The Real Rights of Children

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted as an international treaty in 1989, enjoys ratification by most nations on earth; the United States is the one notable exception. As the UNICEF website explains, this Convention “spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere . . . have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. . . . The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education and legal, civil and social services.”[1]

The architects of this Convention hoped to protect children from exploitation in armed conflicts, from the abuses of child labor, and from sexual exploitation. These are worthy goals. They also wanted to reduce disparities within societies, such as the gap often seen between urban and rural health systems. Again, this is a worthy goal.

All the same, prominent legal scholars have raised strong criticisms of the Convention. Some point to passages, such as Article 13, which appear to undermine the ability of parents to protect their children from harmful outside influences. Others see language that threatens cultural diversity and religious liberty. Still others worry about the very nature of “rights” when applied to children, seeing this as implicitly granting excessive power over the young to governments relative to parents and other kin.

It is not my purpose in this essay to weigh and evaluate these arguments. Instead, I want to take a few minutes and—as an American management consultant might say—“think outside the box” about what children really need.

Forty-five years ago, I began work on my doctoral dissertation, which examined the origins of family and population policies in Sweden during the 1920s and 1930s. In the years since, I have given almost exclusive attention to two questions: What modern movements, forces, and developments threaten families and children? And how can we strengthen families and protect children in our time?

My pursuit of answers has led me into research and writing that cuts across the academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, and the biological sciences; medicine, child development, and history. One project that I initiated 33 years ago was collecting and abstracting for average readers scholarly journal articles on child and family questions. These abstracts now number over 5,000 entries, and they tell us a great deal about the real needs of children.

From this work comes my special problem. For when I read the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I find it inadequate: not so much wrong, as poorly focused. It contains many fine sentiments and worthy ideas, but it misses larger truths about children and their needs. Too often, I think, the convention inappropriately presses adult issues and adult language onto children’s unique circumstances.

And so, I want to engage here in a small fantasy. With all due humility, I will assume that I have been asked by the nations of the world to draft a new and more appropriate Charter of Rights for children. It is to be called The Real Rights of Children, and it is to reflect the freshest and most compelling new research on this question. After much consideration, I have settled on Ten Articles, and I will now set them forth. They are:

Article I: Each Child Has the Right to a Mother

Despite the best arguments for the view that differences between the genders are insignificant, the modern sciences continue to reinforce what custom and common sense also teach: on issues of human reproduction, men and women are very different. Only women have the gift to carry the conceptus to birth. Only women can develop the unique hormonal bonds between mother and child mediated by that amazing organ, the placenta. And only women can provide that fountain of nurture, giving human babies exactly the nutrition they need when they need it: namely, breast milk. As the children grow, mothers play unique roles in guiding girls and boys into psychologically healthy development. As research reported in The Journal of Genetic Psychology explains, having “a recollection of the mother as available and devoted predicted less loneliness, less depression, less anxiety, higher self esteem, and more resiliency in dealing with life’s events.”[2] In these ways, mothers are vital to what economists call long-term human capital formation.

Yet at times, modern society seems to conspire against motherhood. During the last 100 years, mothers’ tasks have been devalued in the West, from the Highest of Vocations to a distraction or a kind of hobby. Some of the pressures come from the short-sighted views of modern business. Commenting on the flow of married women into the labor market, The Economist—a business-friendly magazine also known for its frankness—wrote: “Women are proving a godsend to many employers. They usually cost less to employ than men, are more prepared to be flexible and less inclined to kick up a fuss if working conditions are poor . . . Employers like them because they . . . command lower pay, and because part-timers can be pushed harder while they are at work.”[3] This form of exploitation may or may not be good for women; it certainly is not good for their children, born, unborn, or potential.

To fulfill the Child’s Right to a Mother, governments should take all reasonable steps to treat motherhood as the most important of vocations and to ensure that the mother-child bond is given priority over short-term economic needs.

Article II: Each Child Has the Right to a Father

The evidence has now accumulated here as well: fathers are not optional adornments in the household; they are necessary to the healthy growth of children. Books by David Blankenhorn, David Popenoe, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead summarize the vast body of research on this point. So does a recent article in Demography by scholars at the Universities of North Carolina and Pennsylvania. “Fathers matter,” they write. A father’s involvement in a child’s life “significantly influences [three] outcomes: economic and educational attainment and [avoidance of] delinquency.” Fathers who are “both emotionally close and highly involved in joint activities” play a major role in a child’s maturation. Adolescents who experience “increasing closeness” with their fathers are protected from “delinquency and psychological distress,” and find themselves less often the victims of bullying.[4] Children with a father present in the home are even less likely to be obese.[5]

Here again, though, the biases of modern life discourage fatherhood. Many governmental welfare programs encourage fatherless households with children, by creating financial incentives for out-of-wedlock births. Even for married fathers, work expectations and routines undermine their physical and psychological availability to their children. The popular Western media commonly portray fathers as fools.

To fulfill the Child’s Right to a Father, governments should take all reasonable steps to protect and celebrate the father-guided Family.

Article III: Each Child Has the Right to a Home Built on Marriage

The research evidence on family and children, accumulating for decades, points to one overwhelming conclusion: children are most likely to be healthy, happy, well-behaved, and responsible; most likely to succeed in school and in life; and least likely to be promiscuous, delinquent, or users of alcohol and illegal drugs if they live with their two natural parents who, in turn, are lawfully married. Any willed variation from this model—due to cohabitation, legal separation, divorce, sole-parenting, or even remarriage—will predictably lead to more negative results for the children. Even first marriages that are troubled are predictably better for children than the alternatives (except in cases involving physical violence between husband and wife or parent and child, or the sexual abuse of a child by a parent). A recent British study summarized, “For all outcomes, children [continuously living with both biological parents] are better off than children of lone mothers.”[6]

The good home for children is also a place rich in functions, where the young become both the center of daily life and participants in meaningful household work. The good home takes seriously the task of education, and parents become the prime educators of their children, starting with moral training. The good home defends its autonomy and authority, for this again has positive effects on children.

It is the union of male and female through marriage that produces these results. Each partner brings gifts to the marital bond that are complementary. Honest research shows how this works. For example, one unusual study reported in the journal Criminology found that the active bonds between wives in a neighborhood—such as borrowing food or tools or having lunch at a neighbor’s home—had a strong effect in reducing neighborhood rates of violent crime. Interestingly, this result was not produced through the bonds of husbands in a neighborhood. And yet, the presence of “family rooted men” in the same neighborhoods did reduce rates of out-of-wedlock births among neighborhood teenagers. According to the researchers, a single-mother home with teenage daughters present was viewed by young neighborhood males as “an unprotected nest,” because it lacks “a man, the figure the boys are prepared to respect, . . . to keep them in line.”[7] The lesson here is that a husband and a wife complement each other; each marital partner brings unique talents to the building of a home, so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

To fulfill the Child’s Right to a Home, responsible governments will use all prudent means to encourage lawful marriage, discourage divorce, and recognize the prior existence and autonomy of families.

Article IV: Each Child Has the Right to Siblings

The current trend, particularly strong in developed lands, is toward a one-child family system. For example, if current trends in Europe continue for another 30 years, by the year 2050 a majority of the European people will have no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles, no cousins. A range of anti-natalist impulses help explain this, including economic pressures to put work before family and children and the heavy burden of taxation on household budgets.

This trend toward a one-child family system portends great trouble and great loneliness. The relationships between brothers and sisters have long been understood to be critically important in shaping for the good the moral and psychological character of children. One recent study has found that siblings that have an affectionate relationship tend to be more sympathetic and demonstrate more pro-social behavior in adolescence.[8] In contrast, children without siblings disproportionately develop hostile, anti-social personalities. In China, for example, where the government has aggressively pursued a one-child-per-couple policy for years, researchers report in the journal School Psychology International that a child without siblings is more likely to disrupt the school classroom than a child reared with brothers and sisters. When compared to the latter, “only children display considerably more behavior problems, particularly in terms of learning, impulsivity, hyperactivity and anxiety.”[9]

Later in life, sibling bonds also remain strong. Indeed, this is the longest blood relationship that people normally have in their lives, longer than relationships with parents, children, or spouse. Recent research shows that older adults commonly feel closer to their siblings than to anyone except their own children, attachments that grow with the passing of years.

Sometimes, of course, it is not possible for parents to have more than one child. But the main cause at this time is extreme voluntary child limitation. Such actions deliberately diminish the psychological prospects of sole children.

To secure for Children the Right to Siblings, governments should welcome the birth of multiple children in a family through all prudent and proper means.

Article V: Each Child Has the Right to Ancestors

Children know emotional wholeness and personal security if they see themselves as part of a great chain of family being, binding together ancestors, their living family, and their descendants. It is this that makes sense out of death, suffering, and sacrifice, which, in turn, supplies purpose and meaning to life. Indeed, children show a great hunger for stories about their families. Reporting in the Journal of Marriage and Family on a study of the telling of family stories, the researchers found it “a particular surprise” that “the younger generation told just as many, if not more family stories than the older generation.”[10] More recently, another study surveyed how many children knew the answers to detailed questions about their parents, grandparents, and other family—things like where their parents met, where various family members were from, etc. Being able to correctly answer questions on this survey was the best predictor of children’s well-being.[11] Having ancestors, and knowing things about those ancestors, matters for children’s sense of identity, as well as their connectedness and resilience.

And yet, too often today, the young learn in schools or from the drumbeat of modernist propaganda in the media that their ancestors were ignorant, bigoted, and mean-spirited. However, as the great rhetorician Richard Weaver once remarked, “those who have no concern for their ancestors will, by simple application of the same rule, have none for their descendants.” And this diminishes not only the lives of children, but of the global community as a whole.

To secure a Child’s Right to Ancestors, governments should ensure that its schools and institutions appropriately honor the struggles and positive gifts of those generations which came before.

Article VI: Each Child Has The Right to a Posterity

Current myths hold that the population control movement represents a rational adaptation of family size to modern conditions. While this change began in the West, it gains strength in the Developing Nations because of its popularity.

Honest research shows these myths to be false. A careful history of fertility decline (by a leading advocate for population control), appearing in Population and Development Review, shows that neo-Malthusian “ideas, ideologies, and organized assistance”—or propaganda instead of steady conversion—was key. The task for these propagandists was to attack the status of large families. Their key triumph, according to the author, was the “rolling back of religion’s grip on . . . sexuality,” urging persons to “ignor[e] the religious view.” These ideologies then spread originally to the Third World through colonial administrators using “eugenic” arguments to control native populations and—later—through private organizations such as The Population Council and The Ford Foundation.[12]

It is time to end this war on human fertility, for the sake of children. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, it is objectively clear that depopulation rather than overpopulation is the problem that looms before the world. The best evidence also shows that population growth actually stimulates economic growth, both absolutely and on a per-capita basis.

It is natural for each person to want to create progeny and to live into the future through them. This is each child’s destiny. Propaganda against the building of families is a direct assault on this destiny.

To secure a Child’s Right to a Posterity, governments should take all appropriate actions to affirm the value of fertility within marriage and to support and protect larger families.

Article VII: Each Child Has the Right to Religious Faith

Religious families better protect their children physically and psychologically when compared to families that reject religious faith.

This finding flies of the face of the modernist bias that sees religion as resting on ignorance and repression. For example, a study on parenting styles reported in American Sociological Review found that “while it is true conservative Protestant parents are more likely to rely on [spanking than non-religious parents], it is also true that they are more likely than other parents to practice warm and expressive emotional work with their children.”[13]

Strong religious faith also protects youth from destructive behaviors such as premature sexual activityThe Journal of Marriage and Family reports that while the percentage of all white American female adolescents who were virgins fell from 51 percent in 1982 to 42 percent in 1988, the percent who were virgins among fundamentalist Protestants rose from 45 to 61 percent over the same six years. The authors credit this, in part, to the effect of “church sermons and Sunday school.”[14] Another recent study out of Harvard found that those who attended regular religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation as children reported higher levels of life satisfaction in their twenties, and were also less likely to be depressed, use recreational drugs, smoke, or have a sexually transmitted disease.[15]

In short, children thrive best within families that recognize Divine authority and seek to apply this faith in their daily lives.

To secure a Child’s Right to Religious Faith, governments shall respect families’ free exercise of religion.

Article VIII: Each Child Has the Right to Live in a Healthy Community

No good home stands alone. Extended family members—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins—properly take an interest in and help protect and rear children. In somewhat different ways, good neighbors also provide environments which give special protection to children. It is common, as well, for religious co-believers to seek to live near each other. And the evidence shows that this is good for all children.

An important article in The Journal of Socio-Economics examined the role of religiosity among neighbors in building a healthy community. Even in the highly secularized, modern nation of Sweden, the researcher found the importance of religion to be strong. Specifically: “the higher the rate of Christians in a Swedish city, the lower the rates of divorce, abortion, . . . and children born out of wedlock.” Even non-Christians living among a relatively high number of believers found themselves behaving in ways more friendly to children: they too were much less likely to get divorced, have an abortion, or beget a child outside of marriage.[16]

To secure a Child’s Right to Live in a Healthy Community, governments shall not unduly interfere with the healthy, spontaneous growth of neighborhoods and towns.

Article IX: Each Child Has the Right to Innocence

The word “innocence” here means the opportunity to have a true childhood, the chance to mature normally in terms of physical, emotional, and moral development.

Many outside forces threaten childhood: war; employers greedy for child labor; the modern media; ideologically-driven education. But the research does show one consistent protector of childhood innocence: living in an intact, two-natural-parent family.

For instance, articles in Child Development and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show the same amazing result: “girls who were in single-mother homes at age 5 tend to experience earlier puberty.” This premature onset of sexual maturity occurs because “girls from paternally deprived homes are more likely to become exposed to the pheromones of stepfathers and other unrelated adult males,” which accelerates their physical development. Early puberty is worrisome because it is associated with poorer health, emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, problem behaviors such as alcohol consumption, and sexual promiscuity.[17]

Intact homes are also much more able to control the intrusions of the outside media—from television to the Internet—into the lives of children.

To secure a Child’s Right to Innocence, governments shall honor and protect the institution of marriage and they shall respect and support parental control of outside media directed at children.

Article X: Each Child Has the Right to a Tradition

Children are born into families, immediate and extended; they are also born into villages or neighborhoods which help and support families; and they are born into traditions or cultures, which give depth to their lives. G.K. Chesterton called Tradition “the democracy of the dead,” where the living recognize the lessons of life learned, often with great difficulty and sacrifice, by those who came before. Respect for tradition does not require blind obedience to the past. However, it does place the advocacy burden on those calling for change. Children find protection and meaning within the cloak of tradition, which gives them emotional stability and the means to survive even great tyranny.

The Polish Sociological Review carried an article on developments in Uzbekistan during the period of Soviet Communist rule. The author writes: “only traditional relationships enabled the people to survive the particularly difficult conditions which prevailed throughout the Soviet period. . . . [W]hile the sovietization of Central Asian society rocked the religious and cultural foundations of the family, its basic . . . features were preserved.” In many cases, the task of preservation fell to women. The author again: “I know of families where the father was a teacher of scientific atheism, while the wife said her prayers five times a day and observed ‘Ramadan,’ so as to (as she put it) atone for her husband’s sins.” When the Communists fell, and Uzbekistan regained its freedom, these traditions were still there, so that the children and their parents could rebuild a nation.[18]

To secure a Child’s Right to Tradition, governments shall respect the inherited beliefs and customs of peoples as parts of their informal or social constitutions.

And so I call on the nations of the world to secure to each child Rights to a mother, a father, a home built on marriage, siblings, ancestors, posterity, religious faith, a healthy community, innocence, and tradition. The scientific evidence is overwhelming: these are the qualities that are best able to give children security, health, happiness, emotional stability, spiritual satisfaction, material abundance, and inner peace. These are what children need, the real rights of children.

Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Natural Family.

[1]     “A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” UNICEF, December 2016, available at

[2]     Mohammedreza Hojat, “Satisfaction With Early Relationships with Parents and Psychological Attributes in Adulthood,” The Journal of Genetic Psychology 159 (1998): 203-20. 

[3]     “For better, for worse,” Special Report, The Economist (July 16, 1998).

[4]     Kathleen Mullan Harris, Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., and Jeremy K. Marmer, “Paternal Involvement with Adolescents in Intact Families: The Influence of Fathers Over the Life Course,” Demography 35 (May 1998): 201-16; Leonardo Bevilacqua et al., “The Role of Family and School-Level Factors in Bullying and Cyberbullying: A Cross-Sectional Study,” BMC Pediatrics 17 [2017]: 160, Web.

[5]     Erika R. Cheng et al., “Association of Missing Paternal Demographics on Infant Birth Certificates with Perinatal Risk Factors for Childhood Obesity,” BMC Public Health 16 [2016]: 453, Web.

[6]     Elena Mariani, Berkay Ozcan, and Alice Goisis, “Family Trajectories and Well-being of Children Born to Lone Mothers in the UK,” European Journal of Population 33.2 [2017]: 185-215.

[7]     Pamela Wilcox Rountree and Barbara D. Warner, “Social Ties and Crime: Is the Relationship Gendered?” Criminology 37 (1999): 789-810. 

[8]     James M. Harper, Laura M. Padilla-Walker, and Alexander C. Jensen, “Do Siblings Matter Independent of Both Parents and Friends? Sympathy as a Mediator Between Sibling Relationship Quality and Adolescent Outcomes,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 26.1 (March 2016): 101-14.

[9]     Fang-Fang Wang, Thomas Oakland, and DeHua Liu, “Behavior Problems Exhibited by Chinese Children from Single- and Multiple-Child Families,” School Psychology International 13 (1992): 313-321. 

[10]   Peter Martin, Gunhild O. Hagestad, and Patricia Diedrick, “Family Stories: Events (temporarily) Remembered,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 50 (1988): 533-41.

[11]   Referenced in Bruce Feiler, “The Stories that Bind us,” The New York Times (March 15, 2013), available at

[12]   John C. Caldwell, “The Global Fertility Transition: The Need for a Unifying Theory,” Population and Development Review 23 (Dec. 1997): 803-12.

[13]   W. Bradford Wilcox, “Conservative Protestant Childrearing: Authoritarian or Authoritative?” American Sociological Review 63 (1998): 796-809. 

[14]   Karin L. Brewster,, “The Changing Impact of Religion on the Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior of Adolescent Women in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60 (1998): 493-503. 

[15]   Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187.11 (November 2018): 2,355–64.

[16]   Niclas Berggren, “Rhetoric or Reality? An Economic Analysis of the Effects of Religion in Sweden,” The Journal of Socio-Economics 26 (1997): 571-96.

[17]   Bruce J. Ellis and Judy Garber, “Psychosocial Antecedents of Variation in Girls’ Pubertal Timing: Maternal Depression, Stepfather Presence, and Family Stress,” Child Development 71 (2000): 485-501; and Bruce J. Ellis,, “Quality of Early Family Relationships and Individual Differences in the Timing of Pubertal Maturation in Girls: A Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (1999): 387-401. 

[18]   Marfua Toktakhodjaeva, “Society and Family in Uzbekistan,” Polish Sociological Review 2 (1997): 149-65.