NEWS

Out of the mouths of babes…

How was this idea, which had never been tried before, born? A children’s champion is an institution that exists in various parts of the world, though degrees of authority vary. Its basic role is to defend the rights of children. We thought that the best way to learn about children was to give them the chance to speak out. In addition, there are smaller-scale problems, such as bad relations between pupils and teachers or among pupils. The most effective solution is one that comes from the mouths of those most directly involved. At the same time, we find it inconceivable that we give political rights to young people and involve people who have just turned 18 in decision-making without them having had any previous experience. We can’t reproach the young for being indifferent to social and political issues when these involve procedures they have never grappled with before. Our basic aim, therefore, is to win the trust and respect of children. The main difficulty, naturally enough, is to approach children, to forge relations of trust with them and also to educate adults to do the same. The essential element in our every conversation with a child is to make the child feel safe. Next, we try to lay down some ground rules for the discussions, which are decided on jointly. We hear proposals that are out of this world, but we are obliged to study them carefully because of the messages they may conceal. In addition, this is the way we show respect for our interlocutor. Children are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Once a week, you carry out visits to schools, you have a broad communications network with children via letters and telephone calls and you are regularly adding to your website. What are children’s most common complaints and how do you get them to provide solutions? I meet pupils on their own ground so that they feel safe and they know that it’s not just them addressing us but that we are interested in them. The most common problem I hear about at schools is the state of the school toilets! Kids are also particularly troubled by bullying at the hands of other children. Since this is a delicate issue, and direct intervention by an adult is not always effective, we try to explain in many different ways that this kind of behavior is wrong. In the case of school bullying, we train teams of students to handle these kinds of situations properly, while we know in which cases they need to ask an adult to intervene. In relation to the solutions proposed by children, I can only give an example. The sum of 3,000 euros was given to the children of a Welsh school as their yearly budget, and they were asked to spend it in the way they thought best. The children opted to hire three more people to serve at the school canteen, thus cutting queuing times. By handing the initiative over to children, we ascertain that they are wholly capable of handling issues that concern them. Guidance by adults is, of course, essential, as long as it’s given with respect for the child. You took up your duties as Children’s Commissioner in 2001, and you were selected by a panel that included young people. What was the experience like? Nobody is more competent to decide who will defend the rights of children than children themselves. A committee was set up to to examine the six candidates. In the first room, a 12-member panel of children was waiting for us, while two adult helpers were present. The questions that were addressed to me were disarmingly direct and blunt, such as, «Do you like children?» while I was asked the predictable questions, such as, «If you got the job today, what would you do tomorrow?» When I was done there, I had to go into yet another room, where a six-member committee made me go through a hypothetical telephone conversation with a little girl who wanted to tell me that she was being abused, but was hesitant about talking to me. The children wanted to see how candidates would react to conditions of pressure and how caring and patient they were. The process may have lasted only an hour, but it seemed to me an eternity.