Human Rights Begin with Children’s Rights

Albert Edelfelt: Boys Playing on the Shore // Public domain

Children’s rights are a matter of the utmost importance for politics and the future of the democratic system. Unfortunately, this statement still remains merely aspirational in Poland.

The discourse and practices in the political sphere do not indicate that the decision-making circles (esp. the legislative and executive branches) are aware of the connection between children’s rights and the quality of political life. This is even more poignant as it concerns a country considered home of children’s rights. It was Poland that in the late 1970s presented a proposal to the UN National Assembly for a Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 and ratified by Poland in 1991.

The Convention, commonly referred to as the first constitution of children’s rights, imposes a range of obligations on the state and its institutions to protect the dignity and rights of children. It is the first document in history that grants children not only legal but also social and civic subjectivity. Subjectivity is always associated with self-determination, autonomy, and agency. Like any groundbreaking document in the history of the world, it requires social and political maturity capable of implementing necessary changes and interpreting challenges through the lens of fundamental children’s rights and the state’s obligations.

Assuming that there is a causal relationship between the implementation of children’s rights and the conditions of life and development we create, and the state of politics, I will use the phenomenon of violence against children as a reference for further considerations.

Violence is the most blatant manifestation of contempt for human rights and dignity, and its most extreme form is that committed against children, involving their complete vulnerability and dependence on adults. Violence is defined as “intentional action or inaction of one person towards another, using power advantage, violating the rights and personal goods of the individual, causing suffering and harm” [Lakowska, Paszkiewicz, Wiechcińska 2014: 11]. It takes various forms, so we distinguish physical, psychological, sexual, economic violence, neglect, and cyber violence.

While “violence” is a term present in public and academic discourse, the perspective of the youngest experiencing it is better captured by the term “harm.” According to the Empowering Children Foundation (FDDS), as many as 72 percent of young people have experienced abuse in their lives, 57 percent from peers and as many as 41 percent from close adults. An abusive sexual experience has been experienced by 20 percent of them, sexual abuse by 7 percent, and physical neglect by 6 percent (FDDS, 2018).

Although we declare decreasing tolerance for physical punishment, the data are far from the desired state. 60% of respondents have encountered child harm. 41% showed passivity towards physical punishment and 38% towards verbal punishment. In 2022, 70% of respondents were in favor of a legal ban on physical punishment, which might bring satisfaction in comparison to 52% in 2017. However, it is hard to do so when we consider that a legal ban on violence has existed in Poland since 2010.

It is worth mentioning that Article 30 of the Polish Constitution speaks of the inherent and inalienable dignity of every human being, and in Article 40, we read: “The use of corporal punishment is prohibited” [Polish Constitution, 1997]. Despite the ratification of the Convention in 1991 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1997, Polish courts and culture for many years adhered to the concept of disciplining children with physical punishment, including so-called spankings as a natural method of upbringing.

It was only Counteracting Domestic Violence Act of 2010 that introduced an unequivocal ban on such practices, thanks to the efforts of the then Commissioner for Children’s Rights (CDR), Marek Michalak. Even then, however, there was a heated debate about the new regulations infringing on parental authority and being inconsistent with the Polish Constitution.

In 2018, Przemysław Czarnek admitted that “punishment is one of the most important educational tools” [Grześkowiak, Zgoliński 2018: 14]. The later Minister responsible for education emphasizes that “In some life situations, the use of physical punishment is indispensable” [Grześkowiak, Zgoliński 2018: 15].

It seems that the current Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Mikołaj Pawlak [editor’s note: the original article was published on October 4, i.e., before the appointment of the new Commissioner for Children’s Rights], holds a similar view. In an interview, he decided to share his approach to corporal punishment, admitting that a distinction should be made between spanking and beating. He also recalled his childhood: “I remember with esteem that I got a spanking from my father” [Pawlak 2019].

I quote the statements of two figures in Polish political life most responsible for respecting the rights and development of children and young people to show how difficult it is for the axiological aspect of the Convention and the Polish Constitution to be accepted in the circles that make laws and implement public policies. In parliamentary discussions, prominent leaders regularly praise the corporal punishment, which is supposed to ensure proper child behavior.

Meanwhile, Alice Miller, a psychotherapist of Polish origin who survived the Holocaust, argues that political tyranny begins with tyranny in the family home. She draws these conclusions by analyzing many biographies of leaders, writers, scholars, and cultural figures. The typical pre-war upbringing, still present in many homes today, she calls “black pedagogy” and a “breeding ground for hatred” [Miller 1999: 30].

Beating children, emotional coldness, and a patriarchal system were then a cultural norm. The greatest of the criminals she analyzed was Adolf Hitler:

“The structure of his family can be characterized as a prototype of a totalitarian regime. Its exclusive, undisputed, and often brutal ruler is the father. The wife and children remain completely subordinate to his will, his moods, and caprices; they must unquestioningly endure humiliation and injustice” [Miller 1999: 164].

This researcher extensively described the methods of the father’s abuse of the future dictator of the Third Reich.

Jadwiga Bińczycka writes about Miller’s work in the following way:

A. Miller argues that wounds from an enslaved childhood do not heal so easily and the effects of traumatic childhood experiences are dangerous not only for individuals, but also for entire societies, for politics” [Bińczycka 2000: 119].

Miller recognized that the experience of an abused child was worse than that of a concentration camp prisoner. The latter had a clear understanding of who was the executioner and who was the victim. A child experiencing domestic violence is part of a psychological trap in which they identify with their abusers, believing in the good intentions of wrongdoers and seeking responsibility for their actions in themselves [Bikont 1999].

Corporal punishment leads to the suppression of anger, which is released in later years of life. In the lives of adults, it manifests itself in the following behaviors [Bińczycka 2000]:

  • Applying corporal punishment in their own home and recommending it as an appropriate educational measure.
  • Strongly denying the existence of a connection between harm experienced in childhood and subsequent use and justification of domestic violence.
  • Choosing professions related to the use of violence.
  • Naive trust in politicians and the vision of the existence of “scapegoats” – groups of people responsible for various crises. In history, this was associated with ethnic cleansing and discrimination against all minorities.
  • Unreflective obedience to charismatic leaders (so-called strong authorities) who resemble parental authority, especially the father. In this way, as Miller emphasizes, “Germans surrendered to Hitler, Russians to Stalin, and Serbs to Milosevic” [Bińczycka 2000: 121].

In conclusion, I will refer to the words of Astrid Lindgren, who, receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1978, said:

Can one not grieve when suddenly voices are heard calling for a return to the old authoritarian system? […] Many desire a ‘stronger hand’ and ‘tighter discipline,’ thinking that this is a cure for all the audacity of the youth […]. In the long run, this will only lead to more violence and an even deeper and more terrifying gap between generations […]. Until they are forced to realize that violence begets violence – as it has always been” [Lindgren 2000: 24].

Using Miller’s comparisons, it can be said that contemporary camps and wars are experienced every day in many Polish families; everywhere, where the boundaries of human dignity of the most defenseless people and citizens – children – are crossed. The above-mentioned political discourse, glorifying corporal punishment and thus legitimizing violence, creates an extremely dangerous phenomenon that gradually destroys the structure and culture of a democratic state, the starting point of which is universal humanistic values and human rights. And human rights begin with children’s rights.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Natalia Banaś

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