For the last five years, the children of the Netherlands have been represented by their own mayors. Elina of Amstelveen is the latest appointee.
Recently, despite COVID and its restrictions, the Dutch celebrated their fifth Day of the Children’s Mayors. And in Amstelveen, a city just outside of Amsterdam, Elina has just been appointed. She is 11 years old, but Donald Trump has a lot to learn from this young politician. Elina has two major guiding principles: honesty and equality.
One of her plans for her tenure is to make sure that every child has access to music classes, whether their parents can afford it or not. She has also come up with a novel idea to get more children to playgrounds. “Some parents don’t go because they find it boring. I can imagine why: most of them just sit there and do nothing. So, I thought it might be good to add some gym equipment. That way the parents have something to do, they get fit and the children can play together. Seems like a win-win to me.”
Elina and Lieuwe (supplied)
While Elina is still at the beginning of her democratic adventure, her predecessor Lieuwe is already a seasoned campaigner.
“The thing is,” he says, “that adults tend to forget about children. They don’t mean to, but their focus is often somewhere else. As a Children’s Mayor, helped by your Children’s Council, you can rectify that. For instance, every year we have Memorial Day, where we remember the Second World War and all the wars in the world. Often, the ceremonies take at least an hour-and-a-half. That is fine for the adults, they’ve got chairs to sit in. But so far, children were forced to stand. As a consequence, and because the program didn’t include them, almost no children participated. I have changed that, so hopefully, after corona, more children will feel they’ve got a place there.”
At the moment, 55 Dutch cities have Children’s Mayors, often at the head of a Children’s Council. The idea of the Children’s Mayors came from an organization called ChildrensRightsNow. They looked at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by most countries, including Australia and The Netherlands, in 1990. They realized that although quite a few countries are doing “okay” in protecting children, they are way behind in another important aspect of the Rights of the Child: participation.
She is 11 years old, but Donald Trump has a lot to learn from this young politician. Elina has two major guiding principles: honesty and equality.
According to Article 12, “Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account.” That sounds great, but in most nations in the world, voting rights don’t start until you are 18 years old. So, where do children get to speak and be heard? Answer: nowhere. And that is problematic. Not just for children, but for adults, the community, and democracy itself. Looking around for good ideas to solve this issue, they came across Janusz Korczak.
At the start of the last century, Korczak was a Polish educator and teacher who thought a lot about children’s rights. “They are not the people of tomorrow,” he wrote, “but the people of today. They’ve got the right to be taken seriously and to grow into whoever they are.”
Most of his working life, Korczak worked in orphanages. There he let the children rule themselves, through a parliament, court system, and a newspaper, that was later published as an attachment to the daily paper in Warsaw. That Korczak was serious in his dedication to children was clear in 1942, when the Nazis came to deport his charges to Treblinka extermination camp. Despite being offered safety and a way out, he accompanied the children to their deaths.
Elina and her family (supplied)
ChildrensRightsNow agreed with Korczak that children needed an official structure to voice their opinions and learn how to become proper citizens. Believing in the power of local politics, the idea for the Children’s Mayors and Children’s Councils was born. Every year, schools in the participating cities ask their students to make a little film in which they say something about themselves and explain what their plans for the world are. In the past, for instance, Children’s Mayors have set up Children’s Cooking Cafes and clothes’ swaps for poorer families, organized special days where old and young people can play games, contributed to making roads safer for children, advised in the building of playgrounds and parks.
In 2018, a film was made about the Children’s Mayor of Gouda, a boy called Yassine, who was so fed up by the tribalism of his peers, that he organized days to introduce white and black children to each other. They even swapped houses for a period, just to understand how similar families are regardless of their ethnic background. It won the Best Short Documentary Prize at the Film Festival of Palermo.
It also showed that Children’s Mayors are not just ceremonial positions, although they cut ribbons, read poems on Memorial Day, give speeches, and accompany the adult Mayor on plenty of official occasions too. But more than that, the Mayor and Council talk about real things. They visit schools, keep track of what the issues are, come up with proposals, and try to get their cities to change things. Every city has one bureaucrat and often one Councilor who liaise with the children and make sure their voices are heard. It is a win-win, as Elina said: adults get to hear what children are thinking about and children are practicing their democratic muscle.
In Australia, they aren’t quite that enlightened yet. They still think that adults can advocate better for children then they themselves can. Since 2013, they’ve got a National Children’s Commissioner to do that. On November 2nd, they got a new one, Anne Hollonds, currently the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
It is lovely, of course, that somebody stands up for the rights of children. But participation it is not. Maybe that is paternalism. Maybe it is fear. Because both Lieuwe and Elina have got their sights set on staying in politics later in their lives. Adult mayor, maybe, but preferably Prime Minister.
“Adults can learn a lot from children. When we’ve got an idea, our focus is on the content of the plan. Adults tend to get distracted by side issues, like money. I understand that finances are important, but when you really want something, when you feel it is necessary, money becomes secondary. Children know that, adults seem to have forgotten. They also need reminding that the central issue always, and especially now, is equality. That is what we have chosen as our guiding theme for the year. No child left behind, whatever their circumstances. We are in this world together. That is what it is about.”
For this story I have used the following sources:
I have also spoken to Elina and Lieuwe