What do children want? Businesses spend billions of euros every year on publicity campaigns trying to convince us that children want the latest toys, games, junk food and branded clothing. But when we ask children directly, a completely different picture emerges.

The Council of Europe is about to publish an overview of children’s opinions and priorities – based on more than 100 studies from across Europe – which reveals that children focus, first and foremost, on fundamental needs, not passing fads and desires. They want social justice and an end to violence, bullying and discrimination. Education is a priority, as well as families having enough money for food, housing and health care. Children want to be consulted, taken seriously and to influence their own care, budgetary decisions and the provision of facilities.

The children cited in the book – Challenges to children’s rights today: what do children think? – do not simply offer wish lists; they provide concrete solutions. To avoid violence and abuse of children in care and detention, they propose recruiting personnel who genuinely care about children, with a track record proving their competence. They recommend alternatives to custody for young offenders, like community service; an idea backed by research showing that early criminalisation of children fails to tackle criminal behaviour. They want free youth and leisure centres, free or subsidised travel and adequate access to sport and fresh air for young offenders. In effect, they want real democracy; access to basic services for all and genuinely inclusive societies.

These views have helped determine the Council of Europe’s Strategy for the Rights of the Child (2016-2021), to be launched at a high-level conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 5-6 April. Children and young people will take part in the conference, as well as ministers responsible for children’s rights. This is child participation in action; one of five priority areas established by the new strategy. The others – again reflecting children’s concerns – are: equal opportunities for children, a life free from violence, child-friendly justice and children’s rights in the digital environment.  Today, children are the principle victims of austerity measures, with child poverty on the rise in Europe. Their daily lives are frequently tough, and their futures look bleak with such high unemployment levels for young people.

New challenges and dangers are also emerging. Child migrants and refugees are one of the most vulnerable groups in society and unaccompanied children risk falling victim to human trafficking. All children need online access, while also being protected from paedophiles, hate speech and other abuse. 

The Sofia conference will be seeking solutions to these and other contemporary challenges. Eliminating violence against children, protecting them from abuse within their circle of trust and preventing the radicalisation of children will also be covered, along with children’s participation in judicial proceedings, adequate and transparent spending on children and child participation in budgetary decisions.

In this context, it would be easy to overlook the progress that has been made in the decade since the Council of Europe launched its programme on children’s rights. Some 20 Council of Europe legal texts on children’s rights have been adopted by its 47 European member states in that time and the number of member states to have banned corporal punishment has almost doubled, reaching 29 last year.

Of course, there is still far too much violence, indifference and tokenism towards children. Children are still routinely denied opportunities to influence matters affecting their lives. Many parents smack their children instead of talking to them and many teachers still use discipline as a substitute for dialogue and debate.

However, there is, nonetheless, a greater general acceptance that a child has the right to be heard, one of the most ground-breaking provisions of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Now, we must also ensure that children’s priorities are incorporated into governments’ priorities and programmes and allocated sufficient resources, so children are not the victims but the drivers of progress.  Children’s and young people’s energy, optimism and creativity have never been more essential. If we encourage and support them, listen and incorporate their ideas, they will help shape a more inclusive, fairer world for us all.