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Children's rights and parental duties: an inconvenient truth?
  1. EM Wearmouth
  1. Department of Paediatrics, East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, Eastbourne, UK


A right given to someone implies a duty for others. Thus one cannot discuss the rights of children without defining the duties of parents.

Children have rights of welfare and protection, to enable them to thrive, enjoy life and fulfil their individual potential. Such rights are enshrined in many documents varying from the UNCRC, through the Children Act, Gillick caselaw to Every Child Matters. Parents and statutory agencies are expected to act in the Best Interest of Children which can be difficult to define, particularly when interests conflict.

However, parental autonomy is also highly valued in a liberal society. Article 8a) of the Human Rights Act entitles parents to privacy and family life, albeit limited by Article 8b) which protects non-autonomous family members. Statutory agencies only have the right to intervene in family life if children are at risk of significant harm.

Neglect is a failure to meet the basic needs of a child, affecting health, development or safety. The concept of “Good enough parenting” has long been the lowest standard of care judged acceptable by outside agencies without intervention. Research into maternal/infant attachment suggests that poor, erratic early parenting may have lasting neurodevelopmental effects. So is “good enough” parenting really good enough in the 21st century? If not, what are the implications for parental autonomy?

It is suggested that the following examples support the premise that children's rights are currently being superceded by those of parents:-

  • Children remain exposed to passive smoke in homes and cars, despite a public ban.

  • Adopted children do not have an automatic right to know their birth family history.

  • Parents can remove children from conventional peer-group education without onward supervision.

  • Damaging bureaucratic delays in the care system are often caused by prolonged parental assessments.

Whilst it is accepted that the mainstay of children's rights should be debate, education, and support of vulnerable families, the “inconvenient truth” is that society can only truly uphold the rights of non-autonomous children if it is prepared to supercede the rights of autonomous adults and redefine parental duties.

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