The Human Rights Lesson


I spent some time in my daughter’s classroom last week talking to the second graders about human rights.  I’ve been a guest speaker in all of my kids’ classrooms and have done this presentation (a kind of human rightsy mash-up of show-and-tell and career day) pretty much every year since my oldest was in second grade.  But this time was different.  I discovered the night before I was scheduled to speak in her class that my daughter, who just turned 8, was planning to do the presentation on human rights WITH me.

I have a more-or-less standard routine and she knew it well.  (I wrote a post called Same and Different about doing this human rights lesson in my sons’ classrooms.)  First, I do an activity that I call Same and Different.  I have several photos from West Africa that I had blown up and mounted on foamcore.  I show the kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different.  It always generates great discussion and often the kids see things in the photos and make connections that I never did.  Hopefully, by showing that all humans have similarities in spite of our differences, it also plants some seeds of respect and tolerance.

When I got to her classroom, my daughter brought her small plastic chair to the front of the class and set it down firmly right next to mine.  After introducing me (with the class microphone), she sat down beside me.  She had assigned herself the assistant’s job of holding the photos for all to see while I led the discussion.  A couple of times I had to remind her to hold the photo out so that all the kids could see, but overall she did a great job.

The next activity I do is to pass around a selection of items that I have picked up on my travels for work.  As we pass them around so that everyone gets a chance to touch them, we again discuss what is the same and different in our lives.  This time, I didn’t gather a thing for the activity; my daughter collected everything the night before our presentation.  A yak wool blanket from Nepal, a wooden statue of  a traditional palava hut from Liberia, coins and bills from Cameroon – all went into a bag I had brought her from Ghana.  She even added her pink beaded pointy-toed slippers from Morocco.  When I reminded her that she would have to share and let everyone touch them and try them on,  she hesitated for a moment.  In the end, though, her slippers went into the bag.

To close out the presentation, I usually read a children’s book or two about human rights.  I have a couple of favorites.  For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog is one that we own two copies of, but of course we couldn’t find either when we needed it.  I went to library to check out a copy and discovered shelved right beside it I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres.  This beautifully illustrated book presents the concept of human rights, especially those of children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When I brought the books home from the library, I asked my daughter,

“Which do you want me to read to your class?”

“I want to read them both,” she said.

She did a beautiful job of reading both books to the class.  I was so proud that I teared up, right there in front of all the second graders and their teacher.

In some ways, it is easier to talk to kids about human rights than adults.  Because children generally see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, it is easy for them to understand that we all have rights – the right to voice our opinions, to go to school, to be free from violence.  The right to have food and shelter and clean air and water.  The thing about kids is that they have a very strong natural sense of justice (as it applies to them, at least) they understand the inequities of a world where not everyone is able to access those rights.

One girl  came up and hugged me after the human rights lesson.

“It makes me sad,” she said, “to think that not all kids have enough to eat.”

“What you are feeling is empathy,” said the teacher.  “And that’s good.”

Knowing about the problem – caring about it and wanting to do something about it – is the first step towards change.

The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was another little girl saying,

“I think I am going to write a letter to President Obama and ask him why we are not part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

There are a lot of things about working in human rights that are not easy, but this was a very  good day!

More ideas for human rights activities to do with children:

10 Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

10 More Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

Same and Different

12 thoughts on “The Human Rights Lesson

  1. How wonderful for you to be given this opportunity to reach children’s minds. What a marvellous job you do! 🙂
    Isn’t the US a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child?!


    1. Thanks! It is always fun to go into the classroom and interact with kids. The US and Somalia are the only two countries who are not parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are a lot of Somali refugee kids in Eliza’s class and one of them pointed out that there is a new Somali government and maybe they will sign it, leaving only the US! The US (President Clinton, I think) has actually signed the CRC, but we have a two step treaty ratification process in the US and the Senate has not ratified it yet. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are also signed but stuck in the Senate.

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. Oh I loved this story. You are right to be so proud of your daughter. I don’t think there is enough of this kind education at the schools in Australia. I’m starting a communications internship at UNICEF on Monday and I will be checking out your links for some ideas that I can incorporate into that work. Thanks!


  3. How proud you must have been of your daughter. This is how it starts with our children though – we have passion and just through everyday life, we teach them the same passion. My husband used to commercially raise orchids and my daughter got into it as well for a short while. It’s no surprise that Billy Graham’s children followed him into the ministry or that Marlo Thomas has taken over her father’s interest in St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Even if your daughter doesn’t maintain this later in life, you’ve had a tremendous impact on her with this and she will have empathy no matter what she ends up doing.

    It’s late, but I think that makes sense. If not, I can try to explain again.



    1. I understand you, Nancy. In truth, I don’t I have ever really thought about them following in my footsteps. I just want them to grow up to be decent human beings who see the interconnectedness of our world and care about the people in it. It will be interesting to see what they end up doing. (And yes, I was super proud of her!)


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