was significantly cheaper than the same labor performed by adults. Children’s small sizes benefited many labor industries as their little hands could be used to operate machinery, clean in narrow surfaces, and crawl into confined spaces. Children were seen as a resource to promote economic development and provide for family stability. According to the 1880 census, children between the ages of 10 and 15 made up nearly 40 percent of the workforce. 

The promotion of children’s rights and responsibilities in the United States

Even though there is a harrowing history of harm in the United States against children, stories of resilience, courage, and protection also existed. Enslaved parents often attempted to intervene on behalf of the separation of their children to keep their families together. Sojourner Truth was the first Black woman to win a court case in the United States against a white man in order to free her enslaved son. Likewise, many Indigenous nations fought to protect their people and their children from institutional harm to preserve and celebrate their traditional and sacred ways of life. Children often led their own strikes from unjust and unsafe labor practices nationally and internationally.

In 1874, the first piece of legislation against child abuse was written in the United States. A ten-year-old child named Mary Ellen Wilson had been brutally beaten and emotionally abused by a caregiver in foster care. Etta Wheeler, a neighbor, reported the abuse to authorities, but no laws protected children against abuse at the time. Instead, she turned to Henry Bergh who had founded The American Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). He intervened. Mary Ellen was brought to court and testified against her abusive caregiver. Etta Wheeler formally adopted Mary Ellen, while her caregiver was sentenced to one year in prison.

Mary Ellen’s case inspired Bergh to found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) to better define children’s rights and responsibilities in December 1874. At the turn of the twentieth century, a child protection movement amplified nationwide to eliminate harms against children and provide protections. 

Historically the responsibility fell on states to decide appropriate child labor laws. Reformers sought to redefine child labor from a benefit to children by keeping them from idleness and supporting their families, to a destructive byproduct of capitalism that negatively impacted children and the community. The passing of child labor laws was an arduous and difficult process. Often business owners, parents, and children from impoverished families advocated for child labor to support economic growth and family economic need. However, child anti-labor advocates continued to find success by first limiting the hours of the day that children could work at the state level, then attempting to make work environments safer. Eventually, minimum work age laws and maximum work hours passed to better protect child laborers.

In 1903, Mary Harris, or Mother Jones, began the March of the Mill Children including 200 children who had been harmed from unsafe labor from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in New York to increase awareness of the violent conditions of child labor and to demand a 55-hour work week. However, the lack of constitutional authority made it difficult for the federal government to pass laws regarding children’s rights and responsibilities. 

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) formed in 1904 and wrote the first federal child labor bills that were introduced in Congress in 1906 to prevent the employment of children in factories and mines. It also sought to outlaw the transport in interstate commerce of any articles mined or manufactured by children under 14 years of age under the authority of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. In 1912 the Children’s Bureau was first created, a government office focused on the wellbeing of children and families. Finally, in 1916 the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act (1916) passed successfully restricting the working hours of children and forbidding the sale of goods produced by child labor through states, only to be deemed unconstitutional in 1918.

Anti-child labor activists continued to fight, but a law prohibiting child labor did not pass until 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, which included a number of benefits to adult laborers, as well as restricted work to anyone under the age of 16 and hazardous jobs to under the age of 18. However, the law excluded children working in agriculture, transportation and local retail. As a result, the FLSA restricted mostly white child labor in Northeastern parts of the country, while neglecting non-white agricultural child labor in the West and South. By the time the FLSA was passed, child labor had already been declining for a number of reasons beyond legislation like the increase of immigrants, the increasing complexity of machinery requiring skilled operators, and higher standards of living as well as social values that encouraged children’s education over work. 

However, the fight to protect children from labor, exploitation, and violence was far from finished. Boarding schools that sought to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate their cultures, traditions, and languages didn’t close until the 1930’s. At the same time, a mass deportation of Mexican immigrants forced over two million people to Mexico — half of whom had status as citizens of the United States — leaving their children behind. During World War II, 30,000 Japanese American children were forced into prison camps. Simultaneously, the government relaxed the enforcement of the FLSA sending many children back to work.

The exemptions for agriculture made in the FLSA still apply today, so children as young as 10 can work part-time and children aged 12 are able to work full-time, regardless of the hazardous nature of the work. These children generally come from immigrant and non-white backgrounds. According to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, injuries are common and and child fatalities represent 20 percent of deaths from farming. Other issues like poverty, abuse, neglect, lack of education and healthcare, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and racism continue to plague the experience of children in the US.

The promotion of children’s rights and responsibilities internationally

After the first World War in 1920, the League of Nations formed to resolve international disputes. After witnessing the horrors of the war especially against children, Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, drafted the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child — the first international children’s rights and responsibilities document in 1923. It included a number of points to protect children.

The United Nations (UN) was founded after World War II. It took over the Geneva Declaration in 1946. Then the UN Fund for Urgency for the Children (UNICEF) was created in 1947. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights published in 1948 and revealed the shortcomings of the Geneva Declaration, which had to be expanded. The UN passed the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 including more safety principles. Then, in November of 1989, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child became the first international legally binding text recognizing all the fundamental rights of the child with three specific guiding ideologies.

  • It defines childhood until 18 years of age as a special and protected period when children can grow, learn, develop, and play in safe contexts that celebrate their dignity. 

  • It dismantles the idea that children are not property of their parents, providers, or employers, but instead individuals with their own rights.

  • It envisions children’s rights and responsibilities as appropriate with the age and ability of each child and focuses on developmental principles that center their whole personhood.

As of today, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child has been signed by 196 States. Only the United States has signed but not ratified the treaty.

A children’s bill of rights

The Convention of the Rights of a Child defined children’s rights and responsibilities as follows:

No child should be discriminated against or treated unfairly for any reason

All children have all rights, no matter their geographic location, present environment, language, appearance, gender, religion, ability, economic status, or family of origin.

Adults must act in the best interests of the child

All adults must make decisions that consider what is best for children. Governments should make sure children are protected and looked after by their parents, communities, or institutions responsible for childcare and education.

Access to children’s rights

Governments must do all they can to ensure that all children in their countries benefit from the  rights established within the Convention.

Family and community as children’s guides

Governments must allow families and communities to guide their children in the practice of these rights. 

Ability for life survival and development

Every child has the right to live and develop safety. Governments must ensure they do so.

Respect of name and nationality

Children must be registered within a country and given a name when they are born. When possible, children should know their parents and be raised by them.

Formation of identity

Children have the right to their own identity, which must be kept by an official record that includes their name, nationality and family background. They should always have access to this information and if not, governments are responsible for aiding children in securing the record once again.

Families remain together

Children should not be separated or removed from their parents unless they are being harmed. Children whose parents have separated can remain in communication with both parents unless there is harm being done to the child.

Cross country communication

When children live in another country from their parents, governments must allow the child and parents to travel so that they can remain connected.

Protections from parental or stranger kidnapping

Children cannot be taken out of the country by a parent when the other parent disagrees, nor kidnapped by a stranger. 

Freedom of opinions

Adults must listen to children’s views, particularly on matters that impact them, and take them seriously.

Creative means for communication

Children can share how they think and feel in any way that they wish or are able to, like talking, drawing, writing or in any other form of self-expression that doesn’t harm people.

Religious practice

Children have the right to practice their own religion, but cannot stop others from doing the same. Parents can guide children to honor their own belief systems, while also understanding those of others.

The right to organize

Children can create groups to belong to as long as these groups do not intend or act on forms of harm.

Privacy protections

Every child has the right to privacy. This means that the law must protect children’s privacy from threat or attack.

Access to information

Children must have access to information from the Internet, radio, television, newspapers, books, and additional resources written in their own language and available for their abilities. Adults and governments must work to ensure this content is safe. 

Parental responsibility

Parents are responsible for raising their children together, unless they are not present or able, and then a guardian can care for them in their place. All caregivers and the government must always consider what is best for the child. 

Safety and security

Governments must protect children from all forms of violence, abuse, and neglect by anyone who looks after them.

Alternative forms of family

Every child who cannot be raised by their own family has the right to be guided by others who respect the child’s culture, spiritual principles, language, and other elements of their life.

Adopted children

Anyone who adopts a child must always consider what is best for them. Cross country adoptions are appropriate when children cannot be cared for within their country of origin.

Refugee children

Children who are staying as refugees in another country must be offered the same resources, protections, and rights as the children born into that country.

Children with disabilities

Every child with a disability should allow for accessibility so those who are able can become independent and participate in the community.

High standards of health

Governments must provide the best health care possible, as well as clean water, healthy food, and safe living conditions. Health education can be prioritized to help others understand the most relevant health information for themselves and their families.

Regular childcare checks

Any child who has been displaced from their families and is cared for by others should be checked on regularly to ensure safety and security.

Social and economic assistance

Children living in impoverished communities must be offered social and economic assistance to ensure their wellbeing.

Basic needs addressed

Children’s basic needs like food, clothing, and a safe home, should be met by the family or the government.

Access to education

Every child must be provided an education. Primary education should be free, while secondary and higher education should be encouraged and available to all children. Discipline in schools should be non-violent and respect children’s safety.

Educational goals

Children’s education should focus on the whole development of their personalities, talents and abilities, as well as the respect of others and the sustainability of the environment.

Culture, language, and religious expression

Children have the right to practice their own language, culture and religion, especially when they are different from the majority of a country.

Recreational freedom

Every child has the right to recreational activities like rest, play, and participation in cultural and creative activities.

Protection from abusive work

Children have the right to be safe work environments that respect their cultures, education, and needs. If children work, they must be paid fairly.

Drug reduction

Governments must promote the wellness of children by encouraging them not to take, create, carry, or sell harmful substances.

Protection from sexual violence

The government must reinforce children’s sexual safety and privacy by protecting them from sexual exploitation and abuse, including sex work, trafficking, or pornography. 

Protection from sales and trafficking

Governments must ensure children are safe from being kidnapped or sold to be exploited for labor.

Protection from all forms of exploitation

A child should never be exploited in anyway even if not specifically mentioned by the Convention and governments are required to ensure they are not.

Detained children

Children who are accused of breaking the law should be taught and held accountable safety. Never should they be killed, tortured, or detained for life, nor put in prison with adults. Children in prison should be there for the shortest time possible, have the right to legal assistance, as well as be able to stay connected with their families.

Protections during war

Children have the right to be protected during war. No child under 15 can participate in war efforts or join the military. 

Recovery after conflict

Children have the right to get help if they have been harmed, neglected, abused or affected by conflicts, so they can return their health and dignity.

Conflict with the law

Children accused of breaking the law have the right to legal resources and fair treatment. A number of solutions should be offered to educate these children on safe community participation. Prison should only be the last choice.

The best laws apply

If a country’s laws promote children’s rights better than this Convention, then those laws should be used instead.

Education about rights

Governments should actively educate children and adults about this Convention so that everyone is aware of children’s rights and responsibilities. 

Why the US has yet to ratify children’s rights and responsibilities

Children’s rights and responsibilities critics in the United States believe that offering children rights would limit parental authority and dismantle the traditional family system. Additionally, it would place the US under international watch, potentially threatening US sovereignty. Opposers make it clear that the protection of the family and the nation is more important than that of the child.

Others claim that the children’s bill of rights created by the convention is too idealistic and actual execution of the high standards would prove too difficult. Some critique its strong Western values that reflect the importance of the nuclear family system as the foundation of a child’s life, which directly opposes more community and tribal forms of care practiced in many other countries and nations.

The importance of ratifying children’s rights and responsibilities

Today, children are still in great need of protection. In the United States, immigrant children continue to experience harsh work environments, unsafe detention centers, deportation, and family separation. Native and Black children are both overrepresented in foster care. Many children continue to be abused, neglected, and killed within their nuclear family systems or by over policing with no community or governmental oversight.

Recently, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) assigned a letter grade to each U.S. state on their ability to respect children’s rights and responsibilities decided by the Convention. Not one US state received an “A” or “B.” Only a few states — New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota — received “Cs.” While twenty others received an ‘F.’ Issues like low juvenile justice standards, corporal punishment, child marriage,and the prevalence of child labor caused many to score low on the assessment.

Although the children’s rights and responsibilities of the Convention are imperfect, they offer a child-centered approach to governing and family that must be adopted to ensure the safety of children. This approach — although new to Western culture that has prioritized colonization, capitalism, and profits over people — has always been practiced by many other nations, cultures, and communities especially Native Americans. Many Indigenous cultures traditionally believe that children are the gift from the creator, on loan to adults from the spirit world, and must be raised to become self-determined individuals in a community that cares for the whole person. They advocate for a society created “for the children, by the children, with the children.” Childhood offers both the greatest vulnerability, so therefore the greatest opportunity for care. 

The safety of children during their developmental years will help them to thrive as adults, while any harm, or adverse childhood or community experiences, can have lasting detrimental impacts on their physiological, psychological, spiritual, economic, or social wellbeing. The high rates of violence against children in the United States today contributes to the overburden of the medical system, economic instability, and the intergenerational harm of families. The safety of children will benefit individuals, as well as society as a whole.

Children’s rights and responsibilities to end incest and support incest survivors

Many of the children’s rights and responsibilities defined by the Convention would protect incest abuse survivors as it requires a better watch and improved accountability models on families and institutions that harm children. However, the Convention also reinforces the importance of the nuclear family system, which is the source of harm for incest abuse survivors. A community care model that insists that everyone is responsible for the safety of children, not just the family system, would better prevent incest abuse and provide support for survivors. 

Children’s rights and responsibilities resources

For further information, please, review the following resources:


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