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Harmony Forum

Peace from Harmony
Sociology for participation of children: harmony and disharmony

Thomas Swiderek


Childrens policy and participation of young people in decision making in Germany - municipal and local forms and models of co-determination




Since the inception of the UN convention o­n the Rights of the Child in 1989, a remarkable infrastructure of politics for children has developed in Germany. In many cities childrens offices were established and so-called childrens representatives were appointed at a municipal as well as at a local level. At national level, a non-partisan (cross-bench), childrens committee has been in existence since 1988. This committee has the task to represent childrens interests in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German Parliament.


Besides these representative forms of childrens policy, various models for indirect and direct participation by children into decision-making have come into being, and are still developing. At the moment, parliaments for children or young people, childrens offices, lawyers for children, forum discussions, round tables, office-hours at the mayor, and case-orientated participation in projects are the most common attempts in the field of adult-child co-determination. The professed aim of all these different forms of childrens policy is to represent and to reinforce the rights of children, to create opportunities for participation, and to act as a lobby for children.


That these strivings of politicians are considered serious and important can be seen partly in the rights, special authority and areas of competence that are conceded to these groups representing childrens interests. According to the jurisprudence academic Bernd Jeand`Heur (1993, 250) "What is relevant here is: the more precisely these (permissions to act and competencies) are written down in a legally binding form, in legal documents and laws, the sooner we can trust in the idea of childrens welfare not remaining a subject of Sunday speeches, but instead finding a non-spectacular entry into the everyday political debate. What does the claim for more participation by young people in decision-making denote? At best, it leads to more co-determination. The precondition is the awareness of possible ways of participation together with the ability to act in a participatory manner. The different forms of childrens policy and participation of young people in decision-making together arouse and to intensify the ability to put "democracy learning" into practice.


Current discussion about participation and childrens policy emphasise the connection to democratisation, every-day democracy and democracy-learning. For supporters of this point of view, childrens policy appears to be more than the commitment to a children-friendly Germany.They see childrens policy in a much wider context: "We dont have to deal with a disillusionment with politics among the young generation, yet. There is, however, the danger of a chain reaction: The current disillusionment with political parties has already changed into a disillusionment with the politics of the state. This political apathy can easily result in a disillusionment with the state if it continues for a long period of time. The disillusionment with the state can possibly turn into disillusionment with democracy and is finally identical with disillusionment with life o­n a massive scale - the end of any sensible, i.e. political overcoming of a crisis." (Hurrelmann, quoted in Hager 1995: 6)


Until now, the theory of participation in the field of social education, which is especially geared to the problems in the social sector, has remained underdeveloped.This theoretical lack of clarity is, for example, revealed in the publications which deal with participation of young people in decision-making in the context of childrens policy and in (socio-)educational theory. In these, many aims are mentioned but preconditions or requirements, which would facilitate a realisation of those aims, are hardly listed. This criticism mainly holds for the "practical" publications o­n the different forms of childrens policy at the level of local government politics. In spite of legitimate guidelines, childrens policy, and participation of young people in decision-making often moves in a speculative space and treads o­n politically insecure territory (see Sünker/Swiderek 1998).


In this context, there is the problem of a "political stage-management", that offers such things as parliaments for children or young people and office-hours at the mayor. Also the question of the political relevance and competence of childrens representatives - especially at a state or county level but also in local governments being used as a "mere alibi" they should not be neglected. Today the general discussion about childrens policy, childrens rights and the participation of young people in decision-making remains preoccupied with the question of the location of childhood in our society.


Two different points of view are of prime importance. First, the imagery and definition of the childhood is a transitional stage in deficit in the process of growing up. This stage, which is conveyed through the traditional usage of the terms "protection" and "care", can result in a rejection of all further discussions about the rights of children (see Sünker 1993). Second, there is the position which doesnt reject the integration of children in pluralistic forms of family life. This position also uses the fragility of the status of children in their families and in society as a whole, especially as a result of socio-political changes and their consequences for the lives of children, as an opportunity to emphasise the connection between childrens rights and human and civil rights in the welfare state. It does so by referring to the UN Convention o­n the Rights of the Child (see Sünker 1989; Verhellen 1992; Detrick 1992) and by underlining the position of children as independent human beings in socio-political processes. In doing so, the supporters of this position try to demonstrate the importance of participation of children and young people in decision-making for democracy-learning as a way of life (see Zeiher 1996; Lange 1995; Elder et al. 1993; Sünker 1993).


Participation as the aim of childrens policy in the context of socio-political inter-relations


Participation, especially since the end of the 1960`s, has had a determining influence o­n the public as well as scientific discussion about democracy and politics; it is regarded as "the axial principle" of post-industrial, liberal democracies" (Kase 1983, 229). The Federal Supreme Court, for example, emphasised in a decision of general principle (BVerfGE 5, 85: 204 ff.): "Each individual should be involved in decisions concerning the community to a maximum extent. The state has to pave the way for him to do so."Other statements also stress the important role of the involvement of the individual member of society. For example, "Der Deutsche Verein für öffentliche und private Fürsorge" [i.e. the German association for public and private welfare] in its handbook o­n the local planning of the social system, states that "Active participation in political and societal decisions is a necessary precondition for the realisation of a democratic community organisation. Involvement (participation), in this context, is to be understood both as a means to introduce and to carry through o­nes interests, as well as a purpose in the sense of mans self-realisation through involvement" (Deutscher Verein 1986, 1136)


Participation in the sense of political involvement is to be understood as "the course of events through which the members of a society convey their wishes and ideas to political institutions. Different approaches in the theory of democracy regard participation either as the realisation of democracy itself (co-determination, emancipation), or they look upon too much participation as a threat to the stability of a political system" (Fuchs et al. 1988: 561)

Adorno summarised these approaches by formulating: "A democracy, which should not o­nly function but at the same time work according to its concept, demands mature and responsible people. Democracy put into practice can o­nly be imagined as a society of responsible people" (Adorno 1970: 107). It follows that all the three concepts (participation, emancipation, responsibility) relate to democracy and are therefore political concepts. Furthermore, they have an educational implication, i.e. participation, emancipation and also responsibility are basic educational aims of our society. They can be found in almost all objectives of educational institutions and also in the wording of the Child and Youth Services Act (section 1, KJHG). In the understanding of childrens policy and of participatory models in particular, these concepts, together with the aims derived from them, are the main focus of interest. The concept of participation is closely connected with our social system and can be regarded as behavioural and an organisational principles for processes of opinion-forming and decision-making in democratic societies. Does this, however, at the same time mean that participation can therefore be evaluated as a basic concept for democratic societies and the actual living together of people?


In social reality, a representative democracy such as the o­ne in the F.R.G. doesnt exclude participation; but it is mostly regulated o­n an abstract level; and it is not regarded as the necessary precondition for the functioning of the political system. Participation (in this context) serves more or less as means of legitimisation, i.e. the realisation of this aim should help to see the actual degree (of liberation) of a democratic society. In the realisation or carrying out of participation, however, a different regard and evaluation of participation becomes obvious, particularly if o­ne looks at the different fields of interest from the point of view of the decision-makers o­n the o­ne hand and of those who are affected by these decisions o­n the other (see Busse/Nelles 1978: 41 - 78; see also Ortmann 1983)


The legal basis for childrens policy in Germany


Children political and participatory actions in Germany are based o­n the Kinder- und Jugendhilfegesetz (KJHG), the Child and Youth Services Act, that came into force o­n 1st January 1991. The claim of youth services to act as a lobby for children is formulated in the first section of the KJHG. It states that: Each young person has a right to being supported in her development and to being brought up as a self responsible sociable personality. Furthermore, youth services are to work towards putting into practice the right to `positive living conditions for young people and their families and the preservation and development of a child- and family-friendly environment` ( see section 1, 3, 4 KJHG) which takes youth services beyond the narrower scope of conventional youth service tasks. In terms of board policy the youth service is also to influence other areas of politics in order to allow for positive living conditions and a child friendly environment.


Section 8, in conjunction with sections 1, 5 and 9 KJHG, can be viewed as the basic standards for the participatory rights of children. In section 8, 1, it is declared that: Children () are to participate according to their stage of development in all decisions of public youth service that concern them. They are to be informed in a suitable manner of their rights with regard to administrative proceedings as well as proceedings before courts dealings with matters of guardianship and administrative courts.


Thus, children are recognised as individual personalities in their own right with their desires, needs and interests. In this respect the KJHG clearly corresponds to Article 12 of theUN Convention o­n Childrens Rights. Accordingly the decision making organs of a state must in official processes that concern a person under 18 allow the person, as far as she is able to reach such an opinion,to voice her own opinion (...) and to take this opinion into account in an appropriate manner relating to the person's age and maturity (Schormann 1994,17)


Such participation is also to take place in case of a decision concerning the acceptance of assistance in upbringing (section 36, 1 KJHG): When an assistance in upbringing outside the family is necessary the persons listed in section 1 (the child or the young person, the author) are to participate in the choice of the institution or foster placement (36,1). For the planning of youth assistance (section 80 KJHG) the legislators has precisely formulated that the requirement has to be establishedby considering the desires, needs and interests of the young people.. (80, 1: 2 KJHG) . The public bodies responsible for youth assistance are asked to devise appropriate methods in order to allow those whom it concerns to participate (see Gernert 1993)


Given the background and context, the following questions can be raised:


If and in how far the practised-child-political means of participation suit these needs,

Whatmodels are most suitable in reality,

And what preconditions are necessary in order to achieve a relevant measure of participation in terms of learning democracy as a form of living?


An account of local forms of childrens policy


The first local forms of child-political representative bodies in Germany were founded following the International Year of the Child in 1979.


At the same time Till Eulenspiegel, a non-governmental organisation of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt [Labourer Welfare] in Düsseldorf, became active as a childrens lawyer (see. AWO 1994). Apart from this institutionalised and local political representation of childrens rights, other organisations such as Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk [German Childrens Aid] or Kinderschutzbund [Society for the Protection of Children] had even earlier advocated for children at both case-to-case and state-wide levels. However, the actual development of local children policies began in connection with the reform of the Jugendwohlfahrtsgesetz [Child Welfare Act] (particularly in the 1980s), and the ratification of the UN Conventionon Childrens Rights (1989) and the coming into force of the new Kinder- und Jugendhhilfegesetz (KJHG)[1].


Since the late 1980s the number of operational areas and forms of child-political action grew continuously. In 1994 o­ne could find in Germany more than 80 different representative institutions representatives of child interests (see Arnold/Wüstendörfer 1994). Since then there has been an enormous increase in activities related to the participation of children. Today in almost every large city in Germany there is at least o­ne institution of child interest. Parliaments of children and other multiple forms of political participation of children exist in many cities and counties. Two-thirds of these institutions are assigned to public bodies. However, these multifaceted forms and models of participation are not necessarily a confirmation of effective power nor of the quality of the children´ s participation. o­n the contrary, this situation especially requires critical regard, so that the dynamics of participation do not became absorbed within the normal standard of bureaucracy.


So far no unified structure exists for the different models. o­n the o­ne hand this is due to the insecure establishment of many institutions within the framework of the existing youth services. o­n the other hand many forms are not clear-cut. Most of the institutions representing the interests of children operate o­n different levels and their fields of work and sets of tasks overlap. The systematic listing I present here aims at structuring the different forms according to their primary goals.


Generally, childrens political activities can be divided into three groups, At the infrastructure level these are the childrens offices, childrens representatives, childrens lawyers and the office for childrens interests (policies for children). Further possibilities are provided by childrens parliaments and meetings (policies with children) and open forums, such as round tables or office-hours at the mayor. Also, activities taking place o­n special days should be mentioned, such as the World Childrens Day, where child-friendly actions, and hence public relations or advocacy work for children, are performed. Such projects take place in nearly all bigger cities and communities.


Administrative or governmental forms


The main characteristic of all the models concerning the administrative enforcement or governmental enforcement of childrens rights is representation. The declared goal is to `pay more attention to childrens spheres of life in politics, administration and in the public, and to enhance the prevailing conditions of their lives` (Blanke 1993). Representative bodies view themselves as voices speaking o­n behalf of the children and confronting the interests of the adults. The representation of interests is performed in different ways and from different positions.


Probably the most comprehensive and concise form of institutionalised representation of childrens interests at a local level is the Amt für Kinderinteressen (Department for Childrens Interests) of the city of Cologne. This department has been working since 1991 and has two main foci: the Interessensvertretung und Planung [representation of interests and planning] (this includes the planning of youth services) and the focus o­n the taskFreizeit und Spielpädagogik [leisure and play]. At the organisational level the department is subordinate to the department for Children, Youth and Family and thus is equal to the youth services.


A further type of institutionalised representation of childrens interests is the Childrens Office. The employees of the Childrens Offices (Childrens Commissioners) are either assigned to the head of the relevant department of social affairs or to the mayor (as in Essen, Freiburg or Weimar) or they are subordinate to the youth welfare department or its head (as in Frankfurt or Karlsruhe).


The childrens offices are co-ordinating and operating locations within community administrations. It is their task to introduce the interests of children into the planning process of community projects across all departments. This mode of operation clarifies the cross-sectional character of childrens policy. Any planning such as transport, housing, recreation areas, school building and school reconstruction, or youth services are to be tested in advance, for child-friendliness by the childrens office and suggestions for changes are to be considered. Moreover, reports for the youth services are written, even though the offices are not granted any power with regard to making decisions: This mere right to suggest renders clear that the childrens offices hold a special position. o­n the o­ne hand they are assigned to an office higher than the youth welfare, such as the head of the department of youth or social affairs. o­n the other hand part of their capacities remains assigned to youth welfare as far as content and organisation are concerned (see AWO 1994, 90).


The different assignment to departments mentioned earlier also influences a direct focuses o­n tasks. While the Childrens Commissioners of the Childrens Offices `who hold a staff position within a higher office() are mostly engaged at an infrastructure level and less in direct work o­n individual cases or with children` (AWO 1993, 89), a far broader scope of work and work o­n individual cases can be diagnosed for the Childrens Offices formally tied to the youth welfare or the head of the department of youth.


The main tasks for Childrens Offices can be summarised as:


Equipment of facilities for children according to their needs

Broadening inner-city playing facilities

Influencing the housing conditions of children and families

Planning transport according to childrens needs

Designing reports o­n children

Providing official bodies that children, parents and institutions can be turn to (spokespersons for children)

Providing a public ground for children.


A more direct contact to the children is held by the commissioners acting as Childrens Lawyers. The literature and my own research point out that this form of representing childrens interest is mostly reserved to non government bodies.

The first institution was founded in 1979(Till Eulenspiegel in Düsseldorf) and more childrens lawyers can be found in Dortmund and Herne. This form of a legal representation of interests has a historical origin in the Ombuds(wo)men active since the early 1980s in Norway (see Qvortrup 1993). While in Dortmund and Düsseldorf there is no childrens office supported by public institutions, the Childrens Lawyer in Herne co-operates with a Childrens Commissioner employed by the council o­n behalf of the children. The main difference between Childrens Offices and the Childrens Lawyers is the more direct contact to the children and their authentic problems and desires. The term Childrens Lawyer is programmatic, in that a mandate is held for children and their interests.


Parliamentary forms


Since the beginning of childrens political activities in Germany, it is possible to talk of an inflationary expansion of childrens and youth peoples parliaments which, however, should not always be viewed as a sign of good quality or a radical or progressive childrens policy.


The first youth council meeting was organised in 1985 in the Baden Württemberg town of Weingarten, a small community with approximately 20.000 inhabitants. This form of childrens policy, and the participation of children, in general is usually found in small- and medium-sized communities, the spread of this type ofparticipation clearly shows the difference between rural and urban areas.


These parliaments are either elected by the schools based in the communities, in Weingarten each pupil from the seventh grade o­nwards is allowed to vote. In other communities, the election of the childrens and youth people`s parliaments resembles the classical parliamentary election, even including the possibility of voting by letter. The level of participation or interest is significantly higher in school elections, where the candidates are better known, and it is possible to introduce this type of participating in local affairs into lessons, and so enlighten the pupils.


Generally the children`s and youth people`s parliaments show a range of ages between 12 and 16 years, whereas in some parliaments even nine- or ten- year- old children take part. The candidates are usually elected for three years, in some communities a third of the members is exchanged after two years (rotation system). In the meeting free period the children and youths are divided into four work shops focusing o­n the subjects school  protection of the environment  youth club house youth/societies, where they prepare topics and suggestions for changes that are discussed at the irregular meetings and passed o­n to thosepoliticians who are present.


Models for these children political activities can be found in France, Austria and Switzerland. France in particular engages in these forms of political education to provide a location where parliamentary and democratic behaviour can be learned. Currently around 800 children and youth parliaments exist, some of them with a budget of their own of up to 25,000 Euro.


Open forms


In contrast to the parliamentary forms, the more open forms offer all interested children an opportunity that allows them to voice their topics and interests.Forums for children do not consist of elected representatives, but they are open to each interested child. Their type of action resembles the childrens parliaments: children, politicians, the initiators and interested adults meet at fixed dates, usually in community rooms (town hall) and discuss their topics in parliamentary style.


The example of the Munich forum for children and youth (see Arbeitskreis Zukunftswerkstätten 1991) illustrates the objectives and ideas of the concept forum for children. The first forum for children was held in 1990 within the framework of the Munich Workshops o­n the Future. Since then, interested children aged eight to sixteen have met four times a year in the Great Meeting Hall at the Munich town hall. An action group prepares the forum, but nevertheless new additional topics raised by the children who attend the forum are taken up. The forum for children and youth aims at: finding out the views and concerns of children and young people, (..) with regard to problems in their direct lives, in order to:


Raise them for discussion

Provide a listening ear to the children and a public ground

Make sure that the concerns of the children are taken seriously by the politicians, are entered into the administration and are considered in decisions .


The forum for Children and Youth considers itself to be a form of practical participation of citizens suitable for children and it aims at becoming a permanent institution in Munich. (Arbeitskreis Zukunftswerkstätten 1991, 43).

The interests and concerns of children and youth expressed in the forums, are very similar to those voiced through the Childrens Commissioners (Childrens Offices) or in the childrens parliaments, for example:


Destruction of nature and environment (e.g. the increase of ozone in the summer; car and factory exhausts ; avoidingwaste),

The problem of inner city development (mainly more bicycle routes, more recreation areas, public transport) and

Individual topics (better housing, playgrounds and play areas).


Topics from school, social and private lie are dealt with less often. Here a difference to the Childrens Lawyer becomes evident because he or she is moreoften consulted o­n private and personal problems. The forum for Children and Youth considers itself to be a mediator between children and the administration. The adult supervisors are responsible for moderation, protocol, and formulating applications. The prime objective is to restrict the participation of adults as far as possible and hence to allow the children a greater part in the design and organisation of the forum.


Since 1993 the Munich Children and Youth Forum has been located at a free- lance institution, the Culture und Spielraum e. V, and is equipped with o­ne permanent staff member and a budget of its own since March 1994. Separate forums exist for children and youth due to the requests of the children themselves, in order to be more able to meet different interests.


Apart from these forums for children there are other open forms of representing childrens interests, such as round tables and office-hours at the mayor. The form of the round table is adopted from the political talks at the Round Table that existed during the process of Reunification: that is, sitting together at the same table, listening to o­ne another and beginning to communicate. The o­nly examples of this form of childrens policy I know of can be found in the former GDR (e.g. in Leipzig).


Children, politics and participation in research, science and politics


Within social sciences, research of children is a relative new field (see Lange 1995; Honig 1999). Until the middle of the 1980s `childhood` was barely perceived as a topic by either pedagogues or sociologists, but in recent years the number of publications has increased rapidly. In his book Putting a price o­n children Contemporary Sociology Thorne (1985) pointed out that research of life and the experiences of children (), if at all, is limited o­n o­nly a few research areas: family, education or social psychology of socialization (). The sociological theories are mainly adult orientated and focus therefore children o­nly with respect to the reproduction of the social order. The theoretical framework of Socialization and Development which is coined by an ahistorical, individualistic as well as teleological view defines children more in respect to their development than to their existence/being. Within this framework other sociological possibilities of access has widely shown (zit. n. Qvortrup 1993, 109)[2]. But the situation today has changed crucially, in particular action-orientation as well as theoretical research in the field of childhood.


Since the coming into effect of the KJHG the pedagogicial and social action deals with the possibilities of political action by and for children concerning the realization of this law, which is explicitly related to ideas about the contemporary situation of the children and its change within the society (see Wiesner 1995: 1 - 93). The work ranges from legal justification to statements and models of children´s participation, in addition to the many successful examples of participation in Jugendhilfeand school (see Landesjugendamt Hessen 1998).


Scientific works also cover a wide range. Research in each case is focused o­n the particular discipline. But o­ne specific point can be summarized in all of these works: the focus of childhood has changed from a object-orientated to a subject-orientated view. Pedagogues, sociologists, psychologists, social scientists as well as the legal profession embed this new view related to children and childhood into their work context and transfer their demands which were hitherto related o­nly to the juveniles to the children.


So far it is difficult to provide a structured overview of the various surveys of aspects of children` s life. To collect the different research results, and to merge them with political demands and national measures, it is necessary to classify the social reporting of the last years. o­n behalf of the Federal Government, two reports were published in 1998. Although published by the same Ministry (Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend), both reports emphasised different perspectives, although both the Zehnte Kinder- und Jugendbericht and the expertise of Kinder und Kindheit in Deutschland, are to serve a basis for the child politics in Germany. o­nly the second report speaks of children as subjects, and using the basis of a "culture of growing up", formulates the tasks which must be mastered by children, as well as the necessary institutional assistance. Politics for children are understood as comparable with the idea of a social ecology of human development; (following development psychology). The fact that this cannot be attained except by means of the KJHG was clearly exposed by the authors of the child report. Promoting the expertise of child places child politics in the context of a family policy, which is orientated to build development-promoting social environments for children (Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend 1998, 14). The idea of child right` s "as individual rights detached by the family or as rights of children against its parents " (a.a.O., 67) became distanced.


As a basis for national child politics, both reports show clearly the ambiguities and the political explosiveness of conceptual questions with regard to protection and participation in the life of children, and the status declared in the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child (see Neubauer/Sünker 1993). The participation of children in matters concerning their own affairs, in mainly institutionalised forms, is generally affirmated. However, the framework of a policy for, with and of children as independent, autonomous children remains disputed. Adjusting the national welfare, protecting and education basis of the participation-oriented KJHG remains contentious.


Participation: results and perspectives


Only o­ne country-wide survey, "Beteiligung von Kindern und Jugendlichen in Kommunen " (BMFSFJ 1999) deals with a possible transfer of child politics to society. It examines the participation of children in their community. Considering that, to date, all investigations refer to questions of political orientation, the confidence into political institutions and the political participation o­n young people this survey is an improvement[3]. The survey was commissioned by the "Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend. It focuses o­n models of social participation (especially existing models and forms of participation) and their spread, content, participants, and basic organisation. This survey is based o­n a sample of 1,003 municipalities in Germany by the Deutsche Jugendinstitut. The survey covered municipalities as provider of services. Of the 1.003 municipalities surveyed, o­nly 400 answered (about 40 per cent), and specialists in the responsible institutions were responses.


The results show a considerable quantitative and qualitative development of the spread and variety of participation offered. It must be the aim in the future to constantly improve and extend the quality of the already developed structures of participation. In the summer 1998 for example participation activities took place in 153 cities and municipalities. The participating municipalities usually offered several forms of participation. A priority goal must be to give all children and young people the chance to take part in participation. The participation infrastructure must be developed in the municipalities and in the large cities a blanket coverage offer must be established.


Project-oriented forms of participation (the most frequent category, with 70 per cent), minimise the dangers of possible exclusion in the social and the education strata. Both foreign children and girls must be merged more into participation processes, that is, appropriate forms of speech and action must be found. Foreign children take part less in representative than in project-oriented forms. In nearly 50 per cent of the representative and in approximately 33 per cent of the open forms foreign children do not participate. That is, the more the method is related to action and exercise, the more foreign children do participate.


The relationship of boys and girls in the different participation forms can be characterized as follows: in approximately 46% of the models mentioned are they are represented equally. Tensions need to be recognized in that the number of the girls drops over time. At the beginning of a project often more girls than boys are involved, but this changes in the project phase. Crucial here, among other points, are the methods: the more creative, then the more girls; the more structured a project, then more boys take part. The highest participation quotas are with the project-oriented forms.


Two age groups are addressed with priority: 10 13 years old (81 per cent) and 14 18 years old (86 per cent). Nearly half of the offers are addressed to children 6 9 years old (46 per cent), but approximately 12 per cent are under six years old. The distribution shows that the younger children predominantly take part in project-oriented participation forms, while those between 14 and 18 years old take up o­nly a proportion of the 54 per cent here.


Participation of young people in decision-making - the discrepancy between the demand and the reality


Problems occur when putting the concept of participation into practice. The participation of children frequently serves as an alibi for adults, rituals are copied from adults, and children are used as instruments. Therefore, childrens policy must succeed in developing generalised structures, forms and methods that allow for a genuine participation of children without depending o­n an individual adult.

The following areas of conflict repeatedly occur in the participation of children:

Dangers and problems nowadays exist at a global level. However, the areas of action in participation are local. This means that frustration is bound to occur every now and again, both with regard to topical decisions and the children themselves.

The existing political power structures in the communities or administrations are also soon recognised by the children. Thus, it is constantly necessary to fight the feeling of being powerless and of being unable of changing anything.

A further area of strain derives from the `resigned` adults who hinder hope and innovation.

Thetransfer effect constitutes a further conflict. Do adults really reflect exactly what children say and want? Is not the great temptation to filter the childrens wishes and opinions, to explain, to overlook and to channel?

Moreover lack of time and finance repeatedly hinders the participation of children.


Despite these obstacles it must be possible to demand and promote the continuous participation of children and to test new forms of participation.


Evaluation of municipal-level childrens committees and childrens meetings


Committees and meetings for children and young people work along similar lines to existing community parliaments, and according to nearly the same structural principles. Committees, meetings, rules, votes and postponements are part of the style of the children and youth parliaments, and in some even a childrens mayor is elected. Childrens parliaments are not a legal community body, and cannot make binding resolutions, but depend o­n the benevolence of the localpoliticians. This means that there is frequently a discrepancy between the formal conditional framework and the actual possibility of influence and compared to the actual possibilities of participation and relevance of the childrens applications a starkimbalance canoften be perceived (Frädrich 1995, 117).

How far do childrens and youth parliaments really mirror what children actually want in their communities and their authentic spheres of life? The initiators and politicians predominantly regard this as an opportunity to familiarise children with the parliamentary-democratic rules and conventions, but at the same time they have limited rights to a say or decision. Are childrens parliaments as a learning ground for political education? If we do not want this opportunity to become a mere alibi the following preconditions and conditions must be met:


The childrens and youth peoples parliaments should not to be dominated by adults and their rules.

Children and youths must find their own rules and conventions in dealing with o­ne another.

Children and young people must have the possibility to be able to use their own language among themselves as well as when talking to adults.

need support from the local administrative and political organs.

The participants should be able to decide o­n budgets of their own.


The current experiences suggest that most childrens and young peoples parliaments are at the time o­nly marginally established in the local politics and are more tolerated in mainstream politics than welcomed. The politician discussing children and youth throws a positive light o­n the politicians. In the towns and communities where the childrens and youth peoples parliaments receive a positive judgement from the children involved, this success crucially depends o­n the interest and engagement of individual local politicians. They decide whether, for instance, children are granted a mandate in the adult committees (Children- and Youth Aid Committee) as in the case of the childrens youth councilin Weingarten (see Frädrich 1995).


Apart from these institutionalised parliamentary forms (that is, parliaments founded o­n elections) of participation, there are so-called `open` types of participation. These can be forums for children or meetings that have not been set up by elections and are therefore open to all interested children.


One advantage of the childrens forums and meetings lies in the fact that the children are not limited by the right to participate by elections, but each interested child can take part in the meetings any time. This method of participationat least partly prevents that o­nly certain, intel­lectual children, able to articulate in an appropriate manner, can take part in making decisions. At the same time thispositive aspect bears a disadvantage. Due to the random constitution, lack of representative selection according to age, type of school, gender, of the children, raises criticisms that the decisions they make do not reflect the opinions of all the children. A further advantage to the institutional parliamentary forms is the direct and personal concern of the children. This particularly applies to the childrens forums held at the level of boroughs where the children live.


Fundamental to the evaluation of the parliamentary as well as theopen forms of participation concerns the question whether the initiators show continually develop of their concepts of participation, and test theories against practice and vice-versa. This includes questions of how to ensure that the decisions made by the children do not get stuck in the slow administrative process, or that the children understand them.




To summarize, child politics in Germany is still primarily a policy for children, even in many projects, which directly concern the living conditions of children, are planned together with children. Much rests in the nature of the project, and there is a little embedded into a concept of `everyday learning of democracy`. Continuity, durability and the development of a participation culture in the municipalities are important. Intensive co-operation with the administration, based o­n reliable transfer structures (talking rights and request right) is crucial.


When asking the children what they imagine their future to be like and what they would like to change, they mention better playing facilities, fewer cars, different schools with less pressure o­n success, more protection of the environment and the ability to spend more time with their parents. When asking children who are active in childrens parliaments, childrens forums and other child political forms of participation what they currently wish for, these desires directly concern loweringthe age limit for taking part in elections and the demand for more say and rights to participate in the broadest sense. No o­ne particular from of participation exists, and neither it is desirable. The chance for childrens policy and childrens participation lies in the decentralisation and diversity of the models.


Young people showed great interest in politics o­nce before, 30 years ago. Participation, emancipation and self-development were the guiding terms at the core of the interest in politics. However, the following years were to prove that the expectation especially of young people were too great in regard to changes in politics and society by means of participation. In a pluralist democracy there is a process demanding great effort that leads to compromise solutions between groups with different interests. Max Weber defined successful politics as the `art of what is possible` but that `we would not be able to achieve what is possible if people all over the world had not repeatedly reached our for the impossible`. Many young people took sides with the politically impossible without viewing the other side, which Max Weber describes as `a strong and slow process of drilling hard boards with passion as well as perception` (Ostermann 1994).


The diverse projects o­n participation today constitute the effort to integrate children and youth into decisions that concern them, but also to raise their interest in societo-political proceedings. The aspect of waking the childrens interest in politics, and channelling it where necessary, by means of childrens policy and participation should not be disregarded. The earlier fear of the ruling classes and established citizens towards the politicised youth and students was due to the fact that they saw politics and chances for change o­nly outside the institutions, and believed that society was in danger of losing control of these `politically-interested` young people.


Many models of participation today are institutionalised `join-in projects` organised and directed by grown ups. This offers the opportunity to direct the political socialisation of children right from the start through the participation of the children, and to keep it in a comprehensible framework. Therefore, the childrens parliaments as a form of political socialisation of young people are highly questionable. Examples show that the childrens parliaments often are o­nly suitable for recruiting new party members and thus familiarising them withparliamentary rules at an early stage. This leaves spontaneity, fantasy and creativity behind. Considering that in recent years of the lack of interest young people show in politics and societal events, it is not surprising that more and more of these institutionalised models of participation are founded, even if this is done o­nly half-heartedly. While in France and Italy the childrens parliamentarians are partly equipped with budgets of their own and thus able to finance their own projects the children in Germany always depend o­n the benevolence of local politicians and adults when it comes to putting their decisions into action.


Moreover, it should not be overlooked that the constitution of the childrens parliaments is also quite questionable. Few if any foreign children join in these forms of participation. This is partly due to the clear middle-class orientation of the constitution of childrens parliaments. Even here it is necessary to possess an ability to articulate and an appropriate vocabulary in order to be noticed and understood by everybody. This implies that possibly the `future parliamentarians and politically correct citizens are trained here`, who support the existing political parliamentary institutions without trying to articulate and bring through their interests and needs by moving outside the existing system.


My criticism is not intended as a support to the opponents of political forms of childrens participation. Children policy and participation of children is necessary and important. o­nly the diversity of the fast-growing child-political forms of participation renders it necessary to keep in mind the aspects of political interest and power. In addition, the non-institutionalised political participation taking place outside parliaments should not be disregarded. The significance and potential of change born by social movements as crucial for long term, global changes in politics and the change of political standpoints. The question `is democracy built from top to bottom or from the bottom up` should be answered by: `democracy and the initiator of change usually come from outside`.


If childrens policy and the representation of childrens interests is really to enable the children to actually participate, and lead a self-determined life and thus to create a substantial democratic political culture and not o­nly to aim at the support of socialisation processes as control processes for example, in terms of individualising - then we must become aware of the discrepancy between formulating a claim and realising that claim.




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[1] The new Kinder- und Jugendhilfegesetz(Children and Youth Services Act) became the legal basis in all ofthe Federal Republic of Germany o­n 1.1.1991. It had already been ratified o­n the territory of the former GDR o­n 3.10.1990, the day of the German unification.

[2] In the `Sozialwissenschaftliche Literatur Rundschau` (SLR) Lynne Chisholm in her review discussion about new trends in childhood research illustrated the conditions at that time in Germany. She asked in a polemical way whether the childhood research must be marked as a `labyrinth without way out` or as `puzzles without connection` (SLR 1992, H 25).

[3] See here for example: Hoffmann-Lange, U. 1995 (Hg.): DJI Jugendsurvey 1 (questioning of 16-29 year old); the ALLBUS surveys of 1992 and 1994; the youth studies of the IPOS of 1993 and 1995 with 14-27 years old; the shell surveys regularly accomplished since 1953, up-to-date the 13. survey of 2000.





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