Meet Lisa Skiöld, Children's Ombudsperson, Uppsala, Sweden


Barnombudet i Uppsala, BOiU “Uppsala County Ombudsperson for Children, UCOC”, is an independent, not-for-profit organization working for the implementation of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child on the local level. An important part of their work is to empower children and support their ability to influence their own lives and society.

As part of the preparations for Uppsala Health Summit, Healthy Urban Childhoods, UCOC will run a set of dialogues with children and adolescents. The purpose is two-fold: to give Uppsala Health Summit’s programme committee a better and updated insight in what children and adolescents consider important for their well-being; and to inspire the discussions at Uppsala Health Summit in October 2019.

Three dialogues will take place in April – with children in pre-school, i.e. 4 – 5 years old; with school children 10 – 12 years old and with a group of young immigrant adults, 18 – 24 years.

Ms Lisa Skiöld is Ombudsperson for Children in Uppsala, and chairman of the Child Welfare Council, and has a long experience of running dialogues with young people on different issues.

What is your experience of engaging children in discussion on societal issues, like urban planning?

- Many adults think that children don’t take an active interest in engaging in these discussions, and often underestimate the their capacity to understand issues around urban planning. To their surprise, if the adults participate in these dialogues, children are both knowledgeable and engaged, and contribute with valuable information.

The majority of the children we work with in these dialogues are aged between 10 and 15. They have strong and well-articulated opinions on many societal questions.

A basic right and a quality insurance

Why should children be involved in decisions regarding their urban environment? It takes time, and we already know a lot about children’s needs.

- In addition to their right to say what they think, and to have their opinions taken into account, there are two strong reasons why we should listen to children in an organized way:

First, their input will add to the quality of the urban projects we plan. Even if we are familiar with children’s basic needs, it is only they themselves who can describe how to best meet those needs. There are, unfortunately, numerous examples of projects planned for children, but never used by children. It’s such a waste of resources! We also have experience of situations where adults miss basic needs such as safety, or the feeling of safety, because they do not share the same perspective. Sometimes literally, because of difference in height.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this is a matter of building trust, of children’s lasting trust in society. The widespread resignation among adolescents today, at least in Sweden, who feel their voices are not heard, is a grave concern. We must show, in practice that you can influence society, that children and adolescents are part of this society and that their voices count, also before they are allowed to vote, and also between elections.

So, the long-term trust we build with these dialogues is an important argument for investing time to listen to children, Lisa Skiöld concludes.

The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child is to be incorporated into Swedish law next year, in 2020. What does this mean in practice?

– This will most probably influence a number of decision-making processes, including those governing urban planning, Lisa continues. – You will presumably have to show how children’s rights and needs have been catered for when preparing decisions. Of course, also in the future, decisions will reflect a number of sometimes contradictory needs. But if you cannot show that you have at least listened to children, and together with the needs of children also estimated what is the best interest of the child, and tried to incorporate these aspects, you might run into serious problems.

Listen to the kids!

Is it complicated to run this kind of dialogues?

–  No! Lisa Skiöld laughs. Most of us know and talk to children from time to time. Listen to them! In fact, when you do sit down and describe why you need their input, they will help. Most children are also happy to ask if there is something they don’t understand.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind, if you want to build trust and respect.

  • Be specific about what kind of dialogue you ask for, and what level of influence the children will have in this particular process. Is this a dialogue to inform children, or is it one where their views will have a strong influence on decisions?

  • Be specific about who asks the questions, who needs their information and knowledge.

  • Suggest a plan for giving feed-back to the children, both when this should take place and how, and let the children influence this plan too.

– When preparing the dialogues for Uppsala Health Summit, Lisa continues, we have also seen the advantages of running so called “informed dialogues”, i.e. conversations where we begin with sharing information with the children about their basic needs for physical and mental health.

– Finally, and most importantly, you must carefully listen to what the children say to you! Make sure you have back-up of adults in the group who pay attention and take careful notes of their suggestions. And to deepen the dialogue, be prepared to follow up on their answers and comments.

–  We have noticed an increase in digital tools developed to catch childrens’ views. These apps may be useful in some circumstances, e.g. if you have a short, precise question that you want to pose to a large number of children. But when children are approached via apps and other digital tools, they will not meet and discuss with adults. And the adults will not meet and discuss with the children. Nuances, the feeling for how important one issue is compared to another, are aspects we lose as well as the possibility to follow up with additional questions.

Invest in having listening adults present, active listeners, rather than in fancy materials and tools, is Lisa Skiöld’s recommendation.

Invest in child-friendliness!

The Ombudsperson of Children in Uppsala have collaborated with the municipality of Uppsala’s planning office for some time, and Lisa Skiöld sees a positive change in methods and attitudes.

– A real change in practice requires that politicians are prepared to translate visionary child-friendly strategies into practical guidelines, e.g. into the documents that urban planners must refer to in their daily work. A child-friendly vision must allow for higher urban development costs, says Lisa, and be able to treat them as costs for investments in social sustainability.

 What are your expectations for Uppsala Health Summit in October?

– There is so much knowledge at hand today on how to plan and develop our society for children to grow up as healthy individuals, in all aspects. Now we must make sure this knowledge comes into practice. I do hope we will meet with decision makers from different sectors, notably politicians and real estate developers to share ideas on how to implement our knowledge on the value of child-friendly urban areas, and how to develop them. Investing in prevention is a way to save resources for our future, and the different sustainability perspectives are tightly linked with each other. These insights are important to share and to build the dialogue upon.