Case Study

Children and Human Rights (20th c.)

Why I Taught the Sources

On April 18, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI told the United Nations General Assembly, "The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security" [full text]. Like Pope Benedict, many scholars of international diplomacy and foreign policy talk about the history of human rights as a key shift in international policy after the Second World War.

Few, however, connect the history of human rights to the children's rights movement that marked the opening and closing decades of the 20th century. Further, examining children's rights as human rights provides avenues for understanding the complexity of creating and implementing universal declarations of rights. In addition, for students, including children's rights makes international diplomatic history more approachable.

My teaching experience is with college students, but the topic of children's rights as human rights is adaptable for use in the elementary grades through high school. Focusing on human rights as a concept underscores the social construction of many ideas taken for granted by students. It also offers students the opportunity to research the current status of children from around the world.

How I Introduce the Sources

This teaching-case study utilizes three primary source documents to link the history of children's rights and human rights in 20th-century diplomatic history.

  1. 1930 White House Conference Children's Charter
  2. 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  3. 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

For students with no previous exposure to the notion of rights, I begin class discussion by introducing the opening section of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Even students with only a limited knowledge of U.S. history recognize the reality that "unalienable rights" was malleable at the time and broadened to include a larger number of American citizens over time. With upper-level students I find it useful to also include references to the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

I explain that by the early 20th century, urbanization and industrialization led many reformers to focus on child welfare and a recognition of children's rights as separate from those of adults. For example, in 1905, American social worker Florence Kelley published Some Ethical Gains through Legislation. Kelley argued for the establishment of a federal bureau focused on children's issues and their "right to childhood."

Nine years later, Congress responded by creating the U.S. Children's Bureau. The bureau was the first federal agency in the world mandated to focus solely on the interests of a nation's youngest citizens. Similarly, in 1909, Swedish author and social critic Ellen Key declared that a new era had arrived, "the century of the child."

Reading the Sources

By 1930, the White House Conference on Child Heath and Protection spelled out the specific rights of modern childhood in a 19-point Children's Charter. I talk about the document in the context of the onset of the Great Depression and use stories from my book, The Greatest Generation Grows Up to inform the discussion. The 1933 William Weld Movie, Wild Boys of the Road, is also a useful classroom tool for showing students conditions for young Americans in the Great Depression.

Ask students: Does the Children's Charter include rights different from those assumed for adults? What would be necessary to fulfill the rights spelled out in the charter? What does the charter suggest government should do to ensure rights for children?

Students usually conclude that the document is more sentimental than effective as a policy tool. However, its very existence shows the influence of the idea of children's rights as human rights by 1930.

I then introduce the second primary source, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified on December 10, 1948. By the late 1940s, the exposure of Nazi war crimes, along with the world-wide refugee problem that existed after World War II influenced the three-year old United Nations to pass its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1

Students read the declaration and discuss the specific protections and rights included in the document. I ask them to consider if the children's rights movement had any influence on the document. This discussion highlights the fact that children's rights and interests are defined by, and must be secured by, adults.

Eleven years after ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in November 1959, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Three decades later, in November 1989, it ratified as the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child. By the fall of 1990, 20 U.N. member nations signed the document, qualifying it as international law and by 2007, all member nations except the U.S. signed the document.

This important document clearly argues that despite the ratification of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, children need special protections. Students always note somewhat ironically, that while this declaration takes the history of children's rights full circle, the United States has not signed the document. 2


This lesson highlights the importance of including the history of childhood and youth in historical interpretation and how difficult it is to create and enforce a single universal model of children's rights.

Additional Resources:

Lindenmeyer, Kriste. The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005.

Sealander, Judith. The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University, 2003.

United Nations, UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2007: Women and Children the Double Dividend of Gender Equality (accessed March 10, 2008).

Veerman, Philip E. The Rights of the Child and the Changing Image of Childhood. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1992.

Burns H. Weston's Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter provides evidence of the work that still needs to be done to improve the situation for many of the world's children (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 2005).

1 Showing older students images from the documentary, Memories of the Camps, helps students to understand the horrors that became visible to people at the time; PBS's Frontline has a useful website on this film with a complete online version and teacher's guide,, accessed April 20, 2008.

2 For an introductory discussion about the U.S. and the Convention on the Rights of the Child see Joshua T. Lozman and Lainie Rutkow, "Time for America to Stand Up for Children's Rights," Baltimore Sun, April 17, 2007 .

How to Cite This Source

Kriste Lindenmeyer, "Children and Human Rights (20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #122, (accessed August 10, 2021).