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Young people have been invisible for too long — they must be partners in decisions on their future

First published, 3 November 2022 in the Daily Maverick

Children and adolescents are going to be paying the price for what we and our forebears did, and are now failing to do, in terms of climate breakdown. We require a fundamentally different social contract with young people.

In 1890 William James, the father of modern psychology, described the world of the baby as follows: “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion…”.

Thankfully, due to the miracle of the scientific method, we now know that while James was right about many things, on this he was profoundly wrong. Of course, he did not have many of the tools we have today that allow us to peer into the brains and lives of babies and their parents, and so perhaps we should cut him some slack. But he was also a man, and therefore very unlikely to have spent much time at all with actual babies.

According to psychologists Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, many of the amazing advances in knowledge about the capacities of babies coincided (particularly in the United States) with more women entering academia. For those women, reading the “scientific knowledge” at the time was very much one of “that is absolutely not my experience of my baby, or my sister’s baby, or any baby”.

As a result of this revolution, we now know the most remarkable amount about what babies can do. We know for instance that they are able to mimic basic facial expressions within an hour or so of birth, and that they will turn preferentially to the sound of their mother’s voice — also within hours of being born. We also know that they recognise the smell of their mother and that when the mother is depressed, this recognition might be compromised. Even more remarkably, babies in their first year of life have basic mathematic skills.

In those early weeks and months of life the stimuli a baby is exposed to result in up to a million synaptic connections being formed in their brain every second. An almost incomprehensible number. This brain development continues later across life. Even though we now know a lot more about the remarkable abilities of babies, we still live in a country and a world where the awe-inspiring learning and changing world of the infant, the child and the adolescent happens out of sight. This is the point I want to make on National Children’s Day or World Children’s Day as it is known globally.

Celebrated in South Africa on the first Saturday in November (on 5 November in 2022), this day highlights ongoing efforts to promote children’s welfare and securing child rights. The choice of November is because it was in November 1959 that the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which led ultimately to the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1989.

Despite our well-intentioned focus on days such as National Children’s Day, and our oft-repeated claims about how “children are our future” and how we should care for and protect young people, so much of what they are doing, how they are doing it, what they are going through remains invisible to us as adults.

Parents and grandparents of course see it in their own children, but I am not sure if this becomes generalised to all children. And even when we see it, we see it as developmental, as a set of tasks that they have to move through before they become “fully adult”.

This is evident in the assumption of “adult agency” that we designate to adolescents when they turn 18. Then we “allow them” to vote and to drive. How often do we stop and ask where 18 comes from — why not 16? Who says a 14-year-old cannot vote? It is hard to imagine any 14-year-old being less qualified to vote than the millions of Americans voting for and believing the rampant lies of a cruel, obnoxious and morally degenerate misogynist such as Donald Trump.

But perhaps the best example of the invisibility of children and adolescents lies in our response (and I mean the global response and not just that of South Africa) to the Covid-19 pandemic. We locked down schools — in some countries for two years — and not a single government advisory board in the world had any youth representation (even token representation) as part of making that decision. Nobody asked young people about whether they thought schools should be closed. In the words of the psychiatrist Vikram Patel “what we have done is completely thrown our younger generation under the bus…”.

Young people, with next to no risk of the direct impact of the virus, will be paying the price for the secondary effects of the pandemic for the next generation. I like to think that had we asked them, they would have weighed the evidence and told us “we do not want to be a vector of infection for our parents and our gogos”. But we never asked them. They never had a choice. They paid a terrible price for our utter lack of engagement with them.

Children and adolescents are also going to be paying the price for what we, and our forebears did, and are now failing to do, in terms of climate breakdown. We require a fundamentally different social contract with young people.

They need to be genuine partners in all decisions, in partnership with adults, but not as junior partners. Our current way of doing politics and business ensures that children (including infants) and adolescents remain invisible.

We owe them something radically new.


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