Conceptualising childhood: Reflections on the Nordic approach to child rights

How the Nordic approach to childhood enhances children’s rights

Authors: Alasdair Roy

In this paper, Alasdair Roy reflects on how the Nordic countries of Iceland, Norway and Sweden, along with Finland and Denmark, have embedded child rights, not only into legislation, but also into their citizen’s everyday lives.

The Nordic welfare state aims for “full employment, equality, high taxes, and high spending on welfare”. These values are woven into a tradition of sagas that convey social expectations or obligations, including looking after each other. Roy describes a saga written in 700 AD that required people to provide care for neglected or abused children or young people – this could be the first piece of care and protection legislation in the world!

Iceland, Norway and Sweden are proud supporters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. All three countries have enshrined the Convention in domestic legislation, giving a powerful message that the rights of children and young people are to be protected and promoted. The Ombudsman for Children has the role of reviewing compliance and giving priority to talking directly with children and young people, particularly those in vulnerable situations.

Children are seen as equal, contemporary participants. They are strongly encouraged to stay within the collective norm, and are expected to spend time with their family, to participate in sport and recreational activities, and to be proud of being Scandinavian. There is a common acceptance, including by children and young people, that they will be safe, looked after, and happy if they ‘play by the rules’.

In the article, Roy also describes key educational approaches to embedding the Convention. Actions include programs that teach school-aged children about ‘their rights and the integrity of their bodies’. Norway sees this as a safety issue, not dissimilar to teaching children about using seatbelts, bike helmets, or life jackets. A program for adults encourages them to listen to, and support, all of the children and young people they have contact with. Another program encourages children and young people at school to support and respect each other. Further, UNICEF Norway also undertakes annual assessments of all municipalities as to how they prioritise the rights of children and young people.

While it is highly unlikely that Australia will ever fully embrace a Nordic economic or welfare model, Roy proposes a number of recommendations for Australia to develop our own policy and practice. Above all, all tiers of Government, and all services who work with children and young people, should talk more with children and young people. Children and young people are the experts in their own lives, and they should be routinely and regularly asked what they think about issues that affect their lives.

Relevant United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article

  • Article 4: Governments must make these rights available to all children.
  • Article 5: Governments and parents must ensure children are equipped with the knowledge to understand their rights.

Read the full article (PDF, 1.3MB)

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