Life, Survival and Development

 ‘Development’ in Article 6 is to be interpreted:

. . . in its broadest sense as a holistic concept, embracing the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development. Implementation measures should be aimed at achieving the optimal development for all children.


General Comment No. 5

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reflects a new paradigm of child development where the child is a central social actor in law, policy and practice and helps shape their own developmentFootnote1. This approach focuses on children’s perspectives, experiences, rights and participation. It challenges the traditional and restricted way that child development theory presents universal assumptions of children as ‘fact’; views children as non-competent persons in progress to adulthood; and frequently results in the child’s right to participate becoming subsumed under a set of protection and provision rights. The traditional model for understanding the child provides a measure through which the legal system has commonly come to assess competence, to the detriment of a child’s right to participation.

Child development traditionally refers to psychological theories based on the work of Jean Piaget where the child progresses through age-linked stages to adulthood in the same order and at broadly the same ages as other children. If the child is not meeting the correct developmental stage for their age and falls outside a ‘normal curve’ of this perceived universal childhood the child is viewed as needing professional intervention. This approach can lead to conclusions regarding children generally, but not specific to the child in question.

The child as a potentially active participant within a network of relationships such as family, school, community, and society is central to the CRC. By acknowledging a holistic approach to children, the child takes on a meaningful role in shaping the development of effective policy and practice within the justice system.

 It is not sufficient to focus only on those aspects of biological or cognitive development which are individual to the child, but instead the focus is on children’s agency and competence which means:

  • Children’s capacity as participants is prioritized
  • Action on the child’s protection and provision is based on children’s voices and is more relevant
  • There are increased opportunities to engage with children

The key theme of CRC Article 6 can be considered as  an inverted triangle which challenges protection and provision dominance by placing participation ahead of them.

Protection, Provision and Participation pyramids

Overview of traditional Developmental Approach and the ‘New’ Paradigm Approach Differences

Key themes of a developmental approach Key themes of a ‘new’ paradigm approach Implications
Universalism Diversity The child's experience of the childhood recognized within a cultural context
Child as ‘becoming’ adult Child as human ‘being’ in world now Children’s rights become a feature of their present and not of their future (place in society).
Progress through stages to reach eventual adult competence Child as competent meaning maker Understandings of the child not based on adult assumption but engagement with the individual child.
Child as in need of the adult's suppling their protection and provision needs Child as participating actor in their own right Children are seen as valid contributors in shaping the social world they are part of.

For more information see Canadian Journal of Children's Rights

International Law

Interpretive Sources

Case Law

Canadian Law

Other Relevant Cases

Special Considerations

Holistic child development is closely linked to child participation which must be meaningful:

  • A holistic approach to development brings together developmentalism and the child-centered approach by focusing on children’s agency and competence. In practice this means:
    • Prioritizing children’s capacity as participants to generate effective engagement with their rights and the law more widely
    • A more relevant course of action on the child’s protection and provision based on children’s voices
    • Increased opportunities to engage with children, provided certain themes are recognized
    • engage with children in dialogue about the issues that concern them as per CRC Article 12: children’s input is essential
    • be aware of the ingrained way in which “developmentalism” has defined the justice system’s thinking on children over considerable time such as how it regards children’s ability to reason
  • Meaningful child participation requires clear objectives such as consultation, information and input into decision-making, as well as practices that address challenges of power distribution, and potential miscommunications and misunderstanding about obligations, rights and expectations in the process
  • Child participation is an emerging activity and participants must respond to setting-specific factors as well as general standards and guidelines
  • In establishing participatory settings, one starting commitment is to try to establish a participatory environment that takes into account how different participants understand participation. Children in particular, given their subordinate structural situation, are likely to have different understandings of responsibility, rights, expectations, relationships, trust, and abuse (among others items) than do adult professionals (who may also have divergent understandings of key notions)

Practice Essentials

  • Ethos: children as partners - consider the assumptions you hold about children and how this influences the way children are positioned within the justice system
  • Community: place participation ahead of protection and provision and consider where the spaces are within the justice system that provide the child with an opportunity to participate
  • Lead: to what extent can you learn from the child and can the child learn from you? This is about acquiring and managing knowledge and creating sustainable measures that link the knowledge to practice
  • Speak: establish a shared language for justice practices that children and adults can engage with across the justice system
  • Act: take action that supports ‘real’ opportunities where all participants (adults and the child) are partners in a shared project for justice: meaningfully engage with children in a holistic sense

See Frankel and Fowler, 2013.