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1st Floor Lona House
212 Upper Buitengracht
Bo Kaap, Cape Town, 8001

Jaime-Lee Gardner
072 171 1979

Louise Martin
073 335 4084

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Let kids run the estate …

… within reason

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Let kids run the estate …

… within reason

By Jennifer Stern

, |

4 min read

Back in the Victorian era, it was said, children should be seen and not heard. They ate in the kitchen with the staff (who were considered to be barely human) and were expected to keep out of the way. Unless, of course, they were working in the mines, sweeping chimneys or polishing boots.

And then, somehow, at some magical point, they were supposed to become functional adults – except the ones who worked in mines, of course. They just died, usually, but at least they had dug up their fair share of coal before they coughed out their tiny lungs. Fortunately, this is no longer the case in most parts of the world.

Children’s rights and responsibilities over the last 100 years

Officially, and internationally, the lot of children has improved dramatically over the last 100 years.

  • In 1924 the League of Nations (precursor of the UN) adopted the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child that laid out a slew of conditions about the treatment of children.
  • But it was only in 1973 (when some of you reading this were children) that the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 138 set the minimum age for workers in ‘hazardous occupations’ at 18. So it’s quite likely that – until then – many were working in mines and other hazardous environments. (Unfortunately, many still are, but at least we acknowledge that they should not be.)
  • In the 1985 Beijing Rules, Resolution 40/33, the UN set out the conditions under which juvenile offenders could and should be detained.
  • In 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child for the first time brought up the concept of children’s having the right to participation – not just the right to protection.
  • Even so, in 1990 the World Summit for Children was held in New York – with no children present.
  • It was only in 2002, at the UN Special Session on Children, that – for the first time – the assembly was addressed by child delegates.

That doesn’t sound so surprising now with a multitude of young activists speaking out about things that matter to them, such as climate change, child marriage, education for girls, tolerance of difference, and the right to healthcare. And, of course, we in South Africa have a legacy of child activists, many of whom gave up their education and even their lives in the Freedom Struggle. But, while we unequivocally support the right of children to protection from all forms of violence and exploitation, we still somehow consider them to be unable to articulate their needs – and unable to do anything about them.

Children running their own show

For many, the first thing that comes to mind when we suggest that children should ‘run the show’ is a Lord of the Flies-type spiral into madness and violence. But there are some interesting historical examples of communities that were successfully run by children – at least partly. Two of the most notable were the Junior Republic movement started by US philanthropist William Reuben George for at-risk teenagers from New York City, and the original Boys Town in Nebraska. While they weren’t given quite the carte blanche that Golding’s fictional boys were, the residents played the roles of politicians, judges and police officers – deciding on how the villages should be run, and taking an active part in running them. The thinking behind this was that it would enable the children to grow up to be responsible citizens, and that they would understand the concept (and the limitations) of democracy. George’s original Freeville is no longer operating, but the movement continues in the Connecticut Junior Republic and others, and the Boys Town movement is still going strong both in the USA and internationally, even in South Africa.

But you don’t have to be a juvenile offender, or be otherwise at risk, in order to get a taste of parliamentary process – the Junior City Council movement is strong in South Africa and elsewhere. But, while these serve a wonderful purpose in exposing children to collective decision making, the councils themselves are responsible for large municipalities like Johannesburg or Cape Town. So perhaps there is an opportunity for estates to offer a more hands-on, localised version.

A junior HOA

While it might seem impractical at first glance, perhaps a junior HOA is not such a bad idea. Children are a large part of the reason many families choose to live in residential estates – how many times have you seen or heard the phrase ‘kids can ride their bikes’? But who decides when and where they can ride them? Adults!

Okay, you’re obviously not going to put a bunch of prepubertals in charge of the maintenance budget or the payroll, but it’s worth considering. Perhaps even with a budget of their own. A junior version of the HOA could:

  • suggest changes to playgrounds, bike paths, etc.
  • suggest menu items for the restaurants/clubhouse
  • plan events
  • get involved in charitable activities – perhaps with children in nearby communities
  • discuss pet policies
  • bring up a whole lot of really important issues that you and I are too old to even think about, let alone come up with.

And, of course, once they have voted on issues that concern them, they could bring it to the board, body corporate and/or HOA for ratification and implementation. At the very least, you will be nurturing a cohort of pretty savvy future board members with the energy of youth plus a few years of very relevant experience.

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