Children and Young People’s Participation Rights: Looking Backwards and Moving Forwards

In: The International Journal of Children's Rights
Christina McMellon TRIUMPH network based at MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland,

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E. Kay M. Tisdall Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh; Childhood & Youth Studies Research Group, Edinburgh, Scotland,

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Children and young people’s participation is an ever-growing demand. Thirty years on from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s adoption, however, fundamental challenges continue for participation that are widely recognised cross-nationally but remain stubbornly consistent. As a way in to considering the children and young people’s participation literature more generally, all articles referring to participation in their titles were identified from The International Journal of Children’s Rights. These 56 articles were analysed to identify trends, challenges and opportunities. The analysis found: a remarkably consistent narrative on participation over the 30 years; limitations on domains considered, geography and conceptual clarity; and far more written about challenges than solutions. Drawing on these findings and considering the participation literature more generally, the article recommends that the field expands its geographic and intellectual boundaries, uses powerful concepts like agency, competency and autonomy with greater precision, and explores fresh ideas like child protoganism, activism and children as human rights defenders.

1 Introduction

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (uncrc) has been a catalyst for promoting children and young people’s participation rights. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1989, the uncrc details a number of Articles grouped together as participation rights, which were novel in their articulation and their application to children and young people. 1 With States Parties charged with implementing the uncrc, and currently the usa being the only UN member state having not ratified it, jurisdictions around the world have changed policy and legislation to recognise children and young people’s individual and collective rights to participate. The uncrc has inspired civil society and a range of organisations – from the private to the public sector – to develop participation activities with children and young people, for various goals of empowerment, influence and involvement (Pereznieto et al., 2011; Birnbaum and Saini, 2012; Gal and Duramy, 2015). While all too often children and young people are unaware of their participation rights under the uncrc, they themselves have taken action on such issues as gun control, anti-war and climate change. 2 Children and young people’s participation has thus received growing attention since the uncrc’s adoption in 1989.

With this attention have come accumulated concerns from within the participation field about actualising these rights. Concerns have been largely practical, in terms of the challenges faced within activities and by children and young people when they participate. Challenges range from concerns about tokenism and lack of impact on decision making, when children and young people do participate, to the lack of sustainability of participation activities (see below). The academic field has raised conceptual concerns, such as the lack of theoretical underpinning and development of the literature and research, which in turn limits the more fundamental questions and opportunities to help develop practice (Tisdall et al., 2014). Children and young people’s participation thus faces both practical and conceptual challenges, 30 years on from uncrc adoption.

This article seeks to learn from the children and young people’s participation field over the last 30 years, to assess trends, challenges and opportunities. The field has grown immensely and there is an extensive literature, from “grey” literature available through organisations and the internet, to practice advice found in newsletters, practitioners’ publications and teaching modules, to extensive research and academic publications in journals and books. For example, a topic search of children and participation, in a leading database, the Web of Science Core Collection, resulted in 23,143 articles in English alone. 3 This article reviews the contents of The International Journal of Children’s Rights (ijcr) in the context of trends and development in the wider children and young people’s participation literature, drawing on the methodological approach of McNamee and Seymour (2013). From ijcr’s first issue in 1993, to 2019, 56 articles have been published with variations of participation in their titles: these were used as the basis for the article’s analysis. The following sections review key aspects of participation rights within the uncrc, then present the methodology used to identify and assess the articles, before proceeding to the findings and conclusion.

2 Taking Forward Participation Rights in the uncrc

The uncrc has a range of rights that are categorised as “participation rights”. These include Article 13 (freedom of expression), Article 14 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), Article 15 (freedom of association and peaceful assembly) and Article 17 (access to information). Article 12 has been identified as a general principle of the uncrc (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2003) and is much cited. Article 12’s precise wording is:

  1. 1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
  2. 2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

The uncrc itself does not use the word “participation” in this Article. Its use is explained by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its General Comment on Article 12:

This term has evolved and is now widely used to describe ongoing processes, which include information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes (2009: 3).

Implicitly, the General Comment is addressing a number of the challenges faced in implementing children and young people’s participation rights. Across both individual and collective decision making, adults’ concerns about children and young people’s best interests and protection (which are also rights recognised in the uncrc) can squeeze out children and young people’s rights to participate (Ruiz-Casares et al., 2017). Adult (and sometimes children and young people’s) ascriptions of children and young people’s capacities and competencies can exclude them from being involved in decision making (Moran-Ellis and Tisdall, 2019). Adult attitudes and systems more generally do not always include and adapt to children and young people, so that children and young people’s views are excluded or not given due weight (Gal and Duramy, 2015). In collective decision making, children, young people and adults criticise participation activities as often tokenistic, lacking impact on decision making and failing to give timely feedback to children and young people on decisions made and reasons thereof (Percy-Smith and Thomas, 2010; Lundy, 2019). Despite the popularity of children and young people’s participation within the children’s rights field, children and young people very often face considerable challenges to having their participation rights recognised and realised.

To forward children and young people’s participation rights, various models have been developed that address children and young people’s collective participation. An early typology was the “ladder of participation” developed by Hart (1992). Hart’s ladder has eight rungs, with the bottom three categorised as non-participation (manipulation, decoration and tokenism). The higher rungs depict varying degrees of participation, from the fourth rung of “assigned and informed” up to the eighth rung of “child-initiated, shared decisions with adults”. This ladder has proven highly popular, is frequently cited in the literature and is used in training and development to catalyse groups and individuals to consider how children and young people are involved in decision making. Possibly because of this extensive use, it has been subject to certain criticisms. For example, the image of the ladder suggests that the goal is to be at the highest rung, signaling ‘child-initiated and shared decisions with adults’ is the ideal form of participation (Sinclair, 2004). However, for certain types of decisions that involve multiple stakeholders – such as legislative changes that affect numerous groups – it may be that another rung is appropriate, such as “adult-initiated, shared decisions with children”. To dissolve this apparent hierarchy, Treseder (1997) placed the categories around a circle. Further, he did not include the bottom three categories, which are not considered participation.

Both the ladder and the circle retain certain problems. For example, they separate children and adults in two groups, which reifies the distinction between adulthood and childhood, and does not recognise the diversity across, and potential power relationships within, children and adult groups. Neither diagram emphasises contextual matters, such as socio-economic, political, cultural or organisational factors, which can dramatically impact on children and young people’s participation. Ignoring such matters can lead to the criticisms of children and young people’s participation generally, as being culturally inappropriate (Valentin and Meiner, 2009) and failing to effect decision making (see above). The diagrams fail to incorporate changes over time and for those involved: for example, at certain times within the “lifetime” of that particular process, participation may be child-initiated whereas at others it may be adult-initiated. The diagrams thus do not assist fully with key issues for children and young people’s participation, in terms of power, the diversity of children and adults, and changes over time.

Other models have been presented that seek to do so. Shier’s model for organisations was published in 2001, emphasising what organisations need to do in order to realise children and young people’s participation. It addresses certain issues that can block participation, such as ethos, organisational structures and practice. He has further developed participation models, drawing on work with children in Nicaragua, that emphasise children’s own learning processes and development into community leaders (Shier, 2015). In 2011, Johnson published her Change-Scape model, that brings in the wider contextual issues and changes over time, to the processes of children and young people’s participation as supported by organisations (for an updated discussion on this model, see Johnson, 2017). A model gaining widespread interest has been developed by Lundy. Drawing on an intensive analysis of Article 12 within the full requirements for children’s human rights, the model has four components:

SPACE: Children must be given safe, inclusive opportunities to form and express their view.

VOICE: Children must be facilitated to express their view.

AUDIENCE: The view must be listened to.

INFLUENCE: The view must be acted upon, as appropriate.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs Ireland, 2015: 21

Lundy’s model was originally developed to address the limitations of how student “voice” was being considered in education literature and practice (2007) and continues to develop in order to address the challenges of children and young people’s participation. At the timing of writing, she and colleagues are doing further work on the component of “influence”, as this remains one of the most difficult areas for participation. These models are drawing attention to the components required for meaningful and effective participation.

The models are largely addressing children and young people’s participation as a group, in such arenas as influencing communities, services or policies. The academic literature now contains numerous examples of such collective participation at local, national and international levels (e.g. Pereznieto, 2011; Bandyopadhyay, 2015; World Vision, 2017). Contributions come from numerous fields, from children and young people’s social media (e.g. Livingstone, 2014), children as consumers (e.g. Cook, 2013), children’s geographies and international development (e.g. von Benzon and van Blerk, 2017), to children as workers and child labour (e.g. Liebel and Invernizzi, 2018), to early years (e.g. Pascal and Bertram, 2009). There is considerable interest in children and young people’s participation in research, in the social sciences broadly but also extending into health and other fields (e.g. Larsson et al., 2018). Published literature also considers particular groups of children and young people, who may risk being excluded by participation, such as disabled children and very young children (Theobold et al., 2011). Further, there is research and commentary about children and young people’s participation as individuals, from informal involvement in families, peer groups and communities (e.g. Dunst et al., 2002) to more formal systems like courts and criminal justice, social work, schooling (e.g. Birnbaum and Saini, 2012; van Bijleveld et al., 2015). There is no shortage now of literature on children and young people’s participation.

Yet, within all this literature, the familiar challenges are often found. It is thus fruitful to look back over the past 30 years, to identify trends, challenges and opportunities.

3 Methodology

This paper both looks back over the key issues in the field of children and young people’s participation from the last 30 years and celebrates the contribution made to this field by the ijcr as the leading children’s rights journal. We (the authors) sought to identify articles that were focused on children and young people’s participation within the ijcr archives. We first searched for articles with variations of participation anywhere in the article (participat*). The Heinonline database allowed for all of the journal’s issues to be searched in this way, from 1993 to 2019. This resulted in 634 articles (as of 3 May 2019). We then excluded editorials and book reviews, so as to look for original articles. This resulted in 525 articles, which are distributed across the years as in Table 1.


This substantial number of articles is a finding in itself but an initial review demonstrated that children and young people’s participation was mentioned without developed consideration in a large number of these journal articles.

In order to concentrate on articles that substantially addressed children and young people’s participation, we sought to identify articles through keywords and abstracts. This presumed that, if participation (or its variations) were used in these sections, the author was signalling a focus on children and young people’s participation within the article. However, we were unable to locate databases, which facilitated searches across all of the journal’s issues from 1993 to 2019. No combination of databases allowed for this full time-span to be searched, for either keywords or the abstract. After consulting early issues, abstracts were not published for articles. We found abstracts that had been added subsequent to publication, for some articles, but not the earliest articles.

We thus returned to the Heinonline database, which allowed us to search for variations of participat* in the article’s title. Again, we are assuming that the author is signalling the importance of children and young people’s participation, by including it in the title. This resulted in 56 articles, distributed across the journal years as detailed in Table 2:


We undertook an initial review to check whether articles did have a substantial focus on children and young people’s participation, and this was confirmed. We thus used these 56 articles as our core dataset and subsequent analysis was undertaken on the full articles.

We initially read a selection of articles in different year groupings, to develop a coding frame. We identified descriptive elements (e.g. the article’s geographical focus, whether the article was based on empirical research and if so what kind, children’s ages) and thematic elements (e.g. how participation was discussed, how children were discussed, identified positives, challenges and solutions). We both did this initially and separately, compared codings, and produced an excel framework to then go through each article. This became the core basis for the article’s discussion below, which was largely analysed through thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006) with some descriptive quantitative analysis. In the findings’ discussion below, for a “typical” finding we provide up to three references as examples, although there will be substantially more articles that could be referred to.

We draw readers’ attention to two matters. First, some codes are more subjective than others. For example, most articles do not self-classify themselves in terms of their country contexts, their disciplinary backgrounds or their policy fields. As a result, the classification is dependent on our views and, further, some articles remain unclassified. Second, in 2008, there was a special issue on children and young people’s participation in public decision making. This had an explicitly cross-national and cross-disciplinary agenda, thus adding diversity by country and disciplines.

While we have undertaken our search, sample selection, and article identification systematically, we see this approach as a device to consider the field of children and young people’s participation. The ijcr is leading in its field of children’s human rights but, while interdisciplinary, it likely attracts more legal scholars than other childhood studies’ journals and children’s participation is likely to be presented as a rights issue. The ijcr publishes in English, so there will be trends in other languages (see below), which risk being missed. Other articles in the ijcr may focus on children and young people’s participation but not include participat* in the title, and we will not have identified them. We note that the articles reviewed reflect the scope of writing on children and young people’s participation within the ijcr and that they sit within a much wider literature related to children and young people’s participation. Nonetheless, as a device, this approach has identified a rich range of articles and the analysis provides a number of provocative key findings, which we consider in light of the broader trends within the literature. Below, we discuss the descriptive and thematic findings under two headings: familiar tropes, and challenges and solutions.

4 Findings: Looking Backwards and Moving Forward

4.1 Familiar Narrative and Familiar Tropes

The most striking finding was how familiar the story was of children and young people’s participation over the 30 years. Take, for example, two examples from articles published 15 years apart:

Alderson (2000) believes that the child’s right to express a view is the most important participation right and Freeman (1996) describes Article 12 as the linchpin of the convention. Children themselves (Morrow, 1999; Taylor, Smith and Naim, 2001) give a high priority to participation rights. Yet Article 12 is also ‘one of the most widely violated and disregarded in almost every sphere of children’s lives’ (Shier, 2001: 108). (Smith, 2002: 74).

In the 25 years of the International Journal of Children’s Rights, the importance of children’s rights has been stressed, the need for children’s participation and engagement has been asserted, and in moving through the next 25 years what is needed is an approach that enables children to speak for themselves in a manner that is more than seeking their views when being consulted. (Cassidy, 2017: 332).

These paragraphs are typical of the narrative, which contains at least three tropes. First, the uncrc and, particularly Article 12, are asserted as especially important for children’s rights, and are seen as radical, innovative and/or challenging conceptually and practically (e.g. Ochaita and Espinosa, 1997; Rap, 2016; Taylor, 2017). Second, participation rights are so radical, innovative or challenging because they confront “traditional” views of children (e.g. as vulnerable, dependent and incompetent) with alternative views of children as autonomous, competent social actors (e.g. Smith, 2002; Jones, 2017; Hester and Moore, 2018). Here, articles often relate to what might be considered “childhood studies” literature and the sociology of childhood that developed from the 1970s onwards in the Global North (see Mayall, 2012 for historical review). As powerfully put forward by Prout and James (1990), childhood should be considered a social construction and children have to be recognised as active in constructing their own lives, thus creating new understandings that are part of reconstructing childhood itself. In these ways, developments in childhood studies intersect and provide conceptual ballast to children and young people’s participation rights (see Tisdall and Punch, 2012 for review). Third, the articles have a familiar concern about poor implementation. This is evident early on in articles published. For example, Parkinson’s 2001 article states:

One of the most frequently cited principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is Article 12, which provides that a child shall be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting him or her. Despite a quite widespread acceptance of this principle, it is perhaps easier to state than to apply (259).

This concern about the absence or inadequacy of implementation is often the premise of the articles, leading into their substantive discussions. In short, the narrative starts with mentioning the potential of the uncrc and its participation rights, notes how these challenge traditional constructions of childhood and that, despite their potential, children and young people’s participation rights are often not recognised or realised.

This narrative may be empirically correct (e.g. Kilkelly and Donnelly, 2011; Ensor and Reinke, 2014; Jones, 2017) but its consistency does not suggest the field is moving beyond this critique. Reasons could be the familiarity of the predominant focus and conceptual development. For example, most articles refer to a single country context, with few comparative (and even fewer comparing a substantial number of contexts). Further, the geographical spread of the articles is limited. The most common country context is the UK (whether as a whole or referring to a particular jurisdiction, 17 articles), followed by Australia (4), India (3), New Zealand (3) and South Africa (3). It is now a familiar comment that the childhood studies need to learn more from different parts of the world (Tisdall and Punch, 2012; Wells, 2015; Hanson et al., 2018), particularly as most children live in the Global South yet the Global North has dominated childhood studies. The participation field needs to ensure it considers and is challenged by developments in all parts of the world.

Considering the articles as a portfolio, their conceptual development is potentially limited in four ways. First, while not surprising given the traditions of academic publishing, no articles were explicitly authored by children and young people. Standpoint theory, for example in feminist or disability studies (Garland-Thomson, 2005), would suggest the benefits of children and young people asserting their own interpretations to develop conceptualisations and empirical research. Second, there is little collective development of related concepts or of the theory of participation as it relates to rights beyond the childhood studies’ trope (described above). Given the critique by several authors of an over-reliance on typologies and the lack of theoretical developments (Thomas, 2007; Tisdall, 2015), we found more articles than we anticipated that are predominantly theoretical (we classified six as such). However, we found limited developments across the field building together conceptual ideas; authors or research teams were making insightful contributions but only within their own work. Thus the sociology of childhood remains the predominant conceptual work alluded to and this is usually not deeply interrogated nor developed itself. Third, the uncrc is often used as a “stepping stone” for the journal articles, frequently mentioned in the first sentence or paragraph of the article. It is then often not expanded upon (although note exceptions such as Forde et al., 2016) and even fewer articles integrate discussions of the uncrc and its articles into the substantive parts of the article and the conclusion. A few articles critique Article 12(1) for its limitations (e.g. Franklin and Sloper, 2005; Cassidy, 2017) but this is rare. Again, while there are exceptions (e.g. Rap, 2016; Cassidy, 2017), few articles relate children and young people’s participation rights to other human rights treaties, remaining squarely within children’s rights discussions. Thus the uncrc and Article 12 are frequently used as devices to start off the journal article, but they are themselves not fundamentally scrutinised and developed in-depth or in the wider human rights’ context. This combination of factors leads to little sustained interrogation of participation and participation rights themselves beyond the familiar list of challenges (see below). One last factor is the coverage of policy and practice contexts. Schooling and education are the most common contexts (12 articles), along with healthcare (7 articles). Of potential significance is what is missing or limited. For example, no article focuses on children’s participation rights in business (beyond one on child labour, Invernizzi and Milne, 2002), despite the pervasiveness of business and consumerism within the lives of children and young people in the globalised world and the considerable childhood consumerism literature published elsewhere. There is limited attention to children’s participation rights in a number of other arenas, also important to many children and young people, such as play, leisure and sports. Thus, there are gaps in considering children’s participation rights in key domains that affect them (like business and sports) and in bringing in literatures to children’s right studies predominantly found elsewhere (like consumerism, human geography, international development, early years and play).

A wide variety of words are used in the articles, alongside or instead of participation, such as views, autonomy, self-determination, wishes and opinions. They are rarely defined or differentiated (with a few exceptions, such as Struthers (2016) between voice and participation, and Taylor et al. (2007) between wishes and views). Terms like agency and competency are frequently interwoven in sentences but rarely defined or conceptualised. This lack of precision goes beyond academic niceties, with implications conceptually and practically. The use of “agency” in childhood studies, for example, has been roundly critiqued for assuming that children’s agency is innately positive, thus making it problematic if in the particular circumstances children’s agency seems questionable (Bordonaro and Payne, 2012; Edmonds, 2019) or circumscribed by their contexts (Klocker, 2007). Agency has been used as if it were something that children owned, rather than something expressed relationally (Esser et al., 2016; Gallagher, 2019). If the latter were accepted, the ramifications are practical as well as conceptual: leading to a consideration of “affordances” (Clarkin-Phillips and Carr, 2012), concentrating on how to support children’s expressions of agency, and looking more critically about who defines and polices the norms of children’s agency. Other terms clustered around participation in the field merit similar critique for what they contribute – and what they limit – both practically and conceptually (e.g. see Daly, 2018; Moran-Ellis and Tisdall, 2019; Mühlbacher and Sutterlüty, 2019).

In short, we were surprised in our analysis how familiar the narrative, tropes and coverage are over the 30 years. This suggests distinct opportunities to unsettle the participation field, in terms of greater conceptual precision, collective theoretical development, and addressing the lacunas in who and what are included in the discussions.

4.2 Challenges and Solutions

Articles very regularly identify the challenges of participation, which mirror the literature more generally (see Section 2 above). Far fewer solutions are offered, with the most hopeful offered from the Global South and/or learning from other fields. Below, we outline these challenges and solutions.

The list of challenges for participation is lengthy, and we group them here in three ways. First, adults and adult systems poorly support children and young people’s participation. One of the most common challenges discussed is the attitudes of some adults that detract from children and young people’s participation: tensions between protection and participation rights including the belief that an adult’s primary role is to protect children (e.g. Alderson et al., 2005; Tomanović-Mihajlović, 2000; Hester and Moore, 2018); perceived tensions between children and young people’s and parents’ rights (Kosher, 2018); a lack of understanding about, or belief in, the importance of children and young people’s participation rights (e.g. Franklin and Sloper, 2005; Wyn, 2007; Forde et al, 2016). Adults are sometimes unwilling to address power dynamics and share power with children (e.g. Davis, 2007; Moses, 2008; Hester and Moore, 2018). This can be seen, for example, when adults use children’s participation to support their own agendas (e.g. Invernizzi and Milne, 2002; LaFrancois, 2008; Taylor and Percy-Smith, 2008). Whilst most authors argue for a nuanced understanding of participation that challenges existing power structures in order to effect change, the practice of participation can often be tokenistic, decorative participation and not move beyond consultation (e.g. Wyness, 2001; Gallagher, 2008; Struthers, 2016). Thus adult attitudes, adult-child power dynamics and adult systems can diminish children and young people’s participation opportunities.

Second, the articles add to the widespread concern that participation lacks impact (see Section 2), either not making a difference in decision making or a difficulty in knowing whether it does (e.g. Gallagher, 2008; Wheeler, 2010; Crowley, 2015). One practical reason is organisations’ bureaucratic nature, which are not set up for children and young people’s views to make a difference and where change occurs very slowly (e.g. Smith, 2007; Thomas, 2007; Fitzgerald et al., 2012). Further, Leviner (2018) writes about the challenge of how to involve children and young people’s views in decision making alongside other people’s views. Involving children and young people in decision making can be used to hide the need for more fundamental social change (e.g. Invernizzi and Milne, 2002; Davis, 2007; Thomas, 2007). Children and young people’s participation tends to consider the local situation and yet many things affecting children and young people happen at the national and/or global scale (e.g. Cook, 2008; Hart, 2008). Thus, these concerns lead on from problematic adult attitudes, systems and power dynamics, but also point to additional issues about monitoring and feedback, how to bring children and young people together with other stakeholders, and scale.

Third, articles discuss the challenges related to which children and young people participate. One concern is that some young people (often older children and those from higher socio-economic backgrounds) are easier to involve than others and that, particularly when resources are limited, access to participation opportunities is not equal (e.g. Rampal, 2008; Gwandure and Mayekiso, 2011; Struthers, 2016). Several papers mention specific groups of children whose views are less likely to influence decision making: such as very young children (Hester and Moore, 2018), care experienced children (Winter, 2006), and children with communication difficulties (Franklin and Sloper, 2005). These exemplify widespread concerns more generally in the participation literature that certain groups risk being excluded from participation and efforts for particular methodological and practice development are required to ensure they are included. 4 Several authors, writing in the contexts of education and residential care, find that children and young people can be overly pressured to participate or experience negative consequences should they not wish to participate (e.g. LaFrancois, 2008). Thus, some children and young people may be more likely to be invited to participate, creating inequities in access; if they refuse the invitation, though, they may experience negative repercussions.

Specific solutions offered by the papers reviewed are limited. Ideas of how to do this include: to draw attention to tokenism and manipulation (Wheeler, 2010); to raise awareness of participation rights (