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Words Matter: Textual Abuse of Childhood in the English-Speaking World, and the Role of Language in the Continuing Denial of Children’s Rights

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This article focuses upon ‘the textual abuse of childhood in the English-speaking world’ (Saunders and Goddard, 2001). It highlights the significant role that the choice of words used to refer to children, and their experiences, plays in both the continued denial of children’s rights, and the perpetuation of children’s lesser status in relation to adults. The evolution in language apparent in international children’s rights documents is compared and contrasted with language adopted in some media articles, and in both fictional and academic literature, provoking thought about children and their experiences. Attention is particularly drawn to evidence of textual abuse in literature that ostensibly advocates for greater acknowledgement of each child as a person with human rights and an entitlement to dignity and respect. The author calls for a more critical awareness of language as a powerful influence on people’s attitudes and behaviours. It is argued that children occupy an ambivalent place in Western society – at once cherished, nurtured, precious and endearing, and yet ‘always othered’ (Lahman, 2008), and often belittled, subjugated, and subjected to ‘normalised’ violence as punishment for being a child. Children’s advocates ought to not only consciously adopt respectful and empowering written and spoken language in reference to children, they ought also to draw others’ attention to the potentially negative impact of ill-chosen or thoughtlessly adopted language. Fictional and academic literature, that thoughtfully and powerfully adopts language and expresses ideas that promote children’s rights, is recognised for its explicit and/or subliminal positive influence on children, adults and our future society.

Affiliations: 1: Monash University, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Dept. of Social Work, Victoria, Australia,


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