Childhood Studies Children’s Parliaments
E. Kay M. Tisdall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0235


A children’s parliament can be defined as a formal structure for children and young people’s participation that meets on a regular or semi-regular basis. This is a working definition, as there is no single definition of children’s parliaments universally agreed upon. Very similar structures can be called different things, such as child councils, child forums, youth councils, and youth parliaments. For this entry, resources are included that refer to these and other terms but excludes structures only at school level. This entry concentrates on resources for children and young people under the age of eighteen, following the definition of the child in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). However, there are far more resources on youth parliaments than on children’s parliaments, and youth parliaments frequently include young people below and above the age of eighteen. Thus, certain resources are included if the youth parliaments in question extend below the age of eighteen. Research evidence is illuminating but limited. Children’s parliaments can be found throughout the world, across all regions, sometimes championed by nongovernmental organizations (e.g., Ethiopia and India), while others supported by government (e.g., Finland, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States). They tend to involve older children and young people (i.e., over the age of twelve), although there are exceptions. For advocates, they are opportunities for children and young people to engage in democratic practices, influence decision-making, and develop personal skills and leadership qualities; for critics, they are tokenistic and unrepresentative structures that limit rather than further children and young people’s participation to influence decision-making collectively. The growth of children’s parliament was galvanized by the UNCRC and its participation rights. In particular, Article 12 of the UNCRC outlines children’s right “to express their views freely in all matters affecting the child,” and that these views be given “due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” Children’s parliaments are one response to ensuring children’s views are expressed and given due weight in collective decision-making.

Overviews of Children’s Parliaments

Most reported research on children’s parliaments takes the form of intensive case studies, as detailed in other sections. A few research studies, such as those undertaken in Ireland and the United States, provide an overview across a number of local children’s parliaments. The edited book Percy-Smith and Thomas 2010 contains several chapters that address children’s parliaments. These range from Austin’s chapter describing initiatives in Northern India, Bolivia, Columbia, and the Philippines (Austin 2010), to critiques of Scottish youth councils (McGinley and Grieve 2010) and the UK Youth Parliament (Turkie 2010). African Child Policy Forum 2015 provides a largely descriptive overview of initiatives in eastern Africa. Authors’ analysis differs across these resources regarding whether children’s parliaments are representative of children and young people more generally. Matthews and Limb 2003, McGinley and Grieve 2010, and Turkie 2010 argue they do not, reporting how young people are often selected by adults. Yet Martin, et al. 2015 and Forde and Martin 2016 (on Ireland) and Patrikios and Shephard 2013 (on the Scottish Youth Parliament) find that young people who are members are demographically representative of their communities. Cushing and van Vliet 2017, meanwhile, reported proportionally more young people from racial minorities and female council members from their communities. Studies consistently find that children and young people who are members of children’s parliaments benefit personally in terms of confidence, self-esteem, and personal skills (e.g., Forde and Martin 2016, McGinley and Grieve 2010, Patrikios and Shephard 2013). Forde and Martin 2016, McGinley and Grieve 2010, and Patrikios and Shephard 2013 suggest that involvement encourages children and young people to go onto future civic engagement and contributions. Parkes 2008 undertakes a legal analysis, drawing on other literatures on children’s parliaments, to outline standards for children’s parliaments if they are to be compliant with the UNCRC.

  • African Child Policy Forum. A Study on Child Participation in Eastern Africa. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: African Child Policy Forum, 2015.

    The report describes and provides critical comment on institutional forms of children’s participation, including at community and national levels. The countries reported on are Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The cost and resources for such structures have been difficult to sustain, and “vulnerable” groups of children are not always included.

  • Austin, Sara L. “Children’s Participation in Citizenship and Governance.” In A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation. Edited by Barry Percy-Smith and Nigel Thomas, 245–253. London: Routledge, 2010.

    The chapter provides a descriptive overview of children’s community parliaments in Northern India, Agents of Peace in Columbia, National Children’s Congress and Parliament in Bolivia, and the Children’s Basic Sector Council in the Philippines. The author concludes that such initiatives need to be rooted in children’s realities, recognize children’s capacities to contribute, ensure links with local government and civil society organizations, and be sustainable.

  • Collins, Mary Elizabeth, Astraea Augsberger, and Whitney Gecker. “Youth Councils in Municipal Government: Examination of Activities, Impact and Barriers.” Children and Youth Services Review 65 (2016): 140–147.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.04.007

    Based on twenty-four youth councils in one metropolitan area in the United States, interviews were held with an adult involved centrally with the council. Youth councils were engaged in a range of activities, from educationally focused prevention activities to gathering evidence from youth in their communities. The youth councils were reportedly limited in their policy impact. Barriers included overscheduled youth council members, dismissive adult attitudes, and overly elite youth council members.

  • Cushing, Debra Flanders, and Willem van Vliet. “Children’s Right to the City: The Emergence of Youth Councils in the United States.” Children’s Geographies 15.3 (2017): 319–333.

    DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2016.1244602

    US cities with identified youth councils were surveyed (139 responses, 61 percent response rate). The authors conclude that the youth councils generally were not fulfilling the requirements of UNCRC participation rights, and needed more involvement in local governance.

  • Forde, Catherine, and Shirley Martin. “Children and Young People’s Right to Participate: National and Local Youth Councils in Ireland.” International Journal of Children’s Rights 24 (2016): 135–154.

    DOI: 10.1163/15718182-02401005

    Young participants reported positive impacts for themselves, such as skills development and increased interest in democratic engagement. Young participants thought the local youth councils were representative of young people in Ireland. While successes are noted, the article raises questions about the councils’ influence on policies and services, partially due to adults’ dismissive attitudes and the adult systems not adapting. The article concludes that statutory guidelines and legislation are required.

  • Martin, Shirley, Catherine Forde, Audrey Dunn Galvin, and Angela O’Connell. An Examination of Children and Young People’s Views on the Impact of their Participation in Decision-making. Dublin: Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2015.

    The research explored the views and experiences of children and young people who participated in the local and national youth councils in Ireland, and the adults who worked with them. Surveys were undertaken of past and current participants of local youth councils (237 young people), and focus groups and in-depth interviews with current participants (50 young people) and adult decision-makers (26 interviews).

  • Matthews, Hugh, and Melanie Limb. “Another White Elephant? Youth Councils as Democratic Structures.” Space and Polity 7.2 (2003): 173–192.

    DOI: 10.1080/1356257032000133928

    This oft-cited article reports on research with sixty-three young people (aged 13–18) involved in four English youth councils, and an additional seventy young people living in three of the areas. Findings include the limitations of youth councils to influence change, to function effectively, and to be inclusive and representative. The authors conclude that youth councils can only be one participatory form, and other, potentially more challenging forms, are required.

  • McGinley, Brian, and Ann Grieve. “Maintaining the Status Quo? Appraising the Effectiveness of Youth Councils in Scotland.” In A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation. Edited by Barry Percy-Smith and Nigel Thomas, 254–261. London: Routledge, 2010.

    The chapter discusses two research studies undertaken with seventy-six young people (aged 12–18) involved in six youth councils across Scotland. The authors conclude that youth councils were exclusive, with adults selecting young people. Inspirational examples of youth councils having an impact on decisions were found, but generally the authors note the limitations of youth councils as consultative mechanisms.

  • Parkes, Aisling. “Tokenism versus Genuine Participation: Children’s Parliaments and the Right of the Child to Be Heard under International Law.” Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution 16.1 (2008): 1–27.

    Based on a legal analysis of the UNCRC, this article articulates what standards are required for children’s parliaments. They should have an open, democratic and nondiscriminatory election process; children should be included at all levels of society; due weight must be given to children’s views; and recommendations from the parliaments should effect change. Children’s parliaments need to be ongoing and to ensure children’s views are channeled into policy and lawmaking.

  • Patrikios, Stratos, and Mark Shephard. “Representative and Useful? An Empirical Assessment of the Representative Nature and Impact of the Scottish Youth Parliament.” Journal of Legislative Studies 20.2 (2013): 236–254.

    DOI: 10.1080/13572334.2013.829278

    A survey of former members of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYPs) was undertaken (426 former MSYPs were surveyed, and 24 percent responded). Despite critiques of youth parliaments being elitist, respondents were representative of the general population and reported personal and skills development as a result of their participation. The survey found that members from lower socioeconomic groups reported more educational benefits from their involvement than other members.

  • Percy-Smith, Barry, and Nigel Thomas, eds. A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation. London: Routledge, 2010.

    The handbook is a seminal edited collection for the children and young people’s participation field. It has a number of short, accessible chapters on children and young people’s participation in collective decision-making. While many chapters mention structures in their particular countries, certain chapters directly address children’s parliaments (see Austin 2010, McGinley and Grieve 2010, and Turkie 2010).

  • Turkie, Alan. “More Than Crumbs from the Table: A Critique of Youth Parliaments as Models of Representation for Marginalised Young People.” In A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation. Edited by Barry Percy-Smith and Nigel Thomas, 262–269. London: Routledge, 2010.

    The chapter draws on collected views from young people involved in the UK Youth Parliament, which itself draws from youth parliaments (or their equivalent) across the four UK jurisdictions. The author doubts that the adult-like structure of youth parliaments can be suitably inclusive of socially excluded young people, not only in terms of them being present, but also their influence on youth parliaments’ agendas.

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