First published by Courier Mail on 9 Sep.
Listening to kids is easy right? They speak, you listen. Well, that’s not quite how it works. We think of listening to children as something that happens when children come to us with a problem, or when we ask them a question and expect an answer. But in the words of Robert Fitzgerald, Commissioner in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, listening to kids is “completely different to what you think”.
This year’s theme: “putting children first”
This year’s theme for National Child Protection week is “putting children first”. I am holding out the challenge to you: if you work in an organisation that has any interaction with children at all, does it really listen to them? Does it create opportunities for them to be heard with a really genuine ear?
Children’s brains are different to adults, they hear differently and communicate differently depending on their stage of development. You need to watch for dissociation or particular reactions that children have to particular people in your organisation, which may alert you to other factors at play. These are all forms of communication – albeit non-verbal – about what makes kids feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Children also pick up on the tacit behaviours of adults, such as behaviour which might indicate what they have to say will be shut down or ignored.
It is vital to improve your organisation’s ability to listen to children
If we are genuinely listening to the voices of children first, we must have a genuine desire to actively listen and observe, not just take a passive, lip-service style approach.
Policies are important, leadership is key. But if the children and young people in your organisation aren’t enabled to speak up, challenge and contribute, then adults continue to speak to adults about issues that affect children, their safety and wellbeing.
Empowering children and young people to be active, vocal and confident participants in organisations is essential if they are to become genuinely ‘child safe’. Listening to children is critical for organisations to understand what they perceive to be a safe environment and who they trust in communicating key messages to them.
Never again can we allow children to be silenced
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) was flooded with cases where children tried to communicate horrific things but were silenced. Silenced not just by a refusal to listen, but by subtle actions of adults that indicated to them that a culture existed where no-one wanted to hear them.
Never again can we allow this.
Thankfully, the Australian Government has answered the call of the Royal Commission. They have introduced legislation that directs organisations who interface with children to create child safe organisational practices. However, too few understand that the child’s voice is the bed rock of this.
We need kids not just to feel safe – but to feel heard.
These two concepts often play in the same sandpit, but a real culture of listening to kids can change a whole lot more than just safety. It has an impact on all their relationships with adults and directly influences their self-esteem. From an organisation’s perspective, it can revolutionise operations in a way you may not have imagined.
Heading up an organisation that has spent 30 years transforming hundreds of organisations to safeguard and listen to children, it amazes me how much decision-making is ‘adults talking to other adults about what makes children feel safe’.
How often do people ask kids what would make them feel safe and heard?
Most often, the decisions about what is needed to make children feel safe are made as part of a risk or audit framework, decided by adults who govern these areas in an organisation.
Listening to kids now during COVID is more important than ever. The airwaves have been crowded by adult voices about what we MUST do. But how much have you heard in the media about what children need or want?
Most people will respond to the theme of National Child Protection week with “oh yes I always put children first”. But if we look around us, how many discussions about what’s best for kids are still adult conversations, instead of with the children and young people at the centre of those decisions?
Child Protection Week may be over, but the responsibility to protect children is ongoing. Child Wise is here to support organisations to better understand and strengthen their child safety practice. If you’d like to know more about how we can help, contact us to discuss our child safety training, consulting, coaching and accreditation services.