Do children have duties?
A reaction by several readers to my article More Rights To Children (June 15) was whether children have duties alongside rights, since rights and duties are akin to each other, very much like the yin and yang. This is very true but only to a certain extent. I would very much prefer to say that children have rights and responsibilities rather than rights and duties.
Children, just like adults, have responsibilities. Very often, we tend to be more vociferous about children’s rights rather than about responsibilities. This is so not to minimise the importance of their responsibilities but, rather, it is because children’s rights tend to be clouded and overshadowed by the adults’ conception of what children should have and should not have. And, most important, because adults tend to place an unhealthy imbalance between rights and “duties” – verging on the fact that “duties” (instead of “responsibilities”) far outreach and are far more important than rights.
Responsibilities can stem from legality but, very often, they originate from society.
Responsibilities that stem from legality are not necessarily pertaining to children per se but are duties assigned to children by the law.
Responsibilities arising from society are not necessarily found in law but these are responsibilities expected of children.
The two types of responsibilities are subject to change – responsibilities that stem from the law can be changed through legal amendments. However, responsibilities originating from society are subject to change as society develops. In fact, as society progresses and becomes more aware of rights, society adapts itself to rights and responsibilities. Indeed, what is expected of children in the western world is not the same as what is expected of children in other parts of the world, such as in Bangladesh.
More often than not, responsibilities come from perceptions and what is “expected of children”. For example, children are not expected to work, therefore, children do not have a responsibility to work. In fact, children are protected from being subjected to child labour.
The term “duty” implies that something must be done – with little or no choice in the matter. For example, article 8 of the Civil Code states that “the children are bound to maintain their parents or other ascendants, who are indigent”.
Are children bound to maintain their parents even when such children are still minors, such as 16 years of age, when they can be legally emancipated to carry out acts of trade? Or does the term “children” here refer to those who are actually of age?
The Code uses the word “duty” to define the legal provision – thus giving it an archaic point of view. Nowadays, instead of “duty” we use the term “responsibility”, which is more child-friendly and more harmonious.
Responsibilities that emerge from society are a multitude and are not necessarily upheld in the same light by everyone. Consider chores as an example.
Children have a responsibility to help out in the house but the key phrase is “helping out” and that does not mean that they are to be turned into modern day slaves.
Children have a responsibility towards themselves to make good use of the education they are given. Although most rights belong to a child as soon as s/he is born, responsibilities tend to increase as they grow. One cannot expect that a newborn has any duties, indeed a newborn has a multitude of rights. Certain rights tend to increase as children grow up just like duties. For example, the right of participation increases as the child matures in age.
Duty is a harsh, formal and impersonal word. When it comes to children, duties tend to have an overbearing connotation whereas “responsibilities” have a more positive outlook, something which is also supported by Unicef.
For instance, a responsibility that is highlighted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the responsibility of showing respect to one’s parents, something that is common the world over. Respect helps the child mature and is definitely a responsibility rather than a duty.
Since, unlike rights of the child, there is no specific list of responsibilities appertaining to children, Unicef suggested some responsibilities appertaining to children that are derived from the rights found in the convention itself. For example, Unicef stated, in a non-exhaustive list, that children have a responsibility to respect others, a responsibility not to bully others, a responsibility to take care of the environment, a responsibility to share their education, a responsibility to help the less fortunate and a responsibility to respect different religions (Little Book of Children’s Rights and Responsibilities, Unicef, Unicef UK, pp. 23-25).
Duties tend to have a paternalistic, formal outlook where children tend to refer to their father as “Sir” and to their mother as “Ma’am”, whereas “responsibilities” tend to refer to a more modern usage and practice in a society which is no longer paternalistic but based on equality. So, rather than duties, children have responsibilities.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.