Can Children Become Change Agents?

Voting is not the only way for children to become change agents.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

The following is a review of Voice, Choice, and Action: The Potential of Young Citizens to Heal Democracy by Felton Earls and Mary Carlson (Harvard University Press, 319 pp, $27.95).

In 1996, a pre-teen named Wiliames gave Felton Earls and Mary Carlson a tour of the rehabilitation center in Brazil to which he had been assigned after drug dealers (for whom he had worked as a runner) shot him. At the end of the tour, Williames took a book, The Rights of the Child, out of his pocket. “Do you know what this means?” Earls and Carlson asked. “I also have obligations,” Williames replied. “To respect the teacher and not break the school windows.” Williames, the visitors concluded, had become a citizen as well.

Convinced that voting is by no means the only way for young people to become change agents, Earls (a professor emeritus of Social Medicine and Human Behavior and Development at Harvard) and Carlson (a retired Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard) have spent most of their professional lives trying to enhance the role of children in planning and executing policies that improve the welfare of their communities.

Clipground on Pixabay
Source: Clipground on Pixabay

Grounded in Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action and discourse ethics, Amartya Sen’s theory of capability, and their own work with institutionalized infants in Romania, at-risk youth in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts, homeless adolescents in Brazil, and youngsters coping with AIDS in Tanzania, Voice, Choice, and Action reflects the authors’ view that when children are heard, “the world may have grown up a little more” – and, alas, lays bare the daunting challenges involved in making that happen.

Deprived of touch and attachment to an adult, Romanian infants, the authors indicate, exhibited withdrawn behavior, lack of agency, growth retardation, and diminished capacity for reasoned action that endures into adolescence and adulthood, profound impediments to competent citizenship.  During this critical period for socialization, they remind us, all children have a right to adequate nutrition and nurture.

Earls and Carlson identify Brazil’s Child and Adolescent Statute (1990) as a model description of the legal status of children and the responsibilities of state and civil societies “to assure with absolute priority” their right to health, education, occupational training, respect, and freedom — and protection from negligence, discrimination, exploitation, and violence.

In their Youth Citizens Program in Tanzania, the authors enlisted 700 parents and children in fifteen neighborhoods. Using a curriculum inspired by their research in Chicago and Cambridge and the methodology articulated by dramaturgical theorist Augusto Boal, the program helped adolescents form group identity and trust; understand deliberation, critical thinking, and respect for the perspectives of others; introduced them to local leaders; provided detailed biological, behavioral, and social knowledge about the transmission of HIV/AIDS; and facilitated an extended period of interaction with members of the community. 

The results were impressive: Children effectively taught adults scientific facts about HIV infection, reduced the stigma associated with the disease, and persuaded many members of their communities to be tested at the “fairs” they organized. 

The confidence of the young citizens in Tanzania was so emphatic, Earls and Carlson write, as to announce, “there is no going back.” 

Their enthusiasm is infectious, but readers may well wish, as I did, that they had addressed in much greater detail what they refer to as “the sting of reality,” i.e. how hundreds of thousands or millions of children across the globe can gain the right to full citizenship and the capacity to exercise it. Scaling up, the authors acknowledge, requires substantial funds to train, hire, and supervise facilitators, provide transportation for participants, and follow up with children who are perennially late or absent.  The authors mention, but do not elaborate on, the feasibility and desirability of incorporating their citizenship curriculum into public schools. Nor do Earls and Carlson cite studies that have measured the degree to which the sense of efficacy manifested by young citizens in Tanzania endured over months and years. 

Most important, of course, is the socio-economic and political context in which young citizens initiatives may – or may not — flourish. As Earls and Carlson suggest, an aging population can benefit “from the open minds and boundless energy of children.” That said, widespread poverty, inequality, violence, and attacks on democracy constitute substantial impediments to everyone, including young people, who want, need, and have a right to, a voice, the ability to make choices and take actions. 

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.