Children’s Sport, a Question of Rights?
In just over six months from now, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child known as UNCRC, turns twenty. The Convention, which is part of public international law, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, and came into force about a year later. Today, two decades later, the UNCRC has been ratified by virtually all states in the world except the United States and Somalia. The signatories agree to adapt national legislation to the principles and rules set down by the Convention. This national adaption is a slow moving process, sometimes meeting fierce opposition, and several countries ratified the Convention with specified reservations of various extent. The central principles are contained within the Convention’s article 2 all children are equal and share the same rights set forth in the Convention; article 3 the best interest of the child shall always be a primary consideration; article 6 every child has the right to life, survival and development; and article 12 all children shall enjoy freedom of expression and ideas, and their views must be given due weight. Crimes against the Convention cannot be prosecuted or punished.
Practicing sports has traditionally been regarded as a good and healthy leisure activitiy for children. Organised sport has a strong position in Sweden and most children will take part in organised sport at some point during their childhood (Engström 1996; Patriksson 1987; Ungdomsstyrelsen 2005). The image of children participating in organised sport seems to be so strong and positive that it has become a part of what is considered ‘good childhood’ (and ‘good parenthood’ means letting your child participate in sport activities), along with play and innocence. Sport has become a part of how children’s life and childhood today are socially constructed. Through sport a child can become what it should be, and learn important lessons before entering adulthood. However, the belief that children automatically benefit and develop into good citizens just by participating in organised sport is losing its strength in the public debate. One reason for this is that it seems as if the most important element, playing for fun, is gradually disappearing and that children’s sports have become too serious (David 2004; Peterson 2002). Increasing professionalism and commercialisation of sport has been blamed for contributing to the seriousness and the belief that children should practise sports from an early age, in order to develop the right and necessary sport specific skills (ibid.).
The critical voices in the public debate may have been influenced by the growing awareness of Children’s Rights. Whether this is true or not is an interesting question; however, it is not the subject of this article. Instead, the aim is to discuss the social construction of children and (indirectly also) childhood in connection to two empirical examples, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Swedish sports movement. The point of departure is a presentation of ‘new childhood studies’ and some previous research on children’s sports connected to children’s rights (human rights). This is followed by a brief account of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and a short retrospect of children’s admission to the Swedish sports movement. Throughout the article I will elaborate on the shortcomings of previous research and some of the paradoxes in the social construction of childhood in order to point out some interesting questions for further research.
Review of current research
Within the so called ‘new childhood studies’, developed mainly by sociologists and anthropologists, the child perspective is an important tool to capture children’s own views as well as to see the structures surrounding children. It emanates from ideas of children being treated unjust, due to, for example, low chronological age and not being fully developed (the adult being the developed norm), and the concept of childhood being socially constructed. There is a general course of belief, a ’dominant framework’ (James & Prout 1997), that the child is different from the adult, and the sociologist Jens Qvortrup (1994) has critically discussed this division adults as ’human beings’ (complete, capable and self-controlled) and children as ’human becomings’ (incomplete, dependent and not self-controlled). Research by childhood sociologists has focused on many fields such as family, school, labour and consumption, but they seem to have forgotten to study the construction of children and childhood in relation to the sports field. However, the sports field and children have been studied in other perspectives, like the human rights or gender perspectives, but these differ from the path of childhood sociology (and its way of understanding the construction of the child). Research connected to human rights, sports and childhood is clearly more normative than the ’new childhood studies’ in that it suggests what is better or worse for children, whereas gender studies on children and sports are focusing on the social contraction of gender and don’t take into account the social construction of childhood and adulthood.
International research about children’s sport in relation to Children’s Rights tends to focus on competitive, top level sports. An important global study is Human Rights in Youth Sport: A Critical Review of Children’s Rights in Competitive Sports by Paulo David (2004), a former sports journalist who is working at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In his study David discusses issues like overtraining, child labour and education, and physical, emotional and sexual abuse in connection to youth sport. David has estimated that 70 percent of children and youth feel great about their sports activity, while ten percent suffer in different ways. The remaining 10-20 percent is at risk of being treated badly or in other ways suffers within the sports context. He claims that the future development of sports needs a child-centred and child-sensitive sports system to ensure that no sporting children will suffer (ibid.).
Christopher C. Grenfell and Robert E. Rinehart (2003) critically analyse human rights issues in their article ‘Skating on thin ice. Human Rights in Youth Figure Skating’ from both the skaters’ and adults’ point of view. The article is based on an ethnographic study within a North American context. The main question of the article is whether skaters actually have fun, which must be a relevant question in the wake of the alleged increased degree of seriousness within the sports movement. Grenfell and Rinehart mean that ’[s]ports have become so work-like that children’s rights in competitive sport deserves serious attention’ (2003:95). They conclude by saying that competitive ice skating is not fun in terms of spontaneous play children would do by themselves, which could be interesting to discuss in relation to Huizinga’s (2004) cultural analysis in Homo Ludens (Man the Player) at some other point. Grenfell’s and Rinehart’s conclusion also collide with the idea of play being an important part of childhood. Play is not a part of organised competitive sport today, they say, but was it ever?
Both Celia Brackenridge and Fan Hong address children’s rights issues in youth sports. Brackenridge (2006) focuses on child abuse and child protection, which she also touches upon in Spoilsports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport (2001). Only recently, public attention has focused on abuse of children in sports, and it is sexual abuse of athletes that has become the most important issue for the major sports organisations in the UK. Even though Brackenridge welcomes a new focus on rights for children, she claims that it has come about at the expense of gender equality work within the sports organisations.
Hong (2006) focuses on child labour and overtraining within the Chinese sport system. Hong means that children have been used and abused for political reasons, in order to make China a sporting superpower. For the last 55 years, sport stars have been produced by having children train under work-like and abusive conditions. From a philanthropic point of view, these condotions would be considered inhumane, which leads to new questions about what these children ’are’. Are they ’human becomings’ or ’human beings’, or just products, produced to bring glory to the nation? I find this very interesting because of the complexity, the cultural and political beliefs, and so on, but I will not elaborate it further in this article. The phenomenon of hard and strict sport schools is, however, not new or typical only for China. Hong concludes her chapter with the remark that Chinese sporting children have lost their childhood and that they have been stripped of all their rights, such as legal, civil and human rights.
In Sweden the research concerning young athletes focuses less on elite level or high-performance sports, compared to international research. However, questions concerning the best interest of the child even though that aspect is not directly connected to the Convention are discussed by, for instance, Jesper Fundberg (2003). His ethnographic thesis studies the reproduction of masculinities in a boys’ football team, and shows that there is a reproduction of disparaging views on for example women and homosexuals.
In another study concerning questions regarding the best interest of the child, Christian Augustsson (2007) analyses young athletes’ experiences of the pressure from parents. According to this study, one in five Swedish children within the sports movement worries or feels anxiety because of the pressure they feel from the parents.
In 2005, the Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs conducted a survey which found that most young Swedes will at some point in their childhood be a part of the sports movement, and they consider organised sport an important part of their lives (Ungdomsstyrelsen 2005). The study also shows that sporting youth have little say when participating in organised sport (lack of implementation of the ideas of article 12).
In conclusion, from the research presented above it is obvious that:
The research presented is normative, and points to the fact that sport has lost its play element implying that this is an expected part of childhood. It is also suggested that children need more protection in sports, and the need for a widened discussion regarding rights is stressed. Notwithstanding this research, it is obvious that children and youth sport in connection to Children’s Right is, so far, an unerdeveloped field of research. One might wonder why the Convention of the Rights of the Child is of interest, or even important, but it could be motivated by its encompassing ideology and focus on ’the best interest of the child’. But how is the child socially constructed in the convention?
UN Convention of the Rights of the Child
The Convention of the Rights of the Child (Children’s Rights) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and is part of international law. Sweden was one of the first countries to ratify the convention; today, it is the most commonly ratified convention. The convention was the first tool, albeit somewhat blunt, to include the entire range of international human rights, and it gave all children, up to the age of 18 years (article 1), specific rights for the first time. Children have the same basic general human rights as adults, but they also have specific rights that recognise the specific needs of children. A state that has ratified the Children’s Rights convention is bound to implement it. Every setting that concerns children in any way has the responsibility to put the convention into practice. When we’re speaking of Children’s Rights, it is usually child labour or starving children in developing countries that come to mind. However, since organised sport is part of society and is an important setting for children, it could be expected to be affected by the implementation of Children’s Rights. Violations of the rights of Swedish children may seem trivial or insignificant compared to problems more common in Third World countries. In connection to organised sport it can also be seen as irrelevant to discuss Children’s Rights, especially for sporting children on a low performance and competitive level. Nevertheless, questions of whether children are abused or not in organised sports is debated, and it is interesting to study how Children’s Right’s have been met by the Sports movement as the Convention of the Right’s of the Child apply to all children (article 2).
The Convention consists of 54 articles, and important to keep in mind is the third article Best interest of the child because it coheres with all other articles. The convention speaks of children’s need of special protection (article 9, 19-41) and children as human becomings. But it also speaks of children as equals to adults human beings that have the right to express their opinions freely and to have their opinions taken into account in any matter or procedure affecting the children (article 12). Still, a child does not have the same rights, obligations or authority in society as does an adult. A ten-year old is not allowed to drive or vote, but is obligated to go to school in Sweden. Is it a contradiction that children are seen as a vulnerable group in society, in need of protection, and at the same time should be treated as human beings and seen as important social actors? Does this paradox affect situations and contexts that children are in, and the way children are treated? To my mind, the Convention of the Right’s of the Child strengthens the view of children as different from adults (human becomings) even though it points out children’s intrinsic values albeit values of not being full members of society at least not the younger children.
So, is it better to see a child as a person, any person, or a person with special needs? Does the answer to that question depend on the context? This is questions I’m not going to be able to answer in this article. However, I will begin to study how children are constructed in the Swedish sports movement in relation to the Convention. In the following short historical background of children’s admittance to organised sport in Sweden, I will to try to discern the conceptualisation and construction of the child in this field.
Children and sports
The public debate on the role of children in the Swedish sports movements demonstrates both continuity and change over time. Already in the beginning of the 20th century sports and gymnastics were used as tools to mould character and sound citizens (e.g. Lundquist Wannerberg 2004; Norberg 2002; Andersson 2002; Olofsson 2002). This is still an important political argument for the involvement of children in sports, as it is considered a good arena for socialization of youth. For instance, the government recently allocated huge resources to sports clubs in order to make them collaborate with schools as a consequence of a general worry about inactive children and child obesity.
When the organised modern sports movement started to grow in Sweden it was youth, young men, from the middle classes who founded many of the sport clubs in the cities. By participating in sports, the middle-class youth learned how to compete, which generally was held as positive experiences when they entered into civil professional careers. The idea of real men being shaped by other men, as a way to strengthen the male ideal, can be discerned.
In the first half of the 20th century there was some resistance against children practising sports the competitive part of sports could be harmful for the young mind (children not being equal to adults and in need of protection) but a more liberal attitude towards children’s participation in sports emerged and opened up for more children from the 1950s onwards, though still mainly boys (Patriksson 1987). For about three decades the Swedish sports movement was structured on behalf of a public health and social discussion (Toftegaard Støckel et.al. 2009). Sport was now considered to be a good leisure activity for those who had finished school (at the age of 14 or 15 years) and did not work. They had too much time on their hands which could lead to non-desirable habits. It was mainly in the 1960s that organised sports for children really got under way, and the social values of sports emerged. Sport was generally considered as healthy and meaningful leisure activity (Patriksson 1987). The sports movement should, more generally, raise hale and sound citizens from human becomings to human beings. From a societal point of view these ideas were not solely based on expectations of health, but also on moral and economical considerations. This idea was challenged a few decades later by pedagogical and psychological arguments, concentrating more on the possible negative effects of sports training and competition, a discussion that is still present in modified versions (children in need of protection). Today, this discussion focuses more on ethical issues in addition to the common worry of ill-health. Anyhow, the different public debates have been used to legitimize and guide organised sports for children (Toftegaard Støckel et.al. 2009), and they have (possibly) influenced children’s opportunities to take part in organised sports.
There have, of course, been many different reasons for the continuities and changes in the debate on children’s role in the sports movement, and it would be very interesting to see whether there have been developments that can be connected to the changing construction of children and childhood over time. For example, recruitment of children and youth to organised sports in order to create sport stars and future champions has been practised within the sports movement since the early 20th century. It seems that there were more positive attitudes towards sporting children during the 1950s; was that an effect of the cold war? Did sporting super powers like USA and USSR inspire children’s admittance to sport clubs, as a way to strengthen the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world (cf. Hong 2006). Was the social construction of the sporting child connected to the strengthening of a nation?
The sports movement has also been affected, maybe in connection to the aspects just mentioned, by the more generous economical support from the government and local authorities at the end of the 1970s, admitting and enabling more children to be physically active in sports clubs (Riksidrottsförbundet 2004; Engström et.al. 2007). Today the sports movement gets substantial amounts of money from the government and local authorities (Peterson 2008). The Swedish sports movement is governed by the Sports Confederation, which includes all types of sports on all levels. The sports clubs, about 22 000, are to a large extent run on voluntary basis, particularly in organised children sports. About two thirds of all Swedish children are participating in organised sport. The sports movement has a strong position in Swedish society as a national movement, and it is to a large extent self-governing due to its structure of being built on non-profit-making associations. There is no law regulating these associations in Sweden. According to Marc Mazzucco and Peter Donnelly, children’s sport should not be at the mercy of this self-governing system, because the rights of children might be in jeopardy as a result of sports becoming more performance-centred. Is the self-governing system not compatible with children’s rights, and is the social construction of the child as a ‘becoming’ stronger than the social construction as a ‘human being’?
This was merely a brief account of the growth of sports for children in Sweden, and there is more to look into, to develop and take into consideration. But it is clear that sport has been used as a tool to foster and mould children into ‘good adults’. Also, big groups of children have not been admitted into the sport movement until quite recently. ‘Sport is an activity made by men for men’ to quote Olofsson (1989; my translation). Boys were given room in the sports field and have been constructed into ‘men’ there. Girls have traditionally not been constructed into women on that same field (Moqvist 1991). Were girls protected from or neglected in sports within the movement? Maybe girls are less than human becomings compared to boys within the sports context? Or have boys been more strongly connected to a ‘good childhood’ and play than girls, who have been expected to do household work? And is that construction threatened today?
In this article I have elaborated on some contradictions and questions related to the social construction of children and childhood as presented in ‘new childhood studies’ and research connected to Children’s Rights and children’s sports. I have also begun to map out the social construction of children and childhood in the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Swedish sports movement. According to the sociologist Nick Lee (2001) the constructionist perspective of childhood finds power in the contemporary ethical viewpoint of human equality, which human rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child is built upon. The previously presented research on organised sports, on the other hand, suggest that sports lack protection for children, and in worst case even rob children of their childhood. Children are evidently constructed in a different manner in this context.
Children constitute a large part of the Swedish sports movement. And sport seems to have been used to strengthen an image on how children should be raised to become ‘good’ citizens and adults, human beings. Why has being member of a sports club in Sweden become a part of the ‘good childhood’? Sport can, undoubtedly, promote children’s development and provide the opportunity for children to learn new skills, maintain good health, become more confident and build self-esteem just like most other leisure activities. In addition, Children’s Rights make it evident that all children have the right to take part in sports, develop through sports, and speak their mind when participating in for example organised sport. However, research reviewed in this article suggests that it is likely that rights of children, as set out in the Convention, do get violated, or that sport is not organised in a child-sensitive manner. And there is also a contradiction between play and sport here. Play is an important part of the ‘good childhood’; sport is too, but the play element is not a part of organised sports, thus creating an interesting paradox for the researcher to explore further.
While trying to narrow down and pinpoint my area of research, many questions have come into view. What I find particularly interesting is the fact that the sports movement was effectively closed for girls in general for such a long time. The sports movement has been accused of being too conservative and sticking to old traditions (Carlsson & Fransson 2006; Lindfelt 1999). Is this yet another reason for girls not entering the field to the same extent as boys, and what effect might conservative organisations have had and still have on children in general? Or does the answer lie in the sphere of the home? Do girls have an obligation to help out with household work and has that been an obstacle to practice sport?
The construction of children, rights and childhood is constantly changing according to for example changes in ruling debates and contexts. But bear in mind that continuity does exist in childhood; children are born dependent and they grow up. Are the perceptions of children, childhood, rights and sports contradictory? Do they collide? And who knows that is best for a child?
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 This article is the beginning of my licentiate dissertation and has been possible to write thanks to Sparbanksstiftelsen Skåne who sponsors my Ph.D. education. I would also like to thank Solstickan for the scholarship I have received.
 The result of an analysis of the international journal Childhood - a journal of global child research, published in association with Norwegian Centre for Child Research by Sage Publication. Articles published 1996-2003. Out of approximately 340 articles 50 touces on sport, but mostly in a very limited extent.
 Organised sport is believed to have become more serious when the organisation of it became more professionalised and commersialised. Huizinga claims in his cultural analysis from the 1930s that human culture is born and develops through play, but that the element of play will fade (Huizinga 2004:78, 62).
 ’In Ancient Greece children took part in sport competitions from an early age, and little attention was paid to possible negative effects. In the sixth century BC, child athletes, aged about 12 years old, were selected and sent to schools to become professional athletes. Boys and also girls in some sports had to endure intensive training, follow strict discipline and diets, take drugs and obey the sexual demands of their trainers.’ David, op. cit., p. 6, also see chapter 12 (p. 144-159) for more information about sport schools.
 Which I will focus more on in my licentiate study as a new approach to the sports movement.
 As of December 2005, nearly all States are parties. Somalia and the United States have not yet ratified the Convention but have signed it, indicating their support. UNICEF. Retrieved July 2, from http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30197.html
 It includes civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights as well as aspects of humanitarian law. UNICEF. Retrieved July 2, 2007, from http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30177.html
 Definition of a Child: A child is recognized as a person under 18, unless national laws recognize the age of majority earlier. Rädda Barnen- Retrieved June 27, 2007, from http://www.rb.se/eng/ChildRights/ShortVersion
 UNICEF. Retrieved July 2, 2007, from http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30184.html
 Non-Discrimination; all rights apply to all children without exception. Rädda Barnen- Retrieved June 27, 2007, from http://www.rb.se/eng/ChildRights/ShortVersion
 Lee 2001; see also James & Prout 1977: 8 for more information about children as social actors.
 Riksidrottsförbundet. Om idrottslyftet. Retrieved September 25, 2007, from www.rf.se/t3.asp?p=711769
 For example, the Sport Association Comrades (Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna, IFK) was founded in 1895 by Louis Zettersten and Pehr Ehnemark, both grammar school students from Stockholm. Lindroth & Norberg, 2002; IFK Centralorganisationen. retrieved June 15, 2008, from http://www.ifkcs.org/historik/historik.php
 It has for instance inspired to the foundation of the Scout movement. The thoughts were refined (and institutionalised) in the 19th century England, where young boys were sent to male only boarding-schools and raised (strictly) in to men with high (manly) ideal. Gens, I. (2002). Från vaggan till identitet Hur flickor blir kvinnor och pojkar blir män. Jönköping: Seminarium Utbildning och Förlag. p. 61-62 (also compare with Funberg’s study above)
 The Swedish Sport Confederation was founded in 1903
 There are approximately 600 000 voluntary coaches and leaders in the Swedish sports movement and they often lack formal training. There is an inherent problem in this. The youngest participants often have uneducated coaches and leaders who do not have adequate knowledge of child development and so forth. Riksidrottsförbundet (2005). Idrotten vill. Södertälje: Riksidrottsförbundet
 Riksidrotts förbundet, Idrotten i Siffror. Retrieved June 27, 2007 from http://www.rf.se/ImageVault/Images/id_121/scope_128/ImageVaultHandler.aspx
 Norberg, op. cit.; Petersson, op. cit.
 Presented by Marc Mazzucco at the Children, Sport & Philosophical Activity: Philosophical Dimensions conference at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, on the 30th of May 2007. Also see Mark Mazzucco and Peter Donnelly’s conference abstract on page 33 in the conference program [Electronic version]. Retrieved, June 15, 2007 from http://publish.uwo.ca/~steetzel/abstracts.pdf
 According to Kristina Engwall and Ingrid Söderlind girls have been working (helping out some would rather call it becaus it is unpaid work) a lot more in the home than boys (Engwall & Söderlind 2007). There is support for this in for example Dahlén 2007.
Copyright © Kristin Fransson 2009.
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