The Rights of the Child, “Adultism” and the Philosophy of Childhood

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989 and opened for signatures. As of 2009, some 194 countries have ratified the convention, including all members of the UN except Somalia and the United States. The Convention specifies child-specific needs and rights allowing parents to act in the interests of the child.[1] As United Nations conventions go, this is a short one, with some 54 articles. Article 28 states:

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;

(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;

(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.

3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.

Much has been written about children’s rights, both by philosophers and within other disciplines treating more legal and political aspects of children’s rights. To some extent, the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child has resulted in a particular attention to this issue. In the United States, a movement concerned with children’s rights has, to a large extent, emerged out of the attention to unprivileged groups that can be traced back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Similar movements were growing in Europe at that time which culminated in the 1970s. Still, those movements may be said to have started much earlier in Europe. One example is the writings and works of individuals such as the Polish educationalist Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), who struggled against governments to help orphan children. Those individuals, at least in Korczak’s case, seemed to take upon themselves the endless task of giving relief to children in societies where few cared about them. Korczak believed that this was the result of a tacitly learned attitude towards unprivileged groups. He said that we, “teach indifference towards the weak by our own example” (Korczak 1992, p. 162). Korczak’s foremost example of such unhappy teaching was the lack of legal rights of children. We can hear Korczak anticipating this declaration and the UN’s convention in his major text, “How to love a child” (1920): “For years I have been observing the quiet sadness of sensitive children and the brazen antics of grownups. The child has a right to be himself, has a right to respect. Before you make revolutions, before you make wars, think first of these proletarians with short legs, think first of the child (Korczak, in Kulawiec, 1992, p. xiv).”

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Even earlier, in the constitution for his Jewish orphanage, he writes that children have, “the right to be loved, the be right to be listened to, the right to respect, the right to past and present and to a future” (Kulawiec 1992, p. xiv). This invocation of the discourse of rights from individuals such as Korczak seems to have been a result of the frustrating insight that the work of one man or woman or groups of people is not only insufficient, but incapable to promote lasting change. As so many feminists realize, to protect and empower children, we need changes in both the mentality of the public and in the societal practices that make children particularly vulnerable.

The history of the children’s rights movement reveals that it began as early as the late 18th century, with Thomas Spence’s 1796 “The Rights of Infants.” In the United States, child advocacy to abolish child labor was established in 1890, although it was not until 1938 that Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which placed limits on child labor.

Korczak wrote several works on the rights of the child in the 1920s, yet the first effective attempt to promote children’s rights was the Declaration of the Rights of the Child drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the British social reformer, in 1923 and adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. The original included the following stipulations:

1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

2. The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored.

3. The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.

4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.

5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.

This document was accepted by the United Nations in 1959 and updated in 1989.

Another European example, perhaps with a stronger impact on policy with more lasting effects, is the founding of Save the Children in the UK in 1919, its twin organization Rädda Barnen (Save the Children) in Sweden later that same year, and, together with other local organizations, the organizing of the International Save the Children Union in Geneva in 1920. Though, at first, the organization’s primary focus where on professional charity for children (and mothers), the focus slightly evolved to promoting the establishment of laws and policy documents to protect children, which resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by The League of Nations in Geneva in 1923.

Indeed, it is not only the rights discourse in general which has been challenged, but also the idea of children’s rights. Some argue that a rights approach seems too oriented around Western institutions and practices, and that it is not as applicable in other contexts. Accordingly, the level of commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child differs radically between different nations. Others argue that the rights discourse is misleading when applied to issues concerning children. Although one may recognize that giving children rights is useful for protecting children, it can be argued that giving rights also results in obscuring children’s need for protection by leaving them with the responsibility to claim their rights, and, thus, conceiving them as independent and capable of governing their own lives to a further degree than they actually are. This perspective, however, confuses the use of the notion “right” as referring to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and similar documents, and the use of the notion of moral rights as philosophers discuss them.

Philosophers such as Locke, Mill, Kant and Bentham have all attended specifically to questions of the moral status of children, and in such discussions, worked on the notion of children’s rights long before any of the discussion of children’s rights responded to the need for conventions to protect children. The emphasis by all those philosophers was quite different. Locke, Mill and Bentham wished to qualify their different conceptions of freedom, and they claimed that freedom was dependent on having certain capabilities (though their opinions differed somewhat on what those capabilities where). The moral status of children is, they agree, a matter of paternalistic protection until children mature in the relevant capabilities.

Concerning legal rights, it is quite clear, assuming the law is well formulated, what the right consists in, who it involves and whose responsibility it is to fulfill. In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this is quite clear. The ratifying nation and its institutions have taken the responsibility to fulfill the convention, and it concerns children, defined as individuals under the age of 18, unless the age of majority is reached earlier in the considered nation. Such a legal approach to rights, depending on the right under discussion, must not involve any particular capabilities on the child’s part, and it is not up to the individual child to claim its rights. The legal approach to children’s rights is instead subject for investigation, a criticism of another kind. Do these rights really protect the child? Are they too controlling and, therefore, limit the freedom of the child? Do they correspond with our moral responsibilities?

If children are taken as possessors of moral rights, the role of an individual child’s capabilities are somewhat different. Locke, Mill, Bentham and, to some degree, Kant, require some capability on the part of the child (for example, rationality or certain sensibilities). Nonetheless, if our conception of childhood is historicized, and if our conception of children’s moral status is constitutive of what we see them as – that is, our (inter)subjective understanding of them – another approach to philosophy of childhood is possible. We need a philosophy of childhood that, without confusing the issues at stake, can reconcile the activism of Korczak and the legal and moral tendencies in the discourse children’s rights.

Standard entries on philosophy of childhood (for example, Matthews, 2005; Matthews, 1994) begin by problematizing the child as an object of study and then tacitly follow a chronology that embraces historical developments emphasizing theories of cognitive and moral development (after Piaget and Kohlberg), children’s rights, agency of children, the good of childhood (focused on aesthetics), philosophical thinking in children and children’s literature. Matthews’ (2005) conception that is the entry for the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is motivated by an Aristotelian reading and tacitly accepts a chronology that flows from Piaget’s theory without elaborating the ways in which these approaches are different or, indeed, “philosophical.” It does not mention historical approaches except for Philippe Aries’ work, nor does it mention much on the influence of Freud, psychohistory and psychotherapeutic accounts of childhood or more recent social, cultural and political accounts. Michael Pritchard (2009) writes the entry for “philosophy for children” that again begins with Piaget to focus on the empirical account of Gareth Matthews, Matthew Lipman, McPeck and others before profiling the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC).[2]

These standard or received views are predominantly psychological in the broad sense of the term, and also cognitive, following a chronology shaped by Piaget’s work in child psychology. While these approaches are undeniably significant in the history of the study of childhood, they have been supplemented, and, some would say, eclipsed, by new approaches that draw much more from cultural and political analyses, viewing childhood less as a standalone empirical and universalist account of “development” shared by all children, and rather, more as reflecting the new postcolonial emphasis on cultural difference and the fashionable historicism in the human science that tends to challenge developmentalism as an ideology.

Also, philosophers since Plato have had an ambiguous relationship to children and childhood. On the one hand, many philosophers have seen the importance of childhood to their philosophical positions; on the other hand, there are very few philosophical accounts devoted to investigations of childhood and children in its own right. This ambiguity corresponds with tendencies in the ideologies tacit in our many different approaches to children. On the one hand, this ideology is very attentive to children and childhood: we care about children and try to understand them socially and psychologically; children’s education is often a debated issue among politicians, and children’s political, legal and moral rights are widely discussed. On the other hand, children rarely are understood on their own terms, and children tend to be seen as cultural others in societies where the terms for the good life are set by adults. Despite our care for our children, we may even speak of this tacit ideology as a form of racism, or, in David Kennedy’s words, a form of “adultism”:

The history of adulthood in the west – in the privileged, patriarchal West anyway, which is mostly what we have a record of – is characterized by an attitude toward children and childhood that I have called “adultism.” Like racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism, adultism is based on what appear to be empirical differences – in anatomy, neural development, ego-structure, psychoculture, size, and physical strength. These “real” differences very often lead to “subspeciation,” or the tendency to regard or treat certain human others implicitly as if they were members of a separate species (Kennedy 2006, p. 63).

If there is some truth in this description of our lives with children, it is well worth investigating how, when and if, adultism works out in different accounts of children and childhood. Adultism may distort philosophical and psychological accounts of children and childhood, despite other strengths of the accounts.

We suggest that what is needed is a philosophy that (1) can reveal where and when adultism takes place (that is, a philosophical cultural critique); (2) a philosophy that can present ideological alternatives to the adultist tendencies we find in some of the philosophical accounts here; and (3) a philosophy that can account of how positions on childhood are dependent on our previous and current ways of talking and thinking about, and interacting with, children.

Accordingly, we need a philosophy of childhood that is both historicized and which provides ways for us to work on our subjective experiences of children and childhood. We find that one point of departure for such a philosophy may be in Foucault’s historicized accounts, which can help to establish a discourse concerning children and childhood the brings awareness of children similar to how postcolonial theory, feminism and queer theory have affected our experience in their respective areas. This is a move from an ahistorical, apolitical and psychologized account of childhood to a historical and subjectivized account that recognizes the voices of children rather than “theories” of the voices of experts who speak for them.

In the world today, the vast proportion of children are in poverty, or are hungry or abused. As “The State of the World’s Children 2012” shows with clarity, “hundreds of millions of children today live in urban slums, many without access to basic services.” Under neoliberalism, the status, health and education of children, even in the first world, has been downgraded as inequalities have rapidly grown and outstripped the gains made during the 1960s and 1970s (Hill, 2009; Ross & Gibson, 2007). As children are taken seriously as subjects of political and moral theory – a very recent historical change – and as the discourse of rights for children matures, it is important to understand that it is no longer possible to accept a simple equation between the interests of children and those who traditionally are seen as bearing responsibility for them. They must be encouraged to speak for themselves, and we must become more adept at both providing the vehicles to access their voices and to actively listen to them.


Kennedy, D. (2006) “The Well of Being: Childhood, Subjectivity, and Education” (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Matthews, G. (2005) The philosophy of childhood, “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Matthews, G. (1994) “The Philosophy of Childhood,” Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pritchard, M. (2009) Philosophy for children, “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.”

UNICEF (2012) “The State of the World’s Children 2012.”

Hill, D. (ed) (2009) “Contesting Neoliberal Education: Public Resistance and Collective Advance,” New York/Abingdon: Routledge.

Ross, E.W. and Gibson, R. (eds) (2007) “Neoliberalism and Education Reform,” Cresskill, N.J. : Hampton Press.


1. See the full text of the convention at

2. In this regard, we can mention also the journal Childhood and Philosophy. The focus and scope of editorial policy makes interesting reading, as the following excerpt indicates:

Childhood and philosophy is a journal which has been waiting to be born at least since Socrates sat down in the unique (at least for us) shelter of the 5th century BC pólis and founded a discipline. The journal’s conception lies much, much later, in the fateful historical meeting between childhood education and philosophy. This meeting, in turn, had to wait for Rousseau’s mantic pronouncements of the Emile, sent like a letter in a bottle to the approaching revolution, and for the slow development, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, of a kind of adult actually capable of listening to children, much less of hearing them. This, in turn, required the romantic deconstruction of that very enlightened (male) adult whom, we must admit, made revolution possible.