A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


April 24, 2016

Understanding children’s participation

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Written by: Politis

By Maria Patsariki*

A couple of days ago, and on the occasion of the Dukakis Center International Conference ‘Civic engagement and the practices of democracy’, a not so surprising theme was brought forward: young people are not interested in, and do not want to do, politics. The quotes were disheartening showing not only a lack of interest but also disdain for all that surrounds political practice. It is not just youngsters who exhibit apathy toward politics though; adults, too, are disillusioned, we heard the keynote speaker, Gerry Stoker, say drawing on findings from his research on the subject over the years.

Could it perhaps be that we are missing the point in persisting to find ways to lure children and young people into politics? On the one hand, and when it comes to formal politics, the key focus of our attention ought to be adult responsibility, rather than youngsters’ indifference. On the other hand, we tend to overlook the fact that children and young people do already participate politically, in the broadest of senses. They make decisions on a daily basis and create spaces for discussion at school, at home and in places where they spend their free time with their friends. That these are not formal settings, or that the young people are not yet eighteen – the age that grants young people most legal entitlements – does not mean that they lack the capacity to engage actively in daily decision making. From this perspective, young people are already active meaning givers who appropriate their environment and simultaneously influence it with their actions and decisions.

In my previous job as Visitor Assistant at the Houses of Parliament in the UK, part of my duties was to help co-ordinate activities and workshops for school children about legislative and democratic procedures and policy-making processes. Very often, the members of parliament (MPs) representing students’ constituencies were present in these activities and engaged in discussion with the young visitors. Children’s boldness when they addressed their MPs was intriguing. Rather than limiting themselves to commonly anticipated questions about lowering the voting age to sixteen, for example, or what a ‘typical day in the life of an MP is like’, children would also peek playfully into MPs’ lives, asking about their salaries, whether they fight with other members of Parliament or get nice views of Big Ben from their offices. Perhaps even more interesting, however, was to observe adults’ reactions to young people’s apparently naive and random questions and their uninhibited sense of humour and fun. Reactions varied, with MPs trying to bring the audience back to ‘order’ (as in the chamber) or laughing rather awkwardly. In most cases, it was obvious that the adults felt challenged by children’s unsettling questions. It also became clear to me that the notion of citizenship, which is typically perceived as the formal exercise of civic rights, seemed to mean different things to young people, who approached it in a more playful, casual and imaginative way.

The years that followed doing research on children’s and young people’s engagement with space / place offered further insights as to how children and young people participate. Whether in their student capacity engaging in school design processes (an EPSRC-funded research project, 2007-2010) or as co-designers and co-builders with spatial architects in ‘live’ design and build projects (a Leverhulme-funded research project, 2013-2016), the reasons for and ways in which children participate are interwoven with their everyday practices, fun activities, friendships and relationships with adults. They take pride in their inputs and have a rightful expectation to be involved in decision making on issues that concern them, seeing themselves as ‘experts’ in their own lives. They can be perfectionists, exhibiting an incredible sense of responsibility and investing in every task, regardless of scale or significance – for example, a model-making activity – seeing it as the ‘real’ thing. At the same time, however, they need to know that they can opt in and out of activities, and that an adult is nearby to help with a difficult task. They see, too, a learning benefit out of their engagement, viewing it as ‘something for the CV’ for example, but they also engage in activities for the sheer enjoyment and fun they get out of them. Everyday practices, unintended and open-ended as they often are, such as hanging out with friends, thus become inseparable from more instrumental and structured processes and goals – be it those of a design project or a youth parliament for example.

And, yet, most participatory projects tend to emphasise the impact on the young particularly when it comes to their academic achievement and behavioural improvement, increased sense of responsibility and contribution to society. Conversely, little attention is given to children’s right to participate or how adults and organisations might benefit from young people’s contributions. (That many studies find adults ‘surprised’ and ‘impressed’ about young people’s maturity and competence in assertively articulating their aspirations and needs is, at best, patronizing.) What is more, planning deliberations typically unfold through adult-centred and adult-driven communication styles and regimes of governance, which do not meet all children’s ‘ways’ of participating. And so, setting up youth community groups and holding meetings cannot be seen in its own a measure of quality participation, unless there is some effect or outcome.

All in all, studies show that the ‘default’ understanding of young people’s role is one of a beneficiary and a learner, at best contributor, but surely not owner and stakeholder. Children and young people are most often viewed in terms of their future contribution to society, rather than as persons with ongoing lives, needs and wishes; children are growing into adulthood and, as a result, are seen as ‘becomings’, as citizens in potentia. Examples of this understanding are commonly found in phrases such as ‘children are our next generation’, or ‘our future’. We rarely see children’s lives as entangled with ours. They live their lives in separate spaces, seemingly insulated worlds – from school to sports clubs –which are effectively marginal to social life as a whole, hardly allowing any real opportunities for young people to be active co-citizens with adults.

We cannot expect children to participate in future politics when we do not participate with them in their everyday ‘politics’ in the here and now. Providing them with new frameworks for participation through digital and social media, for example, can partly only address the problem of disengagement. In steering away from paternalistic ‘adultist’ practices our efforts should not be geared toward making youngsters ‘protagonists’, albeit in yet another separate sphere of action. It may surprise a few – the closer we come to children, the closer they come to us.

Prepared remarks for the international conference “Civic Enagement and the Practices of Democracy” at the Dukakis Center, April 18, 2016. Editor


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