Engaging Children Cross Culturally in the Design of Products

Written by Prof. Amanda Third

As businesses work to respect, protect, and fulfil the collective rights of all children, it can be easy to overlook the incredible diversity of those we think of as young. Gender, class, age, geography, and other differences structure the lives of the children with whom business seeks to connect. Strategy and product and service development thus need to be responsive to the dynamics of children’s diverse experiences and contexts. This is especially important for those child-facing businesses expanding into different markets across the globe.

Meaningful, cross-cultural engagement with children can give substance to ambitions to localise strategy, products, and services for different markets, potentially increasing their positive impacts on children’s rights. However, even among those enterprises for whom children are the target demographic, the value of child participation in business is frequently underestimated, and it rarely becomes a permanent feature of core business. Indeed, there is a prevailing sense that children’s insights and expertise are ‘nice to have’ but are of limited value when compared with the ‘serious’ contributions of adults. Alternatively, a misconception that child participation entails adults ceding all control over decision-making to children can prompt dismissal of proposals to work with children.

Yet, given space, time, the right support, and a sense that their opinions count, children across cultures can be powerful agents of change. Time and again, I’ve seen first-hand how children from diverse contexts use their participation to imagine a better world and to contribute to their communities and the decision-making that impacts their everyday lives. Over the last decade, collaborating with outstanding child-facing organisations internationally, my team and I have led projects supporting over 5000 children in more than 70 countries to reflect on the impacts of digital technology, violence, climate change, diet and nutrition, play, and mental health1,2,3,4,5.

These are not small topics. Nor have children’s contributions been trivial. Their insights have led to significant change in policy, education, legislation, professional practice, and children’s lived experiences6. Most recently, over 700 children in 27 countries contributed to the drafting of UNCRC General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, which provides important guidance for states about how to realise children’s rights in the digital age1,7. Children greatly value participation opportunities:

“[Being consulted] enriched my experience and knowledge.” (boy, Bulgaria).

“I like that adults are listening to me.” (gender not specified, United Kingdom)

In short, thoughtfully executed, children’s cross-cultural participation can be a game changer.

That said, implementing cross-cultural child participation can be daunting. The bar for ‘good’ child participation is rightly set high. Doing it well requires dedicated resources: time, smarts, and funds. Child participation efforts must be safe, respectful, inclusive, and meaningful for all children who participate. This applies to children’s immediate experiences of participation as well as how businesses activate their insights. And it requires from businesses a sustained commitment to scrutinising their motivations, practices, and impacts on children’s rights.

Consequently, facilitating children’s participation, particularly cross-culturally, has come to be regarded as a specialised expertise, but this should not make private enterprise overly wary of trying it.

There is no single ‘right way’ for children to participate meaningfully in business. Children’s participation ideally responds to specific objectives and circumstances and feels relevant and meaningful to children. As a child participant recently said, “[Effective child participation] actually places children in positions where they feel as though they are doing meaningful work” (girl, Australia). How businesses engage children will inevitably change over time, in response to new insights, shifting priorities, and the growing sophistication of their child participation strategies. The key is to understand what cross-cultural child participation can offer business, to be crystal clear about why your business wants to do it and what participation can offer children, and to be willing to do some hard thinking about what the ethics and pragmatics of child participation could and should look like.

So, what are the different kinds of cross-cultural participation businesses might consider?

Models of Participation

Models of Participation

Roger Hart’s ‘ladder of child participation’8 distinguishes different child participation approaches and is a tool for businesses to think through how and why they do child participation, and the strengths and limitations of different approaches. Hart’s eight approaches are often distilled into three9:

1. Consultative approaches are perhaps the most conventional form of child participation. Generally instigated and steered by adults, these configure children as informants in an intelligence gathering process. Common methods include interviews, focus groups, and surveys. While consultative approaches can elicit children’s insights and experiences, they often focus on ‘hearing children’s voices’ about adult-defined agendas. Children rarely actively contribute to decisions or outcomes. It can be appropriate to use these methods when, for example, limited funds or time constraints prohibit a more collaborative participation process. As with all forms of participation, it is important to manage children’s expectations about how they will participate and what will happen from their participation.

2.Collaborative approaches conceive participation as a process of co-creation between adults and children and frequently draw on co-research and co-design methods. While adults may instigate the process, children are conceived as its co-authors, working alongside adults to identify the challenges, to design and implement the participation methods, to analyse the results, and to channel the resulting insights into processes of change. Effective collaborative participation requires constant attention to how adult- child power dynamics shape interactions in the process.

3. Child-led approaches involve children directing the process from beginning to end. Adults’ role is to ensure children have access to the necessary resources, expertise, and other forms of support to realise their self-defined goals. Child-led approaches seek to empower children to the maximum, relative to their evolving capacities. One potential shortcoming of these approaches is that, rather than modifying adult ways of doing things to make them more child-centred, they can result in parallel child-led processes and outcomes.

With this in mind, below are some strategies to ensure business can do cross-cultural child participation well.


Reach Beyond the Usual Suspects

Maximising the value of child participation and ensuring it positively impacts the greatest number of children means working not just with the ‘usual suspects’10,  those children that are easy to reach and who have the cultural capital and competencies to participate, but also those who are not always heard. As a participant in one of our studies said, “Make it clear that children from all backgrounds are welcome and that their ideas matter” (boy, Australia). When working cross-culturally, in often unfamiliar settings, it can be difficult to identify ways to reach a more diverse group of child participants. It is useful to build relationships with trusted child-facing organisations and/or regional and national networks that routinely work with children in- country. Such organisations are best placed to facilitate a broad range of diverse children to participate and to guide other dimensions of your participation strategy.

Value and Invest in Local Expertise

Undertaking child participation across cultural contexts requires sensitivity to contextual dynamics, which requires connecting to local expertise. One way to ensure a business’s child participation methods are culturally appropriate is to opt for a collaborative approach that configures trusted local partner organisations, alongside children, as key interlocutors. In our cross- cultural projects, my team works closely with child-facing organisations, supporting them with training, resources, and guidance to work face-to-face or online with children, in local languages. This instigates a mutual learning process whereby child-facing organisations can experiment with different participation methods and hear directly from children on issues that affect them, while our team learns about local issues and practices and ways of adapting participation methods for specific contexts. Wherever possible, we compensate partner organisations, as well as children, to acknowledge the value of their time and expertise.

Acknowledge and Work with Difference

Developmental expectations and the experience of childhood can differ vastly from one cultural setting to another, so it is important to work closely with personnel in-country and to compensate them for their inputs. Even when deploying a more conventional, consultative participation approach in a cross- cultural setting, tailoring tools to local contexts ensures they resonate with children’s lived experience and can elicit useful insights. Children often have a keen sense of how to shape participatory tools to take account of their ways of communicating with each other, and child-facing organisations have wisdom to share about how things need to be adapted so that children are safe and being asked to participate in activities that are age-appropriate in that cultural context. When children participate using local languages, prior to implementing a participation strategy, spending time with in-country colleagues to find appropriate translations for key concepts can help to minimise misunderstanding and enhance children’s experiences of participation.

Set Expectations and Deliver on Them

“[Good child participation] listens to and enacts any advice given by children” (girl, Australia). Businesses need to plan how they will use children’s insights, what this will deliver for diverse children, and how they will explain these things to child participants. It is also best practice to devise a plan to keep children informed about the outcomes of their participation. When working cross- culturally, the expectations set for children must be carefully calibrated to local contexts. While children will generally participate enthusiastically when they can see their contributions will count, care must be taken not to raise children’s expectations unreasonably for improvement beyond the capacity of their environments to deliver that change.

Devise Methods to Disrupt Power Dynamics

Children are often tempted to tell adults what they think they want to hear, particularly in contexts where local norms demand that children are obedient to adult authority. One good way to disrupt these power dynamics can be to use creative methods6 that engage children in drawing, designing, interviewing, making collages, and so on. Creative methods can give children adequate time and space to explore how issues play out in their local contexts and to find ways of expressing their experiences and views.

Aim for Long-Term Child Participation

One-off, time-limited child participation initiatives are a good way to experiment with cross-cultural participation. However, by sustaining child participation over long time periods, businesses benefit from a cumulative wisdom generated in partnership with children. Consistent child participation can significantly build trust between business and community. It can also contribute to strengthening communities, thereby supporting stronger economies11.

Sustained cross-cultural child participation can deliver deep and enduring value for children, businesses, and communities. Ultimately, for all parties to benefit, private enterprise needs to redouble their efforts to work ethically with children to realise their rights, to connect with diverse communities, and to invest more consistently in child participation.