Centering children’s rights to sustain our democracy

Living up to the promise of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Published: 11.13.2020 Updated: 04.23.2021

"Democratic societies cannot be sustained unless children are recognized, beginning at birth, as valuable members, as citizens of their communities."

Dr. Felton Earls and Dr. Mary Carlson, Voice, Choice, and Action: The Potential of Young Citizens to Heal Democracy

In order for children to live up to their power to sustain a democratic society, their basic rights must be met. Children’s rights have been codified in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which took effect in 1990 and has been ratified by every country member of the United Nations, except for the United States .

Children’s core rights include the right to non-discrimination; the right to live and develop; the right to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration; and the right to participation (to be heard and be taken seriously in all matters that affect them). The Convention also establishes many other rights, such as the rights to family unity, contact with parents across countries, protection from violence, social protection, health, food, housing and education.

As we, the team, join UNICEF and the world in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Convention and World Children’s Day later this month, we take stock of the fact that many children in the U.S. do not enjoy all the rights outlined in the Convention.

In the U.S., immigrant children seeking refuge from horrific conditions in their home countries are separated from their families, placed in cages and denied the right to seek asylum. Children in immigrant families are excluded from the social safety net that is designed to ensure that children have healthy food, safe housing and access to medical care and education. Black and Hispanic children  are disproportionately poor and  experience the lowest opportunity neighborhoods in the U.S., they disproportionately attend under-resourced schools that limit their ability to live up to their full potential, they have higher rates of suffering and dying from violence, and higher rates of  asthma and other preventable diseases. These are all violations of children’s rights.

To focus on children’s rights is to acknowledge the many ways in which the U.S. falls short. It is unconscionable that the richest country in the world does not afford all its children their fundamental rights and the conditions they need to live, grow and thrive and to become productive members of society. These failures are heart wrenching, but they are not inevitable.

We know what children need. It is time to stop underinvesting in our children. It’s time to invest more in all our children, including children driven from their homes by violence, climate change and corruption, to make sure the quality of their childhood reflects attainment of all the rights established in the Convention and to support their growth and development.

Living up to our moral obligation to children is expensive. But the price for failing to do so is even higher, not only in terms of lost productivity and human potential, but in terms of the moral costs of allowing children to suffer needlessly, and the ethical cost to the fabric of society of ignoring children’s rights.

So how can we do better? We can focus with intention on protecting children’s rights. We can stop separating families and caging children. We can reject exclusionary social policy and embrace policies that include all children. We can reduce the vast and shocking levels of inequity we see within metro areas by investing purposefully in housing, schools and neighborhoods that have been disinvested in for decades. Children living just a few miles apart in the wealthiest country in the world should not experience conditions as different as those between Venezuela and France.

As the Convention on the Rights of the Child enters its fourth decade, we join UNICEF USA and countless other advocates for children in working toward a day when all children in the U.S. enjoy the same rights. We call on the U.S. to ratify the Convention and design and apply policy in all areas to protect all children and achieve child equity. And we call on philanthropists, policymakers, advocates and voters to put children’s rights and needs at the center of all we do.

When all children thrive, the U.S will be stronger, richer and more resilient.

Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Erin Hardy
Rebecca Huber
Nick Huntington
Pam Joshi
Grace Lee
Nancy McArdle
Clemens Noelke
Robert Ressler

Lindsay Rosenfeld
Kate Giapponi Schneider
Nomi Sofer
Michelle Weiner

Use our social media toolkit to join in celebrating the anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and World Children's Day.

Nomi Sofer
Nomi Sofer
Strategic Communications Advisor