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For Every Child, a Childhood

By Tove I. Dahl | Published: December 10, 2019

Tove's office door, with
Tove's office door, with her "Where am I?"
notes and the full text of the UNCRC.

Every day, as I dash out of my office in the Department of Psychology to my next obligation, I grab a weathered yellow sticky note from the back of my door to slap onto the front indicating where I can be found.  «Snart tilbake» (back soon), «Undervisning» (teaching), «På møte» (at a meeting).  I interact with that door every day. So that’s, of course, where I put another highly important message. For me, that’s the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, or CRC for short).

My eyes pass over this list of 42 rights daily. Nearly the entire world has agreed to ensure children have a safe, healthy, and thriving start in life.  The agreement spans a range of children’s rights from ensuring everyone has the right to a name to the exuberant right to play.

Wait. The right to a name?  I remember sitting around the dinner table in Trondheim with our friend Sharon Stevens, an anthropologist working at Norway’s Centre for Child Research, as she introduced us to this newly minted convention in the early 90s.  Her excitement for what this meant for the world’s children, not to mention her daughter Kaisa and the world she would grow up in, was contagious.  

“But a right to a name?” I remember asking Sharon. “What’s that about?”

“It’s the very thing,” she assured us, eyes shining, “that, when formally registered, acknowledges that you exist.”

That you exist?!  Sounds basic, right?  Of course we all exist.  Not only do we exist, everyone’s even registered at birth with a certificate that confirms that. Right?

But the answer is no. Not everyone is registered at birth. So, some children are essentially born with “no name.” That renders them invisible.

That means that no formal system expects them to be at school or finds them in a health care registry (and is therefore obliged to offer them medical care), or allows them to legally travel freely (because they don’t exist in a system that is obliged to issue them travel documents), or even cares about what they think (and is therefore obliged to let them vote). Things we take for granted simply don’t happen for invisible children like they do for a child with a name.

True, many of our basic human rights are protected in countries that acknowledge the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, children, by virtue of their age and dependence upon adults, have unique needs —needs as basic as being recognized by name—that require an extra level of attention.

The CRC is therefore about assuring every child that very level of attention, and more, so that they all get an equally basic start in life no matter where they are born. 

I am therefore thrilled that the CRC has been signed and ratified by nearly every country in the world (the U.S. being the only country that has signed it, but not yet ratified it). 

The CRC was written to assure basic rights for all children. Catch that?  It’s there for all children. That includes children in secure homes and children in troubled homes, children from stable communities and children from communities in turmoil, children living in times of peace and children living in times of conflict. It is especially there for children who have lost or had to leave their homes and are left to build new lives on their own. What’s good for all our children is good for all the rest of us.

An airplane marked with the unicef logo and

I just looked up while writing this, and “For every child, a childhood” was written on the body of the Norwegian plane that rolled past me on the Amsterdam tarmac.  Even they get it! 

Wouldn’t it be grand if all children grew up in a world of adults who, like them, were able to thrive when they were young, and became thoughtful, constructive and engaged adults looking out for the next generation of children following in their footsteps?

That is precisely why the CRC is on my door. It is there to remind me of the children I love. To find ways to share that sentiment through deeds that contribute to a strong start in life for all the world’s children … however I can do that, even if it means focusing on one child or one supportive adult at a time. 

It’s a tall order, but I am genuinely confident that we can fill it if we begin by doing the right thing for the young people in our own lives, in our own ways, as best we can, every day.

Ready? Let’s do it!

About the Author

Tove I. Dahl is dean of Skogfjorden, the Norwegian program of Concordia Language Villages. She is also Professor of Educational Psychology in the Department of Psychology at UiT The Arctic University of Norway and sits on the board of Save the Children Norway. The CRC celebrated its 30th anniversary on World Children’s Day, November 20th.   

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