Listening to children; an experience in democracy education

Listening to children during an emergency situation: an experience in democracy education

Beginning in March 2020, the world’s population faced a health emergency caused by the sudden spread of the COVID-19 virus, which states sought to address by implementing restrictive and containment measures, which had major repercussions on the lives of individuals and the community.

In the case of the child population, many international studies note a low rate of infection and complications from COVID-19 (Peacock et al., 2020); on the other hand, however, it also emerges how the isolation, the sudden change of habits, the limitation of social contacts, had non-negligible consequences on the emotional and psychological level of children.

In fact, the latter seem to have experienced negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, fear, boredom, anger, nervousness, fatigue (Idoiaga et al., 2020; Jiao et al., 2020; Municipalidad de Lima, 2020; Pisano and Centriglia, 2020) but also, in part, happiness, safety and security (Idoiaga et al., 2020; Municipalidad de Lima, 2020; Pisano and Centriglia, 2020).

On the social level, however, the repercussions were manifested through the expression of a sense of loneliness (Idoiaga et al., 2020) due to a major impairment in social interaction (Jiao et al., 2020), while on the physical level children often manifested alterations in sleep patterns and eating habits (Jiao et al., 2020; Pisano and Centriglia, 2020; Uccella et al., 2020) and regression in some specific behaviors (Pisano and Centriglia, 2020).

Most scientific research, therefore, has looked at the physical, emotional, and psychological conditions of children, and it is interesting to note that in most cases did so through the gaze of adults: parents or caregivers in general (Idoiaga et al., 2020; Pisano and Centriglia, 2020; Raviv et al., 2021; Telefono Azzurro and Doxa, 2020; Uccella et al., 2020).

On the other hand, only in rare cases has direct consultation been used, through the use of techniques such as the diary, videos or pictures (Tateo and Dario, 2020), storytelling (Pascal and Bertram, 2021), online focus groups (Wills et al., 2021), online questionnaires (Municipalidad de Lima, 2020) or telephone interviews (Kallander et al., 2021), to analyze children’s opinions and understand what kind of impact that particular moment was having on their lives.

In general, it was found that during the pandemic there was a focus on studying childhood not from a participation perspective, but from a protection perspective
(Spray and Hunleth, 2020), which tends to consider the child a passive being rather than an “active subject of change” (Boggi, 1997: 633).

While participation is considered a right and fundamental principle for the development of children in their daily lives, it becomes indispensable in situations of conflict, emergency, or crisis (UNICEF, 2007), as reminded by the Committee on the Rights of the Child: The right to participation as provided for in Article 12 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 2004). [2], should not be suspended in situations of crisis, but rather:

[…] children and adolescents affected by emergencies should be encouraged and empowered to participate in the analysis of their situation and future prospects. The participation of children and adolescents helps them regain control over their lives, contributes to rehabilitation, develops organizational skills and strengthens a sense of identity (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2009: 37-38).

Fostering and ensuring environments and opportunities for children to exercise their right to be heard and to express their views is the responsibility of institutions (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2009).

Precisely on the basis of these motivations, during the period of the first lockdown, the research team of the international project The city of children, of theCNR Institute of Cognitive Science and Technology, which for the past 30 years has been promoting children’s participation in city government and planning in more than 200 cities in 15 countries around the world as a fundamental experience in education for democracy and citizenship, urged the mayors of the project cities to keep the Children’s Council participation experience active. Next, he collected the voices of Italian children who were involved by the administrations during the health emergency, with the priority aim of listening to their needs, proposals, state of mind and activities carried out during the quarantine. At the same time, he engaged participating mayors to understand how they informed children and whether they involved them during the pandemic, respecting their right to participate.

[1] Protection is considered one of the 3 principles (the ‘3 Pʼs) of the 1989 UN Convention: Protection, Provision, Participation.

[2] The Convention was ratified by the Italian state by Law No. 176 of 05/27/91.

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