#3 in Children’s Parliament’s blog series on the foundations of a rights-based childhood.

Two of the things said about human rights are that they are both inalienable and shared. The first means that no-one can take away your rights, they are yours by virtue of being human, they do not have to be earned. Then, they are also shared, so everyone has an equal claim to a human right. Because we share our rights this means finding a proportionate balance on each person’s claim. One unfortunate way to interpret rights as shared has been to tell children their rights come with responsibilities, this directly compromises the basic earlier principle.

Rather than get bogged down in an argument about who’s rights trump whose, we stick with the mantra #itsallaboutrelationships and this takes us to the power of empathy.

The classic understanding of empathy is to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, to be able to experience another person’s experiences or emotions. How do we foster empathy at Children’s Parliament? We start with the view that children believe in fairness, they are naturally altruistic, they take joy from playing and friendships. Then, we go back to our commitment to relationships and use what have been identified as nurture principles. We create a safe place to be, we take our time, we eat and share news, we play together, everyone is encouraged to listen and talk about how they feel, we adults model the behaviour we want children to have and we understand that all behaviour is communication. Basically, we build relationships free from assumptions and judgement. We start at the beginning with a person’s humanity. We want children to understand that they live alongside others, that we share our space at home, in school and in the community. To understand the rights of others starts with knowledge of your own, and then the formation of relationships which are based on mutual respect.

We also understand that some children’s capacity for empathy can be diminished because of early experience or disability, and so supporting every child as an individual, building empathy over the life course is a necessary commitment.

Our short accompanying video blogs, the one below about empathy, are made with children participating in our Children’s Parliament Investigates Bullying programme. In that work, with a focus on building and fixing relationships, empathy encourages positive bystander behaviour. It’s not that we expect children to step in or put themselves at risk, rather we want them to understand that they can help by being aware of deteriorating relationships, how others feel, and understand that they have the power (a deliberate word, we don’t mean responsibility) to act on behalf of others and seek help.

Sometimes our world feels overwhelming, but empathy has the power to open the individual to the world, to help make sense of it. As adults, we need to start the ball rolling and model empathic relationships, we need to feel with the heart of a child.

Colin Morrison
Co-Director Children’s Parliament
For more information about the Children’s Parliament Investigates Bullying project visit https://www.childrensparliament.org.uk/our-work/cpinvestigatesbullying/

Children’s Parliament Investigates…Empathy