Child participation: it’s about the adults, too

A few weeks ago when I was coming out of a local restaurant, I heard a young child give his mother his thoughts on how she should handle a particular situation at the child’s school. Without missing a beat, the mother – clearly exasperated – yelled at her child, “I’m a grown up. I do not need your input!” My heart fell.

By now, much of the development community has grown to understand that “child participation” is about ensuring children’s right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. The term often evokes images of girls and boys working together in groups to solve community problems or participating in meetings with government stakeholders and world leaders about issues affecting young people. These examples are often the results of well-planned child participation processes and should be celebrated. However, what these examples don’t show is the often understated truth about working in the field of children’s participation: many times, it’s about working with adults.

The most dedicated and technically proficient child participation practitioners understand that working with and empowering children is only half the picture; the other half involves helping adults around children understand and accept the value of children’s voices.

If children are empowered to raise their voices but adults are not willing to listen, then children’s participation can only go so far. If children self-organise to monitor public policy yet government officials are not interested in seriously considering children’s opinions, then participation cannot be fully realised to the extent that it should be (and in my opinion, their public policies would suffer too). Adults can either be conductors of rich child participation or the bottleneck that only allows children’s opinions to go so far. Empowering children and sensitising adults are two sides of the same coin.

Many times when children are asked what obstacles exist that prevent their participation in familial, local, or national-level decisions, they say it’s the attitude of adults around them. Commonly held beliefs that children should be “seen and not heard” or that children don’t have the capacity to participate are used to block children’s contributions. It is also a common misconception that focusing on children’s participation rights simultaneously means pushing adult’s views and contributions out of the process. This could not be farther from the truth.

World Vision believes that true, meaningful child participation doesn’t exclude adults from the process, but rather facilitates dialogue and partnership between children and adults where both parties value and seek out the other’s input on decisions. This is seen in World Vision’s definition of child participation:

Child participation is when children under 18 years of age contribute to decisions and take action on issues that affect their lives. This is best done through empowering children and nurturing positive relationships between children, adults, and communities based on mutual respect and partnership at familial, local, national, and international levels.

World Vision sees adults’ acceptance and promotion of children’s participation as so crucial that we have included it as the first component in our Guidelines for Child Participation – a list of 10 minimum basic expectations to uphold the quality of child participation across World Vision’s programmes.

Guideline #1. Adults, relevant partners, children, and youth in the community are continuously sensitised to the importance and value of child participation

One of World Vision’s newest project models called Youth as Agents of Transformation recognises the importance of building a solid foundation for child participation by working first with adults who will interact directly with children’s groups as well as adults in the community to understand the goal, purpose, and benefits of child participation to child well-being. (For more information about this project model, email me at the address below).

So what are some practical ways to sensitise adults? While every context is different and methods should be approached with our Child Protection Standards in mind, here are some ideas: 

  • Inviting adults to children’s meetings (with children’s permission, of course) to see what children are capable of
  • Training children to work alongside adults and managing their expectations – this involves presentation preparation, helping children understand what role each adult play in a decision-making process, etc.
  • Investing and budgeting for multiple child rights trainings and orientation to parents, teachers, other adult decision-makers in the community
  • Asking children their thoughts on how to best sensitise the adults in their lives to child participation

 Working with adults must be a priority when it comes to meaningful child participation – it is a step that cannot be missed. It is s step that will contribute to the sustainability of children’s participation in the long term. With careful planning/budgeting, concerted efforts, and the input of children along the way, efforts can be realised to help adults, like the mother in the beginning anecdote, to appreciate and value the input of children in big and small decisions alike.

 About the Author

Tiffany Tao Joiner is the Child Participation and Rights Specialist at World Vision International. In her role, she advances the understanding, quality, and practice of child participation throughout the World Vision Partnership, manages a global Child Participation & Rights Community of Practice, and is responsible for capacity building and building an evidence base to demonstrate the impact and outcomes of child participation. You can email her at