World Children’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the gifts that children bring to our lives, as well as the impacts of polices and practices that lead to some children experiencing disadvantage, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ

For most children, this year has been one of frustration. They have been unable to go to school, have missed out on school picnics, cricket and football and parties.

The restrictions brought about by COVID-19 have allowed some children to spend more time with their parents and have strengthened their relationships. For others, the restrictions may have made an already tense home situation a place of domestic violence. Many children already struggling at school will finish the year far behind their peers who live in homes where there is a habit of reading and of conversation. World Children’s Day is a time to be grateful for our children. It also invites us to consider the differences between Australian children who are well supported and those who live with disadvantage.

Stories of children suffering always move us. Stories of children abused physically, sexually and verbally provoke our outrage. We demand justice for the children and sanctions on the people who abused them. Yet when children suffer from neglect we usually do not hold governments to account for failing to protect them. If children behave badly, governments often yield to media demands that they be locked up. They often cease to be seen as children or even as persons, regarded instead as pests or gang members.

If we do ask why children offend, we often find a story of personal neglect and of neglect by society. They may come from a violent or chaotic home environment, from a region where health and other services are overstretched, may suffer from physical or mental illness, experience education as a place of failure, and have no good role models when growing up. The peers with whom they mix with can encourage them to take risks whose consequences their brains are not developed enough to weigh. If they are sentenced to detention in juvenile justice centres, they are more likely to graduate to life in and out of adult jails with the personal tragedy and loss to society that this entails. To break with this path they need accompaniment and encouragement to find a better way, not punishment.

The number of children held in detention is one of the signs that tell whether a society takes its responsibilities to children seriously. In Australia children as young as ten can be treated as criminals with full responsibility for their actions, when the average age of legal responsibility globally is 14. That state and territory governments should be so slow to raise the age of legal responsibility testifies to a lack of care for children, and particularly the Indigenous children who are disproportionately detained.

World Children’s Day is a day to celebrate the gift of our children and grandchildren. It is also a day to keep in mind children who suffer neglect at home and in our society and call for action to improve their circumstances.