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Alumni Stories

Ask, then truly listen: we need to rethink our views on children

University of Canberra alumnus, Alasdair Roy, has worked in the child rights sector for over 30 years, including in high profile roles such as the Deputy Community Advocate for Children and Young People in Canberra, between 1997 and 2008, and the Children and Young People Commissioner from 2008 to 2016.

He is a registered psychologist and holds a Master of Applied Psychology from UC.

More recently, Alasdair has started his own consulting business, providing expert advice to government, private, and not-for-profit organisations locally and abroad.

Alasdair’s work focusses on qualitative research — on the children behind the numbers, their perspectives and personal experiences.

It’s a career that’s taken him to all corners of Australia, to country towns and cities – even internationally – to speak with children and young people about their lives, providing some of the most insightful evidence available into the experiences of young people in Australia.

As his research reveals, every child’s experience is unique. While young people’s situations varied substantially, there are some important reoccurring themes that pop up again and again and it’s those points that we — the adults— should be listening to.

“I think children and young people have historically been – and continue to be – seen as ‘other’. As adults-in-waiting. That they have inferior views to adults and that they can’t be trusted to make decisions,” Alasdair explains.

“I'm not saying by any extent that children should be treated as adults – we need to make sure that kids can be kids.

“But young people of all ages are experts in their worlds. You just have to ask them ... respectfully.”

Child rights is a complex issue, interwoven and interdependent with other social, cultural and societal factors. To summarise this complex space, Alasdair introduces the idea of the three P’s of child rights: provision, participation and protection.

Provision is providing children and young people with the services they need — such as healthcare, education, accommodation and places to play.

Children and young people have a right to a say in what happens in their lives and they should be included in the decisions that affect them — this is participation.

Protection, the final ‘P’, refers to the fact that children and young people have a right to be safe — and we have a responsibility to prevent them from being harmed.

“If you do the first two right, the last one would be far easier,” Alasdair says.

When commissioned by UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) to report on Australia’s progress in enforcing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which saw him interviewing hundreds of kids, he wanted to know what they knew about their own rights.

“Kids can describe fairly well what's in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is good because it means we've got some things right. The thing they never mention is participation – because we've never taught kids that they have the right to have a say,” Alasdair says.

Recalling a discussion with teens at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, as part of his consultation on the Rights of the Child, Alasdair recalls the moment that they realised that – although they had offended or broken the law – they had also been let down as children. That they weren’t fundamentally bad or delinquent, as they may have been described by media reports, but were young people whose needs had not been met.

“It's the very first time someone articulated to them, yes, you have offended but you're also a victim. These kids have experienced trauma. They need support and rehabilitation,” Alasdair says.

“I said to them, ‘my guess would be that when you were young, if we had given you all those things you just told us that kids need — if we had given you somewhere safe to live, somewhere to go to school, healthcare, places to play — my guess is you would not be here.’”

So, what’s the answer? How can we ensure that what we’re doing is truly in the best interests of children and young people? Alasdair says, we need to start by listening.

To ensure that children and young people in Australia are provided with the best opportunities in life, Alasdair wants us to shift our thinking towards children, to see the value of their perspectives as people with complex feelings, needs and experiences, and to uplift their voices and include them in the decisions that matter to them.

We need to begin to re-evaluate our attitudes towards children. Just how do we do that?

“We need to reconceptualise our view of children, in order to take meaningful steps to engage them in a respectful way,” Alasdair says.

“I want people to step back and ask: What values, attitudes, beliefs do I hold about children? Why do I hold them, and can I shift them? We rarely challenge those assumptions about ourselves, and language creates our reality.”

Despite decades of conversations with hundreds of children and young people over the years, Alasdair’s work has never become predictable.

“There’s a moment in every conversation I’ve had with children where I think ‘I never thought of it that way’,” Alasdair says.

“A 14-year-old girl said to me many years ago: ‘I feel like a trespasser in a world designed by adults’, and I thought — genius.”

More recently, Alasdair has turned his focus abroad, using his experience to consult internationally.

He’s lecturing at Singapore University and is currently consulting for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on how to improve their child protection system— it’s a vastly different environment to that of Australia, but it’s a role he’s enjoying immensely.

He’s gained a reputation among his UAE colleagues for his steadfast advocation for including children in the consultation process.

“They laugh and they go, oh, here he comes again. We know he's going to say, ‘Speak to kids.’”

“But it's bearing fruit. They are speaking to kids and they're getting a much better system as a result.”

Words by Kelly White, photo by Tyler Cherry.

Alasdair Roy OAM has been nominated for a Chancellor’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Distinguished Alumni Awards. These will be held at the 2022 University of Canberra Night of Nights.

The Chancellor's Lifetime Achievement Award recognises alumni whose professional careers have had substantial and significant impact and contribution to their chosen fields, nationally and/or internationally.

Join us on 29 July 2022 for the Night of Nights, a community-wide celebration of the University, its alumni, outstanding research, and academic achievements. To get your tickets and for more information, visit this Eventbrite link.

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