The workshop will bring together a group of academics and policy makers from a wide range of disciplines, including social policy, economics, law, psychology, public health, philosophy and sociology, as well as key stakeholders from the NGO sector, federal and state governments and Children’s Commissioners.

This workshop aims to explore the emerging issues relating to the active participation of children, focusing on three areas:

  • Children as productive members of society
  • Children as active participants in institutions and processes which affect them
  • Children as active participants in research

The workshop will bring together a group of academics and policy makers from a wide range of disciplines, including social policy, economics, law, psychology, public health, philosophy and sociology, as well as key stakeholders from the NGO sector, federal and state governments and Children’s Commissioners.

The question of children as active subjects touches on issues of crucial importance to academics and policy makers in a number of different spheres – economics, social policy, law, philosophy, medicine and education, to name but a few. At a theoretical level there is increasing discussion of the social construction of children and childhood (as innocents, victims, mini-adults, criminals, economic investments etc (Sorin & Galloway, 2006). At the policy level there are difficult issues relating to children’s active participation as citizens (Wieranga, 2003 ), their involvement in institutions such as court proceedings and around issues such as consent and confidentiality. It is also becoming increasingly important for policy makers to elicit children’s views of the policies and practices to which they are subject. Yet children (especially young children) cannot be seen in isolation from their families, and so alongside these issues relating to children there are parallel questions the nature of parenting. Parents and parenting are similarly constructed in different ways for different purposes, and there is a great deal of anxiety about the nature and role of parents (Furedi, 2001). However these tend to be parallel discussions which seldom intersect. What is missing from the current debate is how a holistic view of active children within the context of families could, or should, inform theory, policy and practice.

There has been an enormous surge in interest over the past few years in the investment of resources into children. This interest has come from two separate strands of thought. On the one hand there have been feminist economists and social scientists who have focused on the contribution of caring to society(Folbre, 1994; Himmelweit, 2005) The crux of their argument is that time spent caring for children should be viewed as unpaid work, and that this burden falls disproportionately on women.

Another view has emerged from mainstream economists and child development experts (Heckman, 2006; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000 ). This strand of thinking is concerned with children as Human Capital. In this view investment of time or money in children is an investment in the future human capital of the nation leading ultimately to a more productive workforce, lower crime rates, less welfare dependency and better health.

Both of these stands of thought view children essentially as passive recipients of resources (time, money, emotional capital) produced by adults – in particular the state and their parents. (although there is emerging recognition of children as active agents in this literature (Cass, 2006; Lister, 2004)). This view of children is reflected in current protocols relating to research. Research ethics and practice views children as passive respondents who are unable to give consent, nor to participate actively in the research process. The primary role of ethics protocols is to protect children from the potentially damaging effects of research, rather than to help them engage as participants.

However there are considerable conceptual and empirical difficulties in viewing children in this way. A more rounded view of children is emerging, which portrays them as social and economic actors in their own right. Children contribute to family wellbeing in a number of ways; they undertake chores in the family, care for, look after siblings, parents and grandparents, volunteer in the community and undertake paid work which contributes to family income. In addition children provide less measurable, but equally important benefits to adults – access to friends via classmates, status etc. They influence family decisions and have a powerful effect on the wellbeing of their parents.

Thus any true assessment of the investment in human capital should take into account the current economic, social and emotional returns which children provide for adults (and for other children), not only the resources expended by adults on children (Bradbury, 2003).

In many parts of the world children’s views are taken into account in court processes in private, public and criminal law, in the planning and delivery of welfare services and even in the political process. Yet Australia lags considerably behind other nations in this respect. However, the ‘children’s rights’ approach decontextualises children, who are seen as individual bearers of rights and entitlements. In reality children are part of families, and therefore the challenge is to develop a view of children as active agents within the context of their families.

In relation to research children have their own independent views about participation and about the value and meaning of research. In the UK and other developed countries it is now considered unethical to ignore children’s voice in research, even that of the very youngest children(Coad, 2004), and yet in Australia there is very little research which directly addresses children’s views, especially those of younger children.

And what of children in developing countries? Should they not be given the same opportunities and possibilities to participate as children in Australia and the UK?

There are considerable challenges and difficulties when viewing children in this way. For example, although research has shown that children benefit from work, they are also at high risk of exploitation, and there is a grey area between children working to enhance their autonomy and children being forced to work by parents. Similarly many young carers suffer socially, emotionally and academically, even though they may value their role as carers. The issue of children’s consent is also fraught with difficulty. At what age, for example is it appropriate for children to give consent to research … or to medical treatment, or sex? If children are able to vote or participate in decisions, should they also have the same civic responsibilities as adults?

A move towards engaging actively with children would have considerable implications for policy makers, practitioners and researchers. Many of our basic institutions would have to change. Courts, schools, the media, government programs, neighbourhood regeneration, welfare and health service providers would all have to re-think the basis on which they plan and develop. Policies such as welfare to work, IR, disability and caring benefits would also have to be re-examined, and research priorities and methodologies would also have to change. This workshop will explore some of the most important policy implications of a greater focus on children’s agency, whilst also examining the ethical and theoretical complexities underpinning such policy changes.

The workshop would address two of Australia’s research priorities: A healthy start to life and Strengthening Australia’s social and economic fabric.