I’ve recently introduced a picture book into my family’s reading time called “I Have the Right to Be a Child” by Alain SerresWith beautiful simplicity, the book provides the author’s interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention includes things like rights to education, gender equality, nutrition, health care, free speech, freedom from child labor, safety, etc. For kids, the book is a conversation starter about human rights. We talked a lot about the question, “What are rights and what are privileges?” For adults, the book is a reminder that these concepts really are not that complicated. It may be complicated in the implementation of granting rights, but when the rights themselves are asserted in the simple language of the children the Convention seeks to protect, it all becomes much more clear.

This is probably the first time my kids saw human rights presented in a way that was meaningful to them. In American museums and text books, the right to vote for women and people of color seems faraway and a “done deal.” They don’t think of those rights as things we continually need to address here and in other countries. My children often help me advocate to give children in developing countries access to school and vaccines, but the language of “rights” isn’t always included in those kinds of discussions.

My youngest really latched on to the page that said,

I have the right to express myself completely freely, even if it doesn’t always please my dad, and to say exactly how I feel, even if it doesn’t always please my mom.”

We have a lively ongoing debate about how that plays out. If she has the right to express herself completely freely, how might that compete with my perceived right not to be disrespected in my own home or the rights of her other friends and family members?

It might be surprising to Americans to learn that while 194 states in the world have agreed to the Convention, the U.S. has not officially ratified it. In fact, every member of the United Nations except Somalia, the United States, and South Sudan are party to the Convention, having agreed to change or make laws and to develop practices and programs to support it. The U.S. has signed to show support, but hasn’t “ratified” it. Ratification requires being bound by international law and having to report regularly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors compliance.

Why hasn’t the U.S. ratified? Katie Jay – author of the “Children Deserve Families” blog told me that recognizing that children have a right to a safe and secure permanent family is cutting edge human rights law. The idealistic part of me scoffs at that, saying;

“Really? Cutting edge? To provide security, safety, and nourishment to children is cutting edge?” But the lobbyist part of me knows that it can sometimes be a tricky thing for a country to formally declare something as a “human right.”

Because once you officially do that, then you have to do something about it…or be held accountable by an international authority and possibly give up your moral high ground if you are then seen as a country that doesn’t live up to its own standards. Sadly, from the standpoint of an American citizen who has watched our behavior on international environmental agreements with dismay, I can tell you that Americans generally don’t like the idea of international authority holding us accountable for just about anything.

Has your country ratified the Convention? Take a look at this paraphrased list of rights for children from the book and consider which of them you think are rights or privileges. Are all of them rights? What would be the ramifications for your country to truly grant that right in your country? Internationally? What benefits or problems do you see that could arise if the world embraced the Convention wholeheartedly?

  • I have the right to a first name, a last name, a family, and a country that I can call my home.
  • I have the right to have enough food to eat and water to drink.
  • I have the right to live under a roof, to be warm, but not too hot, not to be poor and to have just enough of what I need, not more.
  • I have the right to be cured with the best medicines that were ever invented.
  • I have the right to go to school without having to pay.
  • I have the same rights whether I am a girl or a boy.
  • I have exactly the same right to be respected whether I am black or white, small or big, rich or poor, born here or somewhere else.
  • I have the right to be helped by my parents, my friends, and my country if my body doesn’t work as well as other children’s.
  • I have the right to be free from any kind of violence, and no one has the right to take advantage of me because I am a child. 
  • I have the right to go to school and refuse to go to work.
  • I have the right to be protected by adults and to be sheltered from disasters
  • I have the right never to experience war or weapons.
  • I have the right to breathe clean air.
  • I have the right to play, to create, to imagine, and also to have friends.
  • I have the right to learn about friendship, peace and respect for our planet.
  • I have the right to express myself completely freely.

This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Cindy Levin.

Cindy Levin

Cynthia Changyit Levin is a mother, advocate, speaker, and author of the upcoming book “From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started.” A rare breed of non-partisan activist who works across a variety of issues, she coaches volunteers of all ages to build productive relationships with members of Congress. She advocated side-by-side with her two children from their toddler to teen years and crafted a new approach to advocacy based upon her strengths as a mother. Cynthia’s writing and work have appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, the Washington Post, and many other national and regional publications. She received the 2021 Cameron Duncan Media Award from RESULTS Educational Fund for her citizen journalism on poverty issues. When she’s not changing the world, Cynthia is usually curled up reading sci-fi/fantasy novels or comic books in which someone else is saving the world.

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