Carine Le Borgne asks if we need to be more challenging in recognising children’s competence to contribute to decision-making.
Children’s participation rights remain highly dependent on adults, who in one way or another, hold powerful positions such as legal guardians, administrative or political decision-makers, or front-line professionals. The attitudes of such adults towards children and childhood strongly influence whether or not the adults recognise, facilitate and support children’s participation. One of the most persistent adult concerns is whether children are competent enough to participate in decision-making. Thus, power – and particularly the power of adults – is key to children’s practical achievement of competency.
My research on children’s participation at the community level highlights the challenge of adults’ perceptions of children’s competence and competencies. The research focused on why children are often seen as ‘incompetent’ and how that translates into a lack of participation. Based on the findings, in collaboration with Professor Kay Tisdall, I wrote an article on Children’s Participation: Questioning Competence and Competencies.
Our article recalls the memorable phrase coined by Hinton – ‘the competence bias’. This phrase captures how the use (and misuse) of a child development paradigm leads to perceiving children as starting from a position of limited competence and emphasising their evolving capacities. The ‘competence bias’ then is applied to exclude children from participation. Children’s exclusion is furthered when competence is presumed to be individualised and intrinsic, rather than recognising competency as contextual and relational.
Through my research, we trace evidence from local participation projects, of the continuing power of the competence bias. We consider how staff members can validate and enhance children’s competence and competencies, and thus recognise children’s participation rights. The analysis identifies that perceptions of children’s competence were both facilitators and inhibitors of children’s participation. The research was undertaken in Tamil Nadu (South India) and Scotland (UK), with two non-governmental organisations (NGO) supporting children’s participation.
The research highlights the key role of NGO staff members in contributing to children’s social competence. The NGO activities in this research increased children’s knowledge, which they not only used in their communities but were able to transfer to school and family contexts. The NGO staff members were key to providing the link between children and adult decision-makers in their communities, though this was done less successfully in Scotland than in Tamil Nadu.
The findings also indicate that, without NGO support, children were limited in expressing their social competence. This leads to two conclusions. First, strengthening the role of the staff members in children’s participation is worthwhile because they can play key roles in developing and validating children’s competence and enhancing children’s competencies. Staff members’ own perceptions of children’s competences and competencies influence how well they support children and children’s influence on decision-making.
Second, the competence bias remains pernicious and often unhelpful to children’s participation. The bias can mean that participation workers, as key intermediaries, may be necessary to facilitate children’s participation rights. It may also mean that children’s competencies are under-recognised, as children only achieve participation through ‘borrowing’ NGO power and not power or influence in their own right.
All this leads us to conclude – do we need to be more challenging yet in recognising children’s competence to contribute to decision-making?