The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Real Rights of Children

Allan C. Carlson


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted as an international treaty in 1989, enjoys ratification by most nations on earth; the United States is the one notable exception. As the UNICEF website explains, this Convention “spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere . . . have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. . . . The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education and legal, civil and social services.”[1]

The architects of this Convention hoped to protect children from exploitation in armed conflicts, from the abuses of child labor, and from sexual exploitation. These are worthy goals. They also wanted to reduce disparities within societies, such as the gap often seen between urban and rural health systems. Again, this is a worthy goal.

All the same, prominent legal scholars have raised strong criticisms of the Convention. Some point to passages, such as Article 13, which appear to undermine the ability of parents to protect their children from harmful outside influences. Others see language that threatens cultural diversity and religious liberty. Still others worry about the very nature of “rights” when applied to children, seeing this as implicitly granting excessive power over the young to governments relative to parents and other kin.

It is not my purpose in this essay to weigh and evaluate these arguments. Instead, I want to take a few minutes and—as an American management consultant might say—“think outside the box” about what children really need.

Forty-five years ago, I began work on my doctoral dissertation, which examined the origins of family and population policies in Sweden during the 1920s and 1930s. In the years since, I have given almost exclusive attention to two questions: What modern movements, forces, and developments threaten families and children? And how can we strengthen families and protect children in our time?

My pursuit of answers has led me into research and writing that cuts across the academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, and the biological sciences; medicine, child development, and history. One project that I initiated 33 years ago was collecting and abstracting for average readers scholarly journal articles on child and family questions. These abstracts now number over 5,000 entries, and they tell us a great deal about the real needs of children.

From this work comes my special problem. For when I read the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I find it inadequate: not so much wrong, as poorly focused. It contains many fine sentiments and worthy ideas, but it misses larger truths about children and their needs. Too often, I think, the convention inappropriately presses adult issues and adult language onto children’s unique circumstances.

And so, I want to engage here in a small fantasy. With all due humility, I will assume that I have been asked by the nations of the world to draft a new and more appropriate Charter of Rights for children. It is to be called The Real Rights of Children, and it is to reflect the freshest and most compelling new research on this question. After much consideration, I have settled on Ten Articles, and I will now set them forth. They are:


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