What do child rights look like in the family home?

The importance of the family

There is no place more important or influential for a young person than their family. It is where they develop and grow, the base of physical and emotional wellbeing and where life-long relationships are forged. The family also presents a unique opportunity for young people to experience their human rights, as laid out in UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“A strong, loving and supportive family is the best environment for raising children and the best start for ensuring that the rights of children are fulfilled” – UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, UNICEF website.

Empowered by an understanding of and commitment to children’s rights, families are able to build loving, mutually dignified and respectful relationships within the home, which benefit the wellbeing of all family members. They are also in a strengthened position to advocate for rights of young people outside the home.

Parents play an essential role in this – as family leaders they are the key holders to rights being experienced within the home. Being a rights respecting parent requires a new view of young people that may challenge habits, social norms and parents’ own learned experiences. How can parents embark on this transformative process? What does a rights respecting family look like and how does effect the role of the parents?

Children are people not property

The first stage for parents is to challenge and evolve their view of young people. Traditionally young people have been seen, not as people in the here and now, but as potential for the future and as possessions of their parents and society. A rights respecting family challenges this view and embraces the principle on which children’s rights are based:

“Children are individuals. Children are neither the possessions of parents nor of the state, nor are they mere people-in-the-making; they have equal status as members of the human family.” – UNICEF website

By fully accepting the view that young people are real people from birth, individuals and rights holders, parents can move to a position of greater acceptance and non judgment of themselves and the young people in their families. Parents are not expected to produce a certain kind of young person, who behaves in a particular kind of way. Young people are not symbols of their parents or evidence of their successes, but individual people in their own right. On this basis a family can live together in a mutually dignified way, with all family members valued and accepted as unique, imperfect human beings, learning and developing together.

Acknowledging the adult privilege

The next phase in developing a rights respecting parenting mentality is the acknowledgment of the adult privilege. Adults hold an inherent privilege in our society due to their legal status, control of and access to money, their decision-making powers, and the strength of their voice. Society accepts a ‘natural authority’ of adults over young people. Rights respecting families are extremely mindful of this and perceive it as potentially oppressive to the rights and lived experience of young people. Right respecting parents do not believe themselves to be inherently superior, more intelligent or more important than young people. They see all members of the family as valuable and unique, all worthy contributors, all on a life-long journey of development and learning. Rights respecting families are inclusive and do not discriminate on the basis of age. Instead, parents see it as their responsibility to develop authentic relationships with the young people in their family, which are respectful and understanding of each persons stage of life, developmental capabilities and limitations. Parents in rights respecting families are highly aware of their adult privilege and seek to empower the young people in their family both inside and outside the home.

Four guiding principles of children’s rights

Once parents have established their understanding of young people as real individual people in the here and now, and teamed this with an awareness of adult privilege and the potential implications of this for young people, they have laid the foundations for a rights respecting mind-set that enables them to implement children’s rights within their family.

There are four guiding principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that form the ethical core of rights respecting families:

1) Non-discrimination – all people from birth until the age of 18 hold the rights laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

2) Best interests of the child – the best interests of young people must be the primary concern in decisions that effect them, all adults should do what is best for children.

3) Right to life, survival and development – this includes the right to be protected from all forms of physical and psychological harm.

4) Respect for the views of the child – young people have the right to be heard and for their view to be taken seriously.

How do these four principles translate for parents and everyday family life?

1) Non-discrimination

In a rights respecting family all family members are accepted as individuals. There is no expectation of a ‘best’ way to be – from birth it is expected that every person is unique with their own personality, temperament, needs, identity, preferences, interests, sensitivities, strengths and weaknesses. Non-discrimination also means that the family recognises that all young people hold their rights from birth – even when as an individual they are developmentally unable to be fully aware of or advocate for their own rights, their rights will be respected by those around them. Rights respecting families acknowledge all young people in society as rights holders, not just those in their own family.

2) Best interests of the child

With an awareness of their adult privilege, rights respecting families make the best interests of young people the primary concern in decision-making within the family. They form their view of what is in the best interests by drawing on their understanding of the personality, capabilities, and preferences of the young people in the family, within a framework and understanding of inclusiveness and what is developmentally fair and appropriate. They seek to consult with the young people in their family as the principle method for ascertaining what is in their best interests and have an authentic interest in their opinion, which is taken seriously and acted on when possible. In families where there is more than one young person the parents are aware that all the young people are rights holders and do their best to make balanced decisions that reflect this.

3) Right to life, survival and development

This principle includes all the basic needs such as shelter, nourishment, and access to healthcare and education. It also includes young people’s rights to play, relax, get together, participate in society, and develop a connection with and respect for the environment. Rights respecting parents seek to facilitate these things for their family. Article 19 is an important element of this principle: young people’s right to be protected from all kinds of physical and emotional harm. Rights respecting parents acknowledge the fact that parents have a responsibility not to misuse their adult privilege over young people in their family, and avoid overbearing and controlling behaviours that could be considered harmful or disrespectful by the young person. Right respecting parents value a ‘nonviolent’ approach to parenting, as advocated by the UN. Nonviolent parenting involves an empathetic approach with respectful communication that is supported by an appreciation for the young person’s stage of emotional and physical development.

4) Respect for the views of the child

Young people hold the right to have a voice that is taken seriously. They also hold the right to have their own opinions and identity, to have their privacy respected and to have access to information that is of interest or importance to them. Rights respecting parents trust the voice of the young people in their families. They are interested in what they have to say, and want to collaborate with them in the day-to-day workings of their family as well as in bigger decision-making. They value and welcome the contributions of young people and endeavour to create an environment in which young people feel safe and respected in sharing their thoughts, opinions and feelings. Rights respecting parents are aware that significant communication from young people, especially during (but not limited to) the early years, takes the form of emotional language such as crying and different behaviours rather than speech. This is particularly the case for the very young who are pre-verbal. Rights respecting parents recognise the authenticity of all communication, verbal and behavioural, from birth, and seek to be present and responsive to that communication.

“Children may need protection, but this does not mean authoritarianism. We think that children are our property. They come from us, but they do not belong to us. They are in our trust temporarily. 

We can learn so much from children. I consider my daughter to be my main educator. If we really attend to what our children are saying, the relationship can be so productive from both sides.” – Professor Yakin Ertürk, former UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, interview with Children’s Rights International Network, 13/03/2008.


Families need leadership to function. The house has to run, decisions must be made and respectful boundaries must be maintained for all family members to feel happy, respected, secure and valued.

“The fact that children are competent does not mean that they know or are able to do everything. They still need adult leadership, but a very different kind of leadership that respects their individual existence and personal integrity instead of just forcing or manipulating them into copies of their parents or to adapt to society as it is.” – interview with Jesper Juul, ‘Children are Competant’, Family Lab Denmark

Striking the right balance in regards to parental leadership can be challenging and doing so in a context of respecting the rights of young people is progressive way of living as a parent. Parents endeavouring to be leaders in rights respecting families may be best positioned to do so when they approach their role from the perspective of ‘authentic leadership’.

What is ‘Authentic Leadership’?

“A relatively new theory of leadership focuses on leaders dealing in a straightforward and honest way with followers. A prominent theory of authentic leadership views it as composed of four distinct components.

1. Self-Awareness (“Know Thyself”). A prerequisite for being an authentic leader is knowing your own strengths, limitations, and values. Knowing what you stand for and what you value is critical. Moreover, self-awareness is needed in order to develop the other components of authentic leadership.

2. Relational Transparency (“Be Genuine”). This involves being honest and straightforward in dealing with others. An authentic leader does not play games or have a hidden agenda. You know where you stand with an authentic leader.

3. Balanced Processing (“Be Fair-Minded”). An effective authentic leader solicits opposing viewpoints and considers all options before choosing a course of action. There is no impulsive action or “hidden agendas”–plans are well thought out and openly discussed.

4. Internalized Moral Perspective (“Do the Right Thing”). An authentic leader has an ethical core. She or he knows the right thing to do and is driven by a concern for ethics and fairness.”

– Ronald E. Riggio, PhD, “What is Authentic Leadership? Do you have it?” 22nd January, 2014, Psychology Today.

Parents can be authentic leaders in their family by being self-reflective, genuine in their actions, open to all family member’s view-points, transparent in their motivations, and accountable for their actions. Combining the acknowledgement that young people are people and not possessions with authentic parental leadership that has an awareness of adult privilege and a commitment to the principles of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child at it’s ethical core, parents are well on the way to implementing the rights of the young people within their family.


Sophie Christophy is a self-directed scholar, investigating the relationships between and impact of the history of childhood, education and parenthood, and our current social norms, systems and behaviour. She approaches her studies with a feminist and social justice orientated lens, with a view to discover effective ways to identify and deconstruct the oppression of children. Find more of her work at her website Sophie Christophy. 

For more information:

General information on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Professor Yakin Ertürk, former UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, interview with Children’s Rights International Network, 13/03/2008.

Interview with Jesper Juul, ‘Children are Competant’, Family Lab Denmark

Ronald E. Riggio, PhD, “What is Authentic Leadership? Do you have it?” 22nd January, 2014, Psychology Today



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