Seen and heard: children as agents of democracy

Research challenges the idea of children as passive citizens-in-the-making and calls for their recognition as vital agents of democracy.

Kei Nishiyama’s ‘Deliberators, not Future Citizens: Children in Democracy’ calls for the recognition of children as capable and important contributors to contemporary democracy. Nishiyama challenges the idea of children as passive citizens-in-the-making by reframing their democratic activities and agency in the context of deliberative democracy.

Viewed from this lens, children’s civic participation is classified into four types:

1) deliberators in/over empowered space (where collective, collaborative decisions are made)

2) deliberators in/over public space (out-of-home settings such as community or peer groups )

3) everyday activists (protests, questions, negotiation)

4) agents of transmission (sharing ideas in offline and online conversations)

Nishiyama argues that current education-focused approaches towards children’s participation in public life overlooks their contributions. He describes two widely prevalent viewpoints on children’s civic life: socialization and remediation. Socialization understands that children lack capacities and judgement and need to acquire skills and attitudes to political systems. Remediation seeks to correct what it sees as children’s negative attitudes to democracy with citizenship education.

While socialization may see children’s ‘immaturity’ as a drawback, Nishiyama argues that the same can have multiple functions in a deliberative context – it can provoke critical questioning of cultural traditions or dominant practices and help adults reflect on and enrich their understanding of issues. Further, children’s voices and presence can draw attention to important issues. The author suggests that children’s unique capacities can enhance democracy and that despite being a means to empower children, socialization can fail to see that.

Remediation, Nishiyama writes, can dismiss the profound roles that children have already taken up in various civic spaces and ways. Children tend to belong to social spaces that are touched by various political issues. While remediation may see some behaviors as apathetic, to children they may seem a valid means of political engagement. Countering the view of children as pre-social and incapable, the article explores a reconceptualization of children as democratic agents and proposes a theoretical framework to better appreciate their role in society

Kei Nishiyama is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, and a part-time lecturer at the Department of Behavioral Science of Motivation, Correspondence College, Tokyo Future University.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Senior Managing & Commissioning Editor of Content and Research. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

Photo: Timothy Krause/Flickr/cc

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