Children, Our Most Important Resource?

“Children are our most important resource.” I picked up a book about child welfare practice today that started with this interesting assertion. It was simply presented as a given, with no further justification or explanation. That is not surprising since I have heard it so many times that it is nearly a cliché.

I would like to be able to say that I questioned the assertion the first time I heard it but unfortunately I did not. It sounded right so I took it for granted that it was right. For some reason I don’t understand, the concept struck me as very odd when I read it today. Instead of glossing over the assertion and getting to the real content of the book, I was stuck. I could not get past the idea that children are a resource and especially the notion that they are our most important resource.

We certainly have a lot of resources both natural and manufactured, need many of them, and highly value some. That definitely leads to asking which resource is most important. My sticking point is that I do not think that children are at the top of the list of important resources. Perhaps clean air and fresh water are worthy of consideration for places in the top five or so but not children.

This got me to wondering what reasoning process lead to children being classified as a resource. A resource is something used or consumed by someone else. Even if the focus is the community or society, a resource is something available to be used or consumed by individuals or groups within the community or society. From that perspective, can people be resources? – I think not.

A person may have skills or knowledge that are available to others. A person may provide services that others may use. A person may produce products that others value and consume. People are individually and collectively associated with resources as providers and consumers, either directly or indirectly but are not, themselves, resources. It follows that, along with not being our most important resource, children are no more a resource than you or I. Children are not resources. They are people to the same extent and in exactly the same way we are. To argue otherwise is to diminish, depersonalize, and devalue children.

Let’s start from an alternative assertion. Children are people too. They are resource producers and consumers, not resources. As is true for all of us, children have minimum resource requirements and a range of discretionary resource interests. Let’s call that the core resource set, understanding that the elements of the core resource set vary from person to person.

All of us, including children, also have rights and privileges associated with our memberships in specific groups and communities. Those rights and privileges are based on criteria established by those groups and communities. Age is certainly one of the criteria. An adult likely cannot attend the local elementary school, even though the educational services might be within that adult’s discretionary resource interests. A sixteen-year-old likely cannot vote in the local election, even though he or she may be better prepared to vote than those who are permitted to vote. Even so, age is only one of many criteria used to assign rights and privileges to individuals.

A core resource set and membership rights and privileges are associated with each individual in the group or community. This is no less true for children than for adults. Just as the core resource set is not the same for all members of the community, rights and privileges are not distributed uniformly. Some groups have rights and privileges that are configured differently than those associated with other groups. For example, there is a group that is permitted to vote, a group that is permitted to drive, a group that is permitted to attend public schools, and so on. At the same time, all community members have a right to be free from abuse and assault, sexual exploitation, unsafe food, and a long list of other rights of community membership.

This brings us to this question. Are there core resource requirements, rights, and privileges that are specific to children as a distinguishable segment of the community’s members? I think the answer to that question is “Yes.” Children have core resource requirements that are, for the most part, the same as those for all members of the community. As is true for the elderly, the disabled, and other identifiable groups within the community, children also have core resource requirements specific to children. The fact that they do does not itself distinguish them from other groups with special, core resource requirements.

In addition to special, core resource requirements, children have rights and privileges that are not identical to everyone else in the community. For the most part, their rights and privileges are the same as those recognized for others. In some respects, though, they have some rights and privileges that adults do not have and are not afforded other rights and privileges that adults do have. We could, then, define childhood by the child-specific core resource requirements and the pattern of rights and privileges that differentiates children and adults. Let’s call this definition the “special member benefits” assigned to children as members of the community. From this perspective, child welfare practice has as its function assuring that all children in the community receive their full member benefits, both regular (available to all community members) and special (available only to children).

If children are a resource as suggested by the author of the book I was reading, child welfare practice should focus on protecting and nurturing that resource for the sake of the community. If instead, children are people too, full members of the community, child welfare practice must focus on assuring that each child’s core resource requirements are satisfied and each child’s special and regular rights and privileges are respected. Abuse and neglect are not merely factors that increase risk and potential jeopardy to an important resource and our responsibility is not simply to minimize that jeopardy. Rather, abuse and neglect are violations of the child’s rights and privileges and our responsibility is to stop the violation and to assure that the child has full and continuous access to all community membership benefits, special and regular, to which he or she is entitled. Among other things, this perspective means that the violation is to stop now, not gradually but immediately.

The challenge for child welfare professionals is to stop the violation immediately, without interfering with or jeopardizing other core resource requirements, rights, and privileges of the child. Our responsibility is to be sure we do the right things, with the right people, in the right way, without inadvertently harming the child or disregarding his or her core resource requirements, rights, and privileges in the process. The challenge is indeed potentially daunting.
By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. August 24, 2017