Yet children’s voices and concerns struggle to be heard in political debate dominated at the ballot box by large numbers of baby boomers. But what if children were given a credible platform for getting involved and, perhaps even, an opportunity to vote? Would it change their future? University of Canterbury’s Dr Bronwyn Hayward thinks so.
Giving children the right to vote may sound a bit radical – but it’s worth remembering the emancipation of women was once equally unthinkable, says UC political scientist Dr Bronwyn Hayward.
“It took 2000 years before the Greek idea to give free men the vote was extended to women. New Zealand was the first country to grant women their voting rights. Who knows, perhaps we could lead the world again by extending voting rights to our younger citizens?”
Dr Hayward, who specialises in youth and environmental issues, has been researching the rise of a new generation of remarkable political activism.
“Across the world, from the Arab Spring to the student protests of London and Occupy Wall Street, we have seen very young protestors (some just 12 and 13-years-old) take to the streets to have their voices heard.
“My research and that of my international colleagues challenges the myth that children and teens are selfish, me-centred consumers who don’t care about the future.
“I’m not suggesting we burden children with adult responsibilities and duties. But it’s important to recognise their ability to think independently and take action.
“Giving 16-year-olds the right vote, for example, may be a good approach. At that age, you’re more likely to be living at home and attending school. You’re more likely to have access to the support you need to develop a lifelong voting habit. By 18, you’re more mobile and starting to experience new things. Voting is a less immediate priority,” she says.
Between 2009 and 2010, Dr Hayward led two research teams who surveyed young people around the world about their lifestyles, hopes and aspirations as young citizens as part of the United Nations Environment Programme global survey.
The research surveyed 8,000 young people online and in face-to-face interviews across 18 countries about the issues that most concerned them.
“We were struck by the extent to which young people were aware of what was happening around them and – given the chance to participate – really did want to make a difference.”
These findings are also borne out in Dr Hayward’s New Zealand-based research, which took four years to study how very young children first learn about politics, their environment and what it means to be a citizen.
Dr Hayward and a team of University of Canterbury graduate students interviewed 160 mostly Christchurch children aged eight to 12.
“One of the most fundamental things we’re learning from both research projects is how we can support young people to become participating citizens and create opportunities for their voices to be heard,” she says.
“We like to think New Zealand is a great place to raise children, but the reality is that over the past 20 years this country has experienced some of the most rapid growth in inequality between the rich and poor of all the nations within the OECD. This has impacted on some of our young people very harshly.
She says one in five young Kiwis grow up in homes struggling with poverty – and the poor health, housing and safety conditions associated with poverty. In contrast, the data shows older Kiwis have more support to live well.
“A key point of my research, and that of my colleagues and students, is to acknowledge the political agency or ability of young people to think independently and take collective action.
“The outcome of our work is to develop a new agenda for teaching citizenship and environmental education and identify ways that governments, communities and the adults in children’s lives, can better support young people – and the generations after them – to make a difference to their future.”