Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Asher Ben-Arieh, Department of Social Work and Social Welfare, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel. Electronic mail may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Current knowledge emphasizes either a developmental or a cultural/contextual theoretical framework for understanding children's approaches to the concepts of rights and participation. This study, carried out among 1,753 Israeli adolescents (ages 15–17), uses a socioecological perspective instead to understand children's rights and participation. It examines adolescents' approaches to their rights and participation at 4 ecological levels—family, school, community, and the larger sociopolitical system—as well as a number of possible child, family, and societal correlates. It also looks at the interactions between some of these correlates. The findings show that different correlates have different links with various ecological circles. For example, girls reported higher levels of participation in the family and at school, but no significant differences were found between boys and girls in their participation in the community and at civic-political levels. Israeli Palestinians reported higher levels of participation in their schools and at the civic-political level but lower levels of participation in the family and the community compared with their Jewish counterparts. The significant interaction effect between nation and gender showed that, among Arab students, there were larger gaps between boys and girls in the different participation domains than there were among Jewish students. Furthermore, higher rates of participation in the family and lower rates of civic participation were found among students from single-parent families. This study shows that employing an ecological framework to the efforts to understand children's approaches to rights and participation is a first step in the right direction for fostering children's rights and participation.
In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in social and political commitment to children's rights (Molinari, 2001; Ruck & Horn, 2008). Not only is this commitment growing, but its nature is also changing. In the past, social and political commitment was largely concerned with protecting children and nurturing their rights. Recent years have brought into focus the rights of children to self-determination, self-expression, and participation (Peterson-Badali & Ruck, 2008).
This notable change is best expressed in article 12 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which asserts a child's “right to express an opinion, and to have that opinion taken into account, in any matter or procedure affecting the child, in accordance with his or her age and maturity.” As a consequence, in many countries, young people's opinions have become a cornerstone of public policies and efforts to increase youth participation in various public and private arenas (Cutler, 2003; Timmerman, 2009). In this article, in line with the CRC, we refer to children as ages 0–18 and inclusive of youth and adolescents; therefore, we use the terms interchangeably.
Major concerns in extending rights to youth are whether they understand the meaning of rights in general and the right to participate in particular and whether they are able to utilize their rights in a meaningful way (Sherrod, 2008). Research has shown that how adolescents understand their rights impacts the effectiveness of those rights in serving their intended function of self-determination (Ruck & Horn, 2008). Thus, understanding the development of adolescents’ approach to participation (both their knowledge and practice of it) will contribute to our ability to foster youth participation and implement the CRC (Covell & Howe, 1995; Helwig, 1993; Peterson-Badali & Abramovitch, 1993).
While the study of children's rights has grown considerably over the past three decades, it has focused predominantly on nurturance rights. Only recently have studies begun to examine children's knowledge of and attitudes to participation (Peterson-Badali & Ruck, 2008) and its actual practice (Helwig & Turiel, 2002; Sherrod, 2008). Further, the field is still lacking a theoretical framework, and almost no studies have looked at children's approaches to rights and participation in non-Western and non-Christian societies.
Either way, studies found children's rights to be of crucial importance to children's self-esteem (Melton & Limber, 1992) as well as for the preservation of attachment relationships and emotional attachments (Holtzman, 2006, 2011). These, in turn, have been empirically connected to children's metal health and development.
The Theoretical Framework
Much of the research examining the development of children's understanding of rights and conceptions of rights originates in the 1970s and 1980s and is based on Piagetian or cognitive developmental frameworks. These early studies led to the conceptualization of the global stage development model in which children's understanding of rights was considered to progress in stages, from the egocentricity characteristic of young children to abstract modes of thought in early adolescence (Gallatin & Adelson, 1970; Melton, 1980, 1983).
Applying this cognitive approach to the study of children's understanding of rights brought to light two main issues. First is the issue of different types of rights, such as nurturance versus self-determination. For younger children, support for nurturance rights was higher than for self-determination rights (Day, Peterson-Badali, & Ruck, 2006; Hart, Pavlovic, & Zeidner, 2001; Peterson-Badali, Morine, Ruck, & Slonim, 2004; Rogers & Wrightsman, 1978; Ruck, Abramovitch, & Keating, 1998), but for adolescents, nurturance and self-determination rights came to be seen as equally important (Helwig, 1995; Ruck, Keating, Abramovitch, & Koegl, 1998; Sherrod, 2008). This was probably because, during adolescence, issues pertaining to care and protection remain salient while the desire for self-determination is at its peak (Steinberg, 2001; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986).
Second, the global stage development model has been criticized for not being sensitive enough to contextual factors. Ruck, Abramovitch, et al. (1998) argued that it does not properly characterize adolescents’ and children's conceptions about their rights. They claim that children's understanding is highly influenced both by the social context (e.g., home or school) in which the right is embedded and by the type of right (e.g., nurturance or self-determination) under consideration (Helwig, 1995, 1997; Ruck, Peterson-Badali, & Day, 2002). Alternative conceptual frameworks employing contextual—or domain-specific—models (Turiel, 1983, 1998) and social cognitive approaches have emerged as a result of this criticism. These conceptual models postulate that children construct multiple forms of social understanding through their encounters with different types of social experiences (Ruck & Horn, 2008).
Current understanding has moved away from the global stage development model to a belief that while children's approaches to rights develop and change with age, they do so differently according to the different types of rights, as well as according to the different contexts in which the rights are embedded. In other words, children construct social and moral conceptions by interacting with different features of social situations (Neff & Helwig, 2002; Nucci, 2001; Turiel, 1998). They reason differently about social issues depending on factors specific to their particular situation or context.
This article argues that the children's approaches to rights in general and to participation rights in particular are best served by employing a social–ecological perspective. Social–ecological theory describes the concentric layers of social influences on children's development. According to this contextual approach, children's interactions with different actors and institutions influence a multitude of behaviors and attitudes. For example, family, as the closest circle, is an important influence; school and community are important circles farther out; and nationality—a more distant circle—also has its role (Bronfenbrenner, 1989).
Employing an ecological perspective means that at least four levels encompassing children's lives are studied to understand the development of children's approaches to rights and participation: the family, the school, the community, and the sociopolitical system. We also suggest that, at each of those four levels, the children's approaches to participation are influenced by different characteristics in different ways. We expect various predictors to have different relationship patterns at each of the four levels and that there will be evident relationships in children's perceptions in the different layers of the ecological approach.
At the micro level, which includes the personal characteristics of the individual and the interactions between the individual and his close family members (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), both the adolescents’ approach to participation within the family, as well as the role of personal and family characteristics in shaping this approach should be studied. At the mezzo level, their approach to participation within school and community, as well as the role of school and community characteristics in shaping this approach should be studied. And at the macro level, their approach to participation in the larger social context, as well as the role of societal characteristics in shaping this approach, should be studied. Indeed, the literature references a number of variables in each ecological level, and some are mentioned as belonging to more than one level in different studies. For our study, we picked a few of the wide array of such variables.
Figure 1 describes our suggested model of investigation. In the sections that follow, the correlates of children's perceptions of their rights are discussed.
Characteristics Contributing to Children's Approach to Rights and Participation
Gender is one of the main characteristics examined in the literature of children's rights and participation, but the literature to date presents inconsistent findings. Some studies show more support for nurturance rights among girls than boys (Covell & Howe, 1995; Day et al., 2006; Hart et al., 2001; Peterson-Badali et al., 2004; Rogers & Wrightsman, 1978). Other studies report no gender differences (Ruck, Abramovitch, et al. 1998; Ruck et al., 2002). There is evidence, however, that girls report higher levels of support for self-determination rights than boys (Ruck, Tenebaum, & Sines, 2007).
Previous studies also found children's subjective, personal, religious, and social experiences to be related to their approach to rights and participation. In particular, children's relationships with peers and adults (especially with parents) have been found to be related to their approach to rights (Molinari, 2001). Studies indicate that the more educated parents are, the more likely they will be to promote a sense of the importance of freedom rights among their children (Flanagan & Tucker, 1999). They also show that the ability of low-income adolescents to practice participation is constrained by other activities that are important in their context of living, such as household chores and taking care of siblings. This results in a more constrained perception of rights and participation than that of better-off adolescents (Sherrod, 2008).
Family clearly plays a preeminent role in shaping children's approach to rights and participation (Ruck, Keating, et al., 1998; Ruck et al., 2002; Smetana, 1995; Smetana & Asquith, 1994). Studies have found that children's and parents’ support for children's rights is related to parents’ attitudes toward broader familial and social issues (e.g., sociopolitical attitudes and parenting style), as well as children's own experiences within the family, such as participation in family decision making. Peterson-Badali et al. (2004) reported positive relationships between children's perceptions of their emotional autonomy, their degree of participation in family decision making, and their support for children's self-determination rights.
Israeli Palestinian youth grow up in families that are characterized as being influenced by traditional Eastern culture (Al Haj, 1995; Barakat, 1993; Haj-Yahia, 1995). In Arab families, children are generally expected to obey their parents, submit to their demands, and fulfill their expectations. In contrast, Jewish youth generally come from families that are characterized by more modernized Western values. It can be generalized that they have greater exposure to Western norms (Al Haj, 1995; Ben-Arieh, Khoury-Kassabri, & Haj-Yahia, 2006; Haj-Yahia, 1995), which includes the notion of individual rights presented in the CRC.
Social norms and sociopolitical context, such as nationality and belonging to a minority group, have also been found to influence young people's approaches to participation in various domains of life (Sherrod, 2008). Life-span analysis finds that the outer layers of influence gain an importance in adolescence (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980). Recent research has identified differences in children's approach to rights, citizenship, and sociomoral issues according to their position in society (religious, ethnic, or cultural affiliation, socioeconomic status [SES], etc.). Ethnicity, SES, sociopolitical ideologies, and experiences of maltreatment (which previous studies show to be influenced by SES and cultural affiliation) affect how children think about the nature and assignment of rights (Daiute, 2008; Peterson-Badali & Ruck, 2011; Sherrod, 2008; Turiel, 2002).
Ben-Arieh et al. (2006) studied the role of religion and nationality in shaping Israeli adults’ and children's thinking about rights and found that Jewish adults and children generally reported more positive attitudes toward children's rights than Palestinian groups.
In another study, differences were found among various religious groups in Malaysia regarding children's conceptions of their rights. Buddhist children were more likely to advocate for self-determination rights than Christian children (Cherney & Shing, 2008). De Bary and Weiming (1998) argued that fundamental Confucian values of human dignity, self-cultivation, and justice as important tenets of Buddhism may be compatible with modern Western notions of human rights and individual autonomy. Differing conceptions of rights may be explained by the various levels of paternalism among the different religions in this region (Cherney & Shing, 2008).
Researchers have started to consider the influence of cultural values on young people's conceptions of rights and the tensions that arise between individuals’ rights and prerogatives and cultural traditions, norms, and practices, especially regarding autonomy and freedom (Cherney & Shing, 2008). One can expect that basic cultural differences affect how the very meaning of the terms children's rights and participation are understood, as well as that different cultures encourage different amounts of participation in political, religious, social, and economic practices during childhood (Cherney & Shing, 2008).
In keeping with that expectation, some studies suggest that a child's right to participation and autonomy is a particularly individualistic concept and therefore more likely to be important to children from individualistic, Western cultures (Ruck & Horn, 2008). Cultures that are more collectivistic, such as some Asian and African societies, encourage individuals to conform more to existing social roles and to uphold the hierarchy to maintain social harmony (Cherney & Shing, 2008; Shweder & Sullivan, 1993). Other studies suggest, however, that children from diverse cultures endorse both types of rights (nurturance vs. self-determination) and that concepts of autonomy and participation are also central for youth in traditional or collectivistic societies (Helwig, 2006; Neff & Helwig, 2002).
There is also evidence that children from different subcultures in the same nation develop different approaches to participation (Matsumoto, 1999). The diverse experiences associated with ethnic group membership or immigrant status are particularly salient in forming attitudes about citizenship, especially in states where there is a multiethnic and multicultural population (Bogard & Sherrod, 2008).
If sociopolitical context is indeed correlated to young people's approaches to rights and participation, then further discussion is needed about the specific context of Israeli society. Israel is a society divided into two cultures: Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian (Al-Haj, 2002). Israeli Palestinian youth are members of a minority group subject to economic and social disadvantage and often suffer from rights violations and underprivileged status. Israeli Jews are the majority group, their SES is better, and their rights are better protected.
The Palestinian struggle for independence and the periodic armed conflict between Israel and some of its neighbors are central aspects of both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli children's experience (Ben-Arieh et al., 2006). Also, both Jewish and Palestinian families are troubled by terrorism and corollary threats to their personal security (Weizman, Laor, & Barber 1994), and children's perspectives on political life are shaped accordingly (Garbarino & Kostelny, 1997).
Growing evidence indicates that various factors at various levels of the environment influence children's and adolescents’ approaches to rights and participation. We suggest applying an ecological model to examine the links between sociodemographic characteristics and children's perceptions of their rights at the various layers in their circles of life. It is critical to examine not only how the environment influences the development of young people's approach to rights and participation but also what they themselves think about rights and participation at the different ecological levels.
As mentioned earlier, the social–ecological theory of human development argues that the various circles of influence interact with each other, so some coherence in the young people's approaches to rights should be evident across the ecological levels.
The Study's Goals
This study proposed to explore adolescents’ approaches to their rights and participation at four ecological levels: family, school, the community, and the larger sociopolitical system. It also aimed to investigate the contribution of a number of child (gender, level of religiosity), family (family structure, family's size, father's level of education, perceived SES of the family), and societal characteristics (national affiliation and religion) representing factors from different ecological circles and their relation to the adolescents’ approaches to rights and participation. In addition, the study sought to explore the interrelations between their approaches across the four ecological levels. Finally, the study analyzed patterns of participation at different ecological domains by gender and national affiliation. In other words, the study examined whether the gaps between boys and girls in their participation in various ecological domains were different among Palestinian versus Jewish students.
The study is based on a sample of 1,753 Israeli adolescents, aged 15–17, who completed anonymous questionnaires in a classroom setting. School principals were given consent forms and letters for parents informing them of the study's goals. Parents could return the form if they did not want their child to participate in the study. Students could choose to participate or not, and they were free to withdraw from the study at any time and for any reason. The surveyors clarified that refusal to take part in the study would not result in any negative consequences. Confidentiality was ensured for all participants. The questionnaire, procedures, and consent forms were approved by the Hebrew University Internal Ethics Board and by the Israeli Ministry of Education.
The study used a quota sampling method, whereby the population is divided into categories or strata, and a predetermined number of participants from each category is selected. Three categories were used in this study: Jewish public schools, Palestinian public schools (which are attended mostly by Muslim students), and private Christian schools (attended by both Muslim and Christian students). We approached 24 high school principals in various localities in Israel: three Jewish localities (Jerusalem, Maale Edumim, and Yavne) and eight Palestinian localities (Aker, Buene, Dir El-Asad, Gedida, Iablin, Kfar-Yassif, Majed El-Qrum, and Maqer).
Of the 24 schools contacted, 16 schools (10 Palestinian and six Jewish) agreed to participate—a response rate of about 67% of the contacted schools. A very few students did not participate because of their parents’ refusal or because they chose not to participate or simply did not fill out the questionnaire. Overall, fewer than 3% of the students who attended class during the survey did not complete the questionnaire.
The sampling procedure yielded responses from 1,753 adolescents, of whom 53.9% were girls and 46.1%, boys; 47.8% were Jewish and 52.2%, Palestinian. Among the Palestinian teenagers who responded, 85% were Muslim and 15% Christian.
Students’ reports of their participation in the family, school, community, and political arenas were obtained with a self-reported structured questionnaire completed by the adolescents. Questions and scales originally in English on the questionnaire were translated into Hebrew for Jewish students and into Arabic for Israeli Palestinian students. Questions originally in Hebrew were translated into Arabic. Experts familiar with both languages and cultures completed translations and back-translations to enhance the compatibility of the Hebrew and Arabic versions. The research team comprised Arabic and Hebrew native speakers who critically examined the translation and suggested changes based on their experience and on students’ and experts’ comments. In the pilot phase of the study, responses were obtained from a small group of Jewish and Palestinian students, and the questionnaire was modified according to their comments. The study utilized existing and original scales adapted to the unique Israeli context, as detailed later. Correlations among the study variables are presented in the Appendix.
The study utilized original and adapted measures of adolescents’ subjective report on the frequency of participation practices in different ecological levels and their evaluation of the extent of participation. The measures captured adolescents’ perception of the participation occurrence and not attitudes or concepts.
Adolescent participation in the family
An original set of questions was composed, based in part on earlier studies (Ben-Arieh & Khoury-Kassabri, 2008; Khoury-Kassabri, Haj-Yahia, & Ben-Arieh, 2006), relating to participation and democracy in decision making in the family. The set included 12 items on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always). For example, “In our family, children express their opinions even if they are different from the parents’ opinion.” The summative score of participation in the family was created using the average score of the 12 items comprising the index (α = .71).
Adolescent participation at school
Questions were similarly composed to measure participation at the school level. This scale included 15 items on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always). For example, “In my school, students feel free to tell their teachers that they disagree with their decisions.” The summative score of participation at school was created using the average score of the 15 items comprising the index (α = .77).
Adolescent participation in the community
This scale included eight items on the same scale mentioned above, including such questions as, “In my community, children are given the chance to plan communal events.” The summative score was created using the average score of the eight items comprising the index (α = .79).
Adolescent political (civic) participation
The authors developed this set of questions based in part on the IEA international study. This scale consisted of 11 items relating to involvement in political matters, on a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (never) to 4 (frequently). For example, adolescents were asked how frequently they watch the news on TV or talk about what happens in Israeli politics with their peers.
A set of sociodemographic independent variables was used to describe the adolescents and their families. Students were asked to report on their gender (0 = female, 1 = male), their national affiliation (0 = Jewish, 1 = Palestinian), their religion (1 = Jewish, 2 = Christian, 3 = Muslim), and their level of religiosity (1 = very religious, 2 = religious, 3 = sensitive to religion, 4 = secular, 5 = atheist). They were also asked to report on their family structure (categories that were recoded into 0 = lone-parent families, 1 = intact families). As indicators of sociodemographic status, students were asked three questions. They were asked about their family size, measured by how many people live in their household (2–4, 5–6, 7–8, 9–10, more than 10 people). They were also asked what level of education their fathers had completed: 1 = less than elementary school, 2 = elementary school, 3 = high school, 4 = some secondary education (without a degree), 5 = completed secondary education (B.A. or higher). They were also asked to report on their perceived level of the economic status of their family (1 = poor or very poor, 2 = fair, 3 = good, 4 = very good, 5 = excellent).
The relationships between the background characteristics of the adolescents and their participation across the four ecological domains included in the current study (family, school, community, and larger political system) were first examined by bivariate analyses. Liner multivariate regression models were then estimated to explain the variance among the adolescents in the dependent variables. In the regression models, the personal characteristics of the adolescent were first entered (such as gender and nationality) to the regression equation. Then, we inserted the factors related to the adolescent family (such as family structure and family SES). In addition, in the current study, we tested for correlations between levels of participation in the various ecological levels (family, school, community, and civic-political) using a Pearson's correlation test and one-way within-subjects repeated measures analysis of variance. Finally, we examined differences between boys and girls, as well as between Palestinian and Jewish students, in the patterns of the four levels of participation by conducting one-way mixed-model analysis of variance with repeated measures with gender and later with nation as between-subjects factors.
Bivariate Analyses: Background Characteristics and Child Participation Across Ecological Levels
Gender differences in various approaches to child participation were significant on only two out of the four ecological levels tested. Independent samples t test showed higher participation in the family for girls (M =3.79, SD = 0.60) than for boys (M =3.69, SD = 0.58), t(1659) = −3.50, p <.001. The same was true for participation in school, where girls (M =2.76, SD = 0.62) reported higher levels of participation than boys (M =2.65, SD = 0.64), t(1659) = −3.50, p <.001. However, no significant differences were found between girls and boys regarding participation in the community (M =3.09, SD = 0.75; M =2.56, SD = 0.60, respectively) and at the civic-political levels (M =3.13, SD = 0.78; M =2.55, SD = 0.64, respectively); t(1645) = −0.771, p =0.44; t(1602) = 0.116, p =0.91, respectively.
Comparisons that were made of Jewish and Arab students by a series of independent samples t tests regarding their reported participation in various arenas of their lives showed mixed findings. On the one hand, the findings showed higher rates of participation in the family among Jewish students (M =3.96, SD = 0.50) than among Arab students (M =3.54, SD = 0.61), t(1644) = −14.80, p <.001. Jewish students (M =3.23, SD = 0.74) also reported more participation in their community than Arab students (M =2.99, SD = 0.76), t(1630) = −6.602, p <.001. However, Arab students reported more participation in school and in the civic-political arena (M =2.79, SD = 0.59; M =2.62, SD = 0.63, respectively) than Jewish students (M =2.63, SD = 0.66; M =2.48, SD = 0.59, respectively), as shown by independent samples t tests: t(1641) = 4.954, p <.001, t(1589) = 4.295, p <.001, respectively.
As presented in Table 1, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) shows a significant religion effect for reports of participation in the family, F(2, 1565) = 116.862, p <.001, at school, F(2, 1565) = 16.84, p <.001, in the community, F(2, 1565) = 31.91, p <.001, and in the civic-political sphere, F(2, 1565) = 9.99, p <.001. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that Jewish students (M =3.97, SD = 0.49) reported more participation in the family than Muslim (M =3.52, SD = 0.61) and Christian (M =3.71, SD = 0.53) students. Christian students reported significantly more participation in the family than Muslim students. Jewish students (M =3.25, SD = 0.75) and Christian students (M =3.28, SD = 0.72) reported more participation in the community than Muslim students (M =2.95, SD = 0.75).
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA): The Relationship Between Participation Indices and Religion
Jewish (n = 743)
Muslim (n = 709)
Christian (n = 116)
aMean score ranging from 1 = never to 5 = always. bMean score ranging from 1 = never to 4 = frequently.
Participation in the family a
F(2, 1565) = 116.86, p <0.001
Participation in school a
F(2, 1565) = 16.84, p <0.001
Participation in community a
F(2, 1565) = 31.91, p <0.001
Civic participation b
F(2, 1565) = 9.99, p <0.001
Regarding participation at school, Christian students (M =2.96, SD = 0.58) reported higher levels of participation than Muslim (M =2.77, SD = 0.58) and Jewish (M =2.64, SD = 0.67) students. Muslim students reported significantly more participation at school than Jewish students. Muslim (M =2.62, SD = 0.64) and Christian (M =2.64, SD = 0.61) students reported significantly higher levels of involvement in the political arena than Jewish students (M =2.48, SD = 0.59).
Multivariate analysis of variance was conducted to examine the links between the reports of the adolescents on each domain of participation and their perceived level of religiosity (Table 2). The findings reveal a significant religiosity effect for adolescents’ participation in the family, F(4, 1595) = 3.91, p <.01. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that adolescents who perceived themselves as secular (M =3.82, SD = 0.60) reported higher levels of participation in the family than students who defined themselves as sensitive to religion (M =3.71, SD = 0.59) or very religious (M =3.62, SD = 0.59). There was also a significant religiosity effect for participation at school, F(4, 1595) = 6.82, p <.001. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that adolescents who consider themselves to be atheists (M =3.16, SD = 0.82) reported higher levels of participation at school than those who defined themselves as very religious, religious, sensitive to religion, or secular (M =2.72, SD = 0.58; M =2.65, SD = 0.56; M =2.71, SD = 0.62; M =2.78, SD = 0.72, respectively). Post hoc comparisons showed that secular students reported greater participation at school than religious students. The religiosity effect on adolescents’ participation in the community and in the civic-political sphere was insignificant.
Table 2. Descriptive Statistics and Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA): The Relationship Between Participation Indices and Degree of Religiosity
Very religious (n = 104)
Religious (n = 362)
Sensitive to religion (n = 767)
Secular (n = 329)
Atheist (n = 38)
aMean score ranging from 1 = never to 5 = always. bMean score ranging from 1 = never to 4 = frequently.
Participation in the family a
F(4, 1595) = 4.15, p <0.01
Participation in school a
F(4, 1595) = 6.82, p <0.001
Participation in community a
F(4, 1595) = 1.02, p >.05
Civic participation b
F(4, 1595) = 0.66, p >.01
Comparisons of students from intact families (families with two biological parents) and single-parent families (mainly divorced parents), conducted by a series of independent samples t tests, showed mixed findings in their reports on participation at various ecological levels. On the one hand, the findings show higher rates of participation in the family among students from lone-parent families (M =3.83, SD = 0.62) than among students from intact families (M =3.73, SD = 0.60), t(1679) = 2.09, p <.005. Conversely, students from intact families (M =2.56, SD = 0.62) reported more civic participation than students from lone-parent families (M =2.41, SD = 0.60), t(1623) = −3.26, p <.01. There were insignificant links between family type and participation at school and in the community, t(1676) = 0.77, p >.05; t(1665) = 0.32, p >.05, respectively.
Spearman's correlation showed that adolescents from larger families reported less participation in the family (rs = −0.07, p <.01) than adolescents from smaller families. There were insignificant links between family size and participation at school, in the community, and in the political arena.
Perceived SES of the adolescent's family
Multivariate analysis of variance was conducted to examine the links between adolescents’ reports of participation in each domain and the perceived SES of their family (Table 3). The findings reveal a significant perceived SES effect for adolescent participation in the family, F(4, 852) = 4.05, p <.01. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that adolescents who perceived their family to have very good SES (M =3.67, SD = 0.55) reported higher levels of participation in the family than students who defined themselves as belonging to families of poor or very poor (M =3.40, SD = 0.62) or medium SES (M =3.48, SD = 0.65). There was also a significant perceived SES effect for participation in the community, F(4, 852) = 2.74, p <.01. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that adolescents who, according to their reports, come from families of very good SES (M =3.10, SD = 0.77) reported higher levels of participation in the community than those who defined themselves as coming from good SES families (M =2.89, SD = 0.73). There was also a perceived SES effect on civic participation, F(2, 852) = 2.46, p <.05. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons did not reveal any significant findings for this effect, however, indicating that the effect was minor. The perceived SES effect on adolescents’ participation at school was insignificant.
Table 3. Descriptive Statistics and Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA): The Relationship Between Participation Indices and Perceived Socio-economic Status
Poor or very poor (n = 71)
Medium (n = 200)
Good (n = 258)
Very good (n = 198)
Excellent (n = 130)
aMean score ranging from 1 = never to 5 = always. bMean score ranging from 1 = never to 4 = frequently.
Participation in the family a
F(4, 852) = 4.05, p <0.01
Participation in school a
F(4, 852) = 1.50, p >.05
Participation in community a
F(4, 852) = 2.74, p <0.05
Civic participation b
F(4, 852) = 2.46, p <0.05
Multivariate analysis of variance was conducted to examine the links between adolescents’ reports on levels of participation within each domain and father's education (Table 4). The findings reveal a significant father education effect for adolescent participation in the family, at school, in the community, and in the civic-political sphere, F(4, 1524) = 10.66, p <.001; F(4, 1524) = 3.57, p <.001; F(4, 1524) = 2.70, p <.05; F(4, 1524) = 4.35, p <.01, respectively. Post hoc Tukey-type comparisons showed that adolescents whose fathers were more educated generally reported higher levels of participation in all domains. In particular, adolescents whose fathers had not completed elementary school (M =3.50, SD = 0.56) reported less participation in the family than those whose fathers had an elementary school education (M =3.73, SD = 0.60), high school education (M =3.79, SD = 0.60), or secondary education (M =3.84, SD = 0.56). Students whose fathers had completed elementary school (M =2.62, SD = 0.67) reported less participation at school than those whose fathers had a high school education (M =2.76, SD = 0.60). Students whose fathers had some secondary education reported higher levels of civic participation (M =2.72, SD = 0.58) than those whose fathers had only partial elementary school education (M =2.43, SD = 0.57), complete elementary school education (M =2.52, SD = 0.61), or high school education (M =2.55, SD = 0.59). Post hoc comparisons regarding participation in the community did not yield any significant findings, indicating that the gaps between students whose fathers had different levels of education and participation in the community were minor.
Table 4. Descriptive Statistics and Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA): The Relationship Between Participation Indices and Father's Education
Up to partial elementary school (n = 88)
Elementary school (n = 273)
High school (n = 588)
Secondary education a (n = 410)
Academic first degree and above (n = 170)
aWithout an academic degree. bMean score ranging from 1 = never to 5 = always. cMean score ranging from 1 = never to 4 = frequently.
Participation in the family b
F(4, 1524) = 10.66, p <0.001
Participation in school b
F(4, 1524) = 3.57, p <0.01
Participation in community b
F(4, 1524) = 2.70, p < 0.05
Civic participation c
F(4, 1524) = 4.35, p <0.01
Table 5. Regression Analyses Explaining Participation Across Four Ecological Domains
Participation in the family: F(13, 1521) = 24.310, p <.001; participation at school: F(13, 1521) = 7.2111, p <.001; participation in the community: F(13, 1520) = 5.889, p <.001; participation in the political system: F(13, 1521) = 2.666, p <.001.
aDummy variable, reference group = Jewish students. bDummy variable, reference group = very religious. cDummy variable, reference group = Academic first degree and above.
Multivariate Regression Predicting Participation at Different Ecological Levels
Linear multivariate regression models were estimated to explain the level of participation of adolescents at different ecological levels (family, school, community, and the larger political system). In these models, the variable of national affiliation was excluded because of multicollinearity with religion and family size. In addition, for these models, we created three dummy variables: religion (reference group = Jewish students); religiosity (reference group = very religious students); and father's education (reference group = academic first degree and above). As shown in Table 5, these models were all found to be statistically significant (p < .01). The variables entered into the regression models explained about 16.5% of the variance between the adolescents in participation in the family, 5% of the variance among adolescents in participation at school, and a similar percentage in the community (4%). The variables explained only about 1.5% of the variance between adolescents in their participation in the political system.
First, personal characteristics of the adolescents were entered and then characteristics of their families. Gender was found to be a significant factor with regard to participation in the family and at school. Specifically, it was found that girls reported more participation in both domains than boys. Findings regarding religion are mixed. Jewish adolescents reported more participation in the family than Muslim and Christian adolescents. They also reported more participation in the community compared with their Muslim peers. However, Muslim teens reported more participation at school than Jewish adolescents, and both Muslim and Christian students reported more participation at the political system compared with their Jewish counterparts. After controlling for gender and religion, we examined the contribution of degree of religiosity to participation. In general, the findings show that very religious adolescents report lower levels of participation than adolescents who defined themselves as less religious. For example, it was found that adolescents who defined themselves as atheists reported more participation at school than very religious adolescents. Similarly, secular adolescents reported more participation in the family, and students who are religious or sensitive to religion showed a similar tendency, although this tendency did not reach statistical significance compared with religious or very religious adolescents (p =0.08). No differences were found regarding participation in the community and the political system. Adolescents from intact families reported more participation in the political system, and family size was negatively correlated with participation in the family. Finally, findings regarding father's education show, in general, that adolescents with father's higher academic education report higher levels of participation than adolescents with father's lower education rating. For example, adolescents with fathers who have up to partial elementary school education and those who have completed elementary education reported lower levels of participation in the family than those whose fathers have education of first academic degree and above. Similarly, adolescents whose fathers have up to partial elementary school education reported lower levels of participation in the political system. Adolescents whose fathers had elementary school education or high school education tended to report lower levels of participation in the political system, although those findings were only marginally significant (p =0.06, p =0.07, respectively).
The Interrelationship of Adolescent Participation at Different Ecological Levels
We tested for correlations between levels of participation in the various ecological levels (family, school, community, and civic-political) using a Pearson's correlation test. The findings showed that the more adolescents reported participation in the family, the more they reported participation in the community (r =.37, p <.01) and civic participation (r =.89, p <.01). There is also a weaker, although still significant, link between participation in the family and participation at school (r =.05, p <.05). Positive correlations were found between participation at school, participation in the community (r =.37, p <.01), and civic participation (r =.20, p <.01). A positive correlation was also found between civic participation and participation in the community (r =.19, p <.01).
One-way within-subjects repeated measures analysis of variance was conducted to examine possible differences in adolescents’ reports of participation at the various ecological levels. To be able to compare the four participation domains, the scales of family, school, and community were recoded into a 4-point scale to match the 4-point scale of civic-political participation. To produce those 4-point scales, the original categories of 4 (frequently) and 5 (always) were recoded into one category. The results revealed a significant participation effect, F(3, 4656) = 915.918, p <.001. Post hoc comparisons with Bonferroni correction showed (p <.05) that adolescents reported participation in the family more frequently (M =3.34, SD = 4.28) than participation at school (M =2.57, SD = 0.54), participation in the community (M =2.96, SD = 0.62), and civic participation (M =2.56, SD = 0.62). They also reported participation in the community more frequently than participation at school and civic participation.
Patterns of Participation at Different Ecological Levels by Gender and Nationality
To examine gender differences in the patterns of the four levels of participation, we conducted one-way mixed-model analysis of variance with repeated measures with gender as a between-subjects factor. The findings show a significant interaction effect between gender and participation, F(3, 4511) = 3.57, p <.05. As illustrated in Figure 2, the gap between boys’ participation (M =2.51, SD = 0.55) and girls’ participation (M =2.61, SD = 0.52) was larger for school participation than for family (M =3.31, SD = 0.41; M =3.37, SD = 0.43, respectively), community (M =2.96, SD = 0.61; M =2.96, SD = 0.63, respectively), and in the civic realm (M =2.56, SD = 0.60; M =2.55, SD = 0.64).
To examine differences at the four ecological levels between Arab and Jewish students, we conducted one-way mixed-model analysis of variance with repeated measures with nationality as a between-subjects factor. There was a significant interaction effect between nationality and participation, F(3, 4485) = 99.941, p <.001. As shown in Figure 3, there were larger gaps between the different participation domains among Jewish students than among Arab students.
Post hoc comparisons conducted by independent samples t tests comparing Jewish and Arab students in the mean difference score of each pair of domains show (as illustrated in Figure 3) that the gaps between family participation and participation at school, participation in the family and in the community, participation in the family and civic participation, participation at school and participation in the community, and between participation in the community and civic participation were greater among Jewish students (M =1.01, SD = 0.60; M =0.43, SD = 0.61; M =1.03, SD = 0.65; M =−0.59, SD = 0.65; M =0.60, SD = 0.77, respectively) than among Arab students (M =0.57, SD = 0.64; M =0.36, SD = 0.62; M =0.58, SD = 0.70; M =−0.20, SD = 0.63; M =0.22, SD = 0.75, respectively): t(1640) = −14.39, p <.001; t(1629) = −2.29, p <.05; t(1587) = −12.97, p <.001; t(1628) = 12.10, p <.001; t(1577) = −9.74, p <.001, respectively. The gap between participation at school and civic participation between Jewish students (M =0.02, SD = 0.71) and Arab students (M =0.02, SD = 0.72), t(1584) = 0.14, p >.05, was insignificant.
Our study corroborated other studies’ findings that adolescents understand the concepts of rights and participation. Furthermore, they understand them well enough to differentiate their meanings across various ecological levels, and thus in different settings and contexts. Our study particularly contributes to the small but growing literature on children's rights and participation by looking at adolescents in less Western and non-Christian cultures. We show the importance of understanding children's rights and participation as a global phenomenon, while distinguishing unique patterns affected by specific sociopolitical and cultural contexts—in our case, the Israeli context.
The global ratification of the CRC and various national and international treaties, declarations, and policy schemes contribute to the growing acknowledgment that children's participation is not only a legal obligation and moral requirement but also a policy goal. As a result, there needs to be greater understanding of children's and adolescents’ approaches to rights and participation.
This study emerged from our dissatisfaction with the theories and structures used to explain children's and adolescents’ approaches to rights and participation in the existing literature. None of the existing models employed a multidimensional, contextual, or cultural perspective. We offer an alternative perspective—a social–ecological one. Our study examines the usefulness of the alternative ecological perspective for understanding adolescents’ approach to participation.
To do this, we examined whether characteristics from different ecological circles were associated with young people's approaches to participation in different ecological spheres, whether their approaches at the different ecological levels are related, and whether there are specific patterns of participation at the different levels among boys and girls and among Jewish and Arab students.
Links Between Adolescents’ Characteristics and Their Approach to Participation
Our findings show that beyond some similarities whose meanings should be examined in future research, the current study found some interesting differences. Different characteristics from different ecological levels correlated significantly in various ways to adolescents’ approaches to participation. Indeed, a very complex picture emerged. Three characteristics (nationality, religion, and father's education) were significantly related to adolescents’ approach toward participation at all four levels, but only father's education was related in the same direction at all four levels. We found the association of the majority of the predictors to adolescent reports of participation in the different arenas to be differentiated. This supports our claim that to understand adolescents’ approach to participation, one must differentiate between the ecological levels.
A closer look at our findings further supports the use of an ecological approach. First, we found significant differences in both boys’ and girls’ levels of participation at the different levels (both groups showed lower levels of participation at the civic and school levels, higher levels of community participation, and much higher levels of participation in the family). Also, while the trend is the same across gender and while no significant differences were found regarding participation at the civic and community levels, girls reported significantly more participation at school and in the family than boys, which lends support to the claim that gender plays a role at the different ecological levels.
The family level characteristics are especially interesting. Earlier studies hint at the fact that children's relationship with their parents is related to their understating, support, and practice of rights (Calogirou & Malewska-Peyre, 1993). Our study looked at family size and structure to come to some conclusions about this relationship. Family size relates to adolescents’ approach to participation only regarding participation in the family. For example, adolescents from smaller families reported higher levels of participation. This might be explained by the fact that, in a smaller family, the adolescent's place is more secure (i.e., is not “threatened” by other siblings), and therefore, he or she is harder to ignore or deprive of his or her rights. Children from smaller families might also receive more attention, and their needs might be more closely considered and discussed than in larger families, where resources of time and money are more limited. Because this characteristic was not related to participation at the other levels, it might be that outside the family these adolescents “lose” their special status; there are many more children around, and they are not the focus of attention there, as they are within the family.
Our study found adolescents’ perception of their families’ SES to be positively related with their participation in the family, in the community, and to a lesser extent, at the political level. The only level not significantly linked with children's perception of SES was at school. These findings are in keeping with earlier studies claiming that children's economic status is related to their understating of rights (Daiute, 2008; Peterson-Badali & Ruck, 2011; Sherrod, 2008; Turiel, 2002). It also accords with other studies that argue that the ability of low-income youth to participate in after-school and social activities is constrained by other activities that are important in their context of living (Sherrod, 2008). What stood out for our study's purposes is the fact that this relation between SES and children's participation is apparent at all ecological levels except the school. Any effort to understand adolescents’ approach to participation without looking at all ecological levels will miss an important facet of children's life.
Father's level of education was found to be positively linked to adolescents’ approach to participation in various ecological domains. This pattern is similar to the link found between perceived SES and participation described earlier. These findings are also in keeping with earlier studies (Flanagan & Tucker, 1999; Sherrod, 2008). Indeed, it seems that the more educated parents are, the more likely they are to promote a sense of rights and freedoms in their children.
Earlier studies in Israel looked at the role of religion and nationality in children's and adolescents’ approach to rights and participation. They generally found that Jewish young people and adults reported more positive attitudes toward children's rights than Arab Palestinian groups, except in the case of political rights and participation (Ben-Arieh et al., 2006; Khoury-Kassabri & Ben-Arieh,2009). Our study revealed similar findings regarding participation in the family, the community, and at the civic-political level: Jewish adolescents participated more at the former two levels; Arab Palestinian adolescents more at the latter level. This can be partially explained by the different sociopolitical contexts that exist for Israeli Palestinian and Israeli Jewish youth. While Israeli Jewish children generally enjoy greater social and economic rights as members of the majority, Palestinian children are generally more subject to discrimination and are more disadvantaged economically and socially. It might be that, as a consequence of their status in Israeli society, Palestinian youth strive more for rights and emancipation, and therefore are more vigorous in their support of participation in the civic sphere than they are for rights in their families.
Our ecological approach enabled us to unveil the special situation at the school level where Arab adolescents showed higher levels of participation than their Jewish peers. Recently, greater attention is being paid to the potential effectiveness of citizenship education in schools, particularly as it pertains to human rights and, especially, participation rights (Torney-Purta, 2002). However, Israeli schools are not known for their rights curricula. An alternative explanation for the finding might be that Palestinian youth tend to support rights and participation in circles farther out from the family, thus remaining respectful of conservative family traditions while supporting other rights outside it. Further research should examine the possible mechanisms behind those links.
There were similar results regarding religion. It is important to examine the differences between the Muslim and Jewish children and equally important to examine those between Muslim and Christian children. Although both Arab-Christians and Arab-Muslims belong to the same ethnic or national group and share some of their traditional and collectivistic values, in Israel, the Arab-Muslim population is generally regarded as more traditional than the Arab-Christian population (Ben-Arieh & Haj-Yahia, 2006) and should, in theory, be less attuned to children's rights. The literature suggests that differing levels of paternalism in the different religions (Cherney & Shing, 2008) influence the approach toward rights and participation. For example, in a study in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Ben-Arieh & Khoury-Kassabri, 2008; Ben-Arieh et al., 2006; Khoury-Kassabri et al., 2006), religion was found to be correlated to children's approaches toward their rights, although only partially and somewhat weakly.
Our study also looked at adolescents’ degree of religiosity as a factor in their approach to rights and participation. Once again the findings differ across ecological levels, as religiosity is negatively related with participation in the family and at school and is not at all related to participation in the community and at the civic-political level. These findings and the overall scarcity of research in this area call for further investigation of the role of religion in children's perception of their rights.
It can be concluded that the diverse experiences associated with ethnic and religious group membership are important in forming adolescents’ approaches toward rights and participation. But any attempt to generalize its importance to all ecological levels of children's life is bound to fail. Instead, one should take into account that ethnic and religious group membership works in different ways at different ecological levels.
Approaches to Participation Across Various Ecological Levels
The core of social–ecological theory is that children's development is influenced by an array of factors from different ecological circles, and that there are interactions between the different ecological circles (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). We showed earlier that different factors from different ecological circles contribute to adolescents’ approaches to participation. We also looked at the relationships between adolescents’ approaches to participation in the different ecological circles.
The findings are clear. Adolescents’ approaches to participation at the different ecological levels are significantly and positively correlated. The findings also show that the highest levels of adolescent participation were in the family, followed by participation in the community, followed by participation at school and at the political level (the latter two were almost equal).
These findings accord with claims that children's rights have greatest significance in the children's immediate vicinity (Melton, 2005). Thus, participation is most important for children in their inner ecological circles. From a policy perspective, encouraging children's participation in smaller, closer institutions such as in the family and at school would be an effective way to foster their civic and political participation.
Patterns of Participation Across Gender and Nationality
Our ecological approach includes an analysis of patterns of participation at different ecological levels among different groups. We found significant interaction effects between gender, nationality, and participation at the different levels.
We found that girls’ support for rights and participation is equal to or greater than that of boys. A simple conclusion might be that girls have a personal interest in rights for females, which leads them to be more interested in rights overall. However, that might be somewhat artificial, as the role of gender differs across ecological levels. For example, it is significant in the community and at the civic-political level but nonsignificant in the family and at the school level. Even at the two levels where gender was found to be significant, the gap differed across ecological levels. This reveals the importance of examining child participation from an ecological perspective.
The findings are stronger regarding nationality. While the overall pattern of participation across levels was similar, the differences in the approach to participation among Jewish adolescents were greater than among their Palestinian counterparts. This might be explained by the heterogenic composition of the Jewish population, which includes families of diverse religious orthodoxy, national heritage, and immigration history (Slonim-Nevo, Sharaga, & Mirsky, 1999).
In fact, the differences are so evident that any claim to understand the role of nationality in the approach to participation not through an ecological perspective seems almost useless. The fact that in different domains different national groups showed greater participation underlines the need for an ecological perspective rather than a general cultural or national approach.
Limitations and Implications for Future Research
The current study is one of the few to examine adolescents’ participation from a multidimensional perspective based on their own point of view. However, the results should be understood within the caveats of the study itself. The small amount of variance, especially of political participation, accounted for by the explanatory variables calls for caution when relying on the study's findings. In addition, the measures included in the current study were designed specifically for the study based on relevant literature, as there were no suitable measures available in existing literature. The internal reliability of the constructs was found adequate as detailed in the article. The majority of constructs were used in various studies in Israel (Ben-Arieh & Khoury-Kassabri, 2008; Khoury-Kassabri & Ben-Arieh, 2009) and proved to have high internal reliability and many meaningful relationships to a range of relevant indices. Nonetheless, other reliability examinations and validity tests to examine the psychometric properties of the measures were not conducted. Examination of those properties should be conducted in future research.
Children's rights and participation are becoming the norm in most countries around the world. To foster these rights, it is crucial to examine children's own understanding and practice of them. Our study contributes to the growing evidence that children understand the concepts of rights and participation. In fact, they understand them well enough to differentiate across contexts, ecological circles of life, and types of rights. Our study makes a unique contribution as it examines non-Christian, less Western adolescents.
The development of children's approaches to rights and participation cannot be seen merely as a stage-like, developmental process or from a cultural or contextual perspective alone. Our study supports earlier studies showing the importance of both developmental and contextual or cultural factors. Yet, its main contribution is in putting all these factors into an ecological framework. This is critical, as children's approaches to rights and participation relate to various sociodemographic variables differently across the ecological levels.
If fostering children's rights is to be a goal of society, then society needs to better understand young people's perspectives and approaches to those concepts. Employing an ecological framework to our efforts to understand them is a first step in the right direction. Much more research is needed to make sure we continue to walk in the right direction.