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Most people in American society resist associating the words children and death in a single phrase. They do not wish to contemplate the possibility that children may encounter death-related events either in their own lives or in the lives of others. As a result, they try not to think about the actual realities implied by the phrase "children and death" and they attempt to shield children from contact with or knowledge of such realities.

Although this effort at "misguided protectionism" is usually well meant, it is unlikely in most instances to be either successful or helpful. To explain why this is true, this entry explores how death and death-related events impinge on the lives of children and what their significance is for such lives. In addition, this entry considers the elements of a constructive, proactive program that helps children in their interactions with death and death-related events.

Children as Harbingers of the Future and Repositories of Hope

For many people in American society, children represent ongoing life and the promise of the future. In them, many hopes and ambitions are embodied. They foreshadow what is yet to come and act as a pledge of its surety. In a special way for females, they enter into life by emerging from their mothers' bodies. In addition, human children are vulnerable in special ways and for an unusually prolonged period of time. They call upon their adult caregivers to care for them. Their presence in adult lives is, more often than not, a source of pride and delight. As they grow and mature, children become their own persons and their parents' companions. In some cases, eventually they become caregivers of the adults who raised them. All these descriptions are true for one's natural children, as well as for those who are adopted or are foster children, and even when the latter are of a different ethnicity or culture.

Children, Adolescents, and Normative Development

In the 1950s the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson proposed that there are four major eras (sometimes called "ages," "periods," or "stages") in the lives of children and an additional one for adolescents (see Table 1). His depiction of childhood has been highly influential to other developmental psychologists and scholars, although it is no longer universally accepted. Moreover, subsequent scholarship has sought to distinguish between three subperiods within adolescence. Still, a broad Eriksonian framework helps to draw attention to prominent aspects of physical, psychological, and social development in humans during childhood and adolescence, although it may not comment on spiritual development. Within limits, it can be useful as a general background for an overview of death in childhood and adolescence.

Erikson's model seeks to describe the normal and healthy development of an individual ego. It proposes that a predominant psychosocial issue or central conflict characterizes each era in human development. This is expressed as a struggle between a pair of alternative orientations, opposed tendencies, or attitudes toward life, the self, and other people. Successful resolution of each developmental struggle results in a leading virtue, a particular strength or quality of ego functioning. For Erikson, the task work in these developmental struggles is associated with normative life events, those that are expected to occur at a certain time, in a certain relationship to other life events, with predictability, and to most if not all of the members of a developmental group or cohort. This developmental framework is only roughly correlated with chronological age. Further, it might not apply at all or might only have limited relevance to individuals within different familial, cultural, and societal groups, and it might only apply uniformly to members of both genders when males and females are given equal options in life.

The importance of Erikson's work is the contrast between normative developmental events, however they may be described, and death-related events, primarily because most death-related events are nonnormative. They are unexpected or unforeseen events that occur atypically or unpredictably, with no apparent relationship to other life events, and to some but not all members of a developmental cohort. Still, nonnormative life events occur in a context of normative developmental events and each can influence the other in significant ways.

Both normative and nonnormative life events and transitions are life crises or turning points. They present "dangerous opportunities" that offer occasions for growth and maturation if an individual copes with them effectively, but also the potential for psychological harm and distorted or unsatisfactory development if the coping response is inappropriate or inadequate. Accordingly, the way in which a child or adolescent resolves the issue that dominates a particular era in his or her development and thereby does or does not establish its corresponding ego quality or virtue is likely to be relatively persistent or enduring throughout his or her life.

With respect to adolescence, various scholars have offered a fine-tuned account that distinguishes between three developmental subperiods, along with their predominant issues and corresponding virtues:

  • Early adolescence : separation (abandonment) versus reunion (safety); leading to a sense of emotional separation from dependency on parents
  • Middle adolescence : independence or autonomy versus dependence; leading to a sense of competency, mastery, and control
  • Late adolescence : closeness versus distance; leading to a sense of intimacy and commitment.

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget looked at child development in a different way by focusing on processes involved in cognitive development during childhood. His work and later research on the development of death-related concepts in both childhood and adolescence is groundbreaking to the field of developmental psychology.

The various schemas all relay the fact that children and adolescents may encounter the deaths of others and even their own deaths. These and all other death-related events will be experienced within the ongoing processes of their own individual maturation. As the psychologist and gerontologist Robert Kastenbaum wrote in his article "Death and Development through the Life span": "Death is one of the central themes in human development throughout the life span. Death is not just our destination; it is a part of our 'getting there' as well" (Kastenbaum 1977, p. 43). Death-related events can affect human development during childhood and adolescence. Equally so, cognitive, psychological, biological, behavioral, social, and spiritual aspects

Principal developmental eras during childhood and adolescence in the human life cycle
Era Approximate Age Predominant Issue Virtue
Infancy Birth through 12 to 18 months Basic trust vs. mistrust Hope
Toddlerhood Infancy to 3 years of age Autonomy vs. shame and doubt Will or self-control
Early childhood, sometimes called "play age" or the "preschool period" 3 to 6 years of age Initiative vs. guilt Purpose or direction
Middle childhood, sometimes called "school age" or the "latency period" 6 years to puberty Industry vs. inferiority Competency
Adolescence Puberty to about 21 or 22 years of age Identity vs. role confusion Fidelity
Note: All chronological ages are approximate.
SOURCE: Adapted from Erikson, 1963, 1968.

of that development, along with life experiences and communications from the environment that surround children and adolescents, will all be influential in how they cope with intrusions into their lives by death. According to Kastenbaum, adults who help children and adolescents in this coping work need to be sensitive to the developmental context and the individual perspective of each child or adolescent in order to be successful.

Encounters with Death during Childhood and Adolescence

"'The kingdom where nobody dies,' as Edna St. Vincent Millay once described childhood, is the fantasy of grown-ups" (Kastenbaum 1973, p. 37). In fact, children and adolescents do die, and all young people can be and are affected by the dying and deaths of others around them.

The most dangerous time for children themselves is prior to birth (where they face the implications of miscarriage, stillbirth, and spontaneous or elective abortion), at birth (with all its risks of perinatal death), immediately after birth (with the potential perils of neonatal death), and during the first year of life. The best data available are for infant mortality. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicated that a total of 27,953 infants died in the United States during 1999. This figure represents 7.1 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, the lowest rate ever recorded for the United States.

More than twenty other countries with a population of at least 2.5 million have lower infant mortality rates than those in the United States. Moreover, it is also true that infant mortality rates in the United States are nearly 2.4 times higher for African Americans (8,832 deaths or 14.2 per 1,000 live births) than those for non-Hispanic Caucasian Americans (13,555 deaths or 5.8 per 1,000) and Hispanic Americans (4,416 deaths or 5.8 per 1,000).

Congenital malformations, disorders related to short gestation and low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and maternal complications of pregnancy caused just under one-half (49.6%) of all infant deaths in the United States in 1999. There was a decline from 1988 to 1999 of 53.4 percent in the rate of SIDS deaths (from 140.1 to 65.3 per 100,000 live births). However, SIDS still remains the leading cause of death for infants between one month and one year of age, accounting for 28 percent of all deaths during that period.

Overall data on deaths and death rates during childhood and adolescence in the United States in 1999 are provided in Table 2, along with more specific data by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. (Note that racial and cultural categories overlap in the data presented in this table; thus, totals for all races are not identical with the sum of each subordinate category.) From Table 2 one can see that the largest numbers of deaths take place in infancy or the first year of life in childhood and in middle to late adolescence. In every age, racial, and cultural category, more males die than females, especially during middle and late adolescence. And in every age and gender category, death rates for African-American children are notably higher than those for non-Hispanic Caucasian Americans and Hispanic Americans. Death rates among Native-American children are typically lower than those for African-American children, but higher than for children in other racial and cultural groupswith the exception of fifteen- to twenty-four-year-old Native-American females who have the highest death rate in their age group. Death rates for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are uniformly lower than those for all other racial and cultural groups.

The leading cause of death in all children from one year of age through adolescence is accidents.

Deaths and death rates (per 100,000) in the specified population group by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin, United States, 1999
  Under 1 Year a 14 Years 514 Years 1524 Years
  Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females
All races 27,953 15,656 12,297 5,250 2,976 2,274 7,595 4,492 3,103 30,664 22,419 8,245
Non-Hispanic Caucasian Americans 13,555 7,722 5,833 2,820 1,606 1,214 4,488 2,643 1,845 17,869 12,678 5,191
African Americansb 8,832 4,899 3,933 1,309 745 564 1,789 1,096 693 7,065 5,350 1,715
Hispanic Americansc 4,416 2,411 2,005 883 482 401 1,014 592 422 4,509 3,549 960
Asian Americans & Pacific Islandersb 708 375 333 167 97 70 207 112 95 699 467 232
Native Americansb 344 180 164 82 48 34 105 55 50 540 396 144
  Under 1 Year a 14 Years 514 Years 1524 Years
  Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females Both Sexes Males Females
All races 731.8 802.0 648.4 34.7 38.5 30.8 19.2 22.2 16.1 81.2 116.0 44.7
Non-Hispanic Caucasian Americans 572.7 636.8 505.4 29.7 33.0 26.2 17.5 20.1 14.8 71.4 98.7 42.6
African Americansb 1,552.8 1,694.6 1,406.2 58.8 65.9 51.4 28.7 34.6 22.6 123.1 185.7 60.0
Hispanic Americansc 612.0 655.3 567.0 32.2 34.4 29.8 16.9 19.4 14.4 82.4 125.0 36.5
Asian Americans & Pacific Islandersb 390.3 406.6 373.4 23.2 26.6 19.7 12.2 12.8 11.5 44.0 58.7 29.2
Native Americansb 808.6 839.5 777.3 51.4 59.4 43.1 22.4 23.1 21.7 125.9 183.5 67.5
a Death rates are based on population estimates; they differ from infant mortality rates, which are based on live births.
b Race and Hispanic origin are reported separately on death certificates. Data for persons of Hispanic origin are included in the data for each race group (unless otherwise specified), according to the decedent's reported race.
c Includes all persons of Hispanic origin of any race.
SOURCE : Adapted from Kochanek, Smith, and Anderson, 2001.

In children from one to four years of age, the second, third, and fourth leading causes of death are congenital malformations, cancer, and homicide. In children from five to fourteen years of age, the second, third, and fourth leading causes of death are cancer, homicide, and congenital malformations. In adolescents from fifteen to twenty-four years of age, the second and third leading causes of death are homicide and suicide, followed at some distance by cancer and heart disease.

Children encounter the deaths of others that are significant in their lives. Such deaths include those of grandparents or parents, siblings or peers, friends or neighbors, teachers and other school personnel, and pets or wild animals. Many adults undervalue the prevalence and importance of such deaths for children. However these experiences of childhood and adolescence can have immediate impact and long-term significance. Some prominent examples include the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, the countless instances of fantasized deaths and violence that children witness on television at an early age, and the many children who are members of families in which someone has died or is dying of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Children's Efforts to Understand Death

Children and adolescents are curious about the world around them. When death-related events intrude into their lives, they strive to understand them. Many factors affect such strivings, such as the intellectual capacities of the child, his or her life experiences, what society at large and adults around the child might say about the events, and the child's personality. Children's efforts to understand death may not always lead to thinking about death in the ways that adults do. It is incorrect to conclude from the way children respond to death that children have no concept of death or are never interested in the subject. To claim that "the child is so recently of the quick that there is little need in his spring-green world for an understanding of the dead" (Ross 1967, p. 250) is to be unfamiliar with the lives of children or to betray a personal difficulty in coping with death and a projection of those anxieties onto children. In reality children do try to make sense of death as they encounter it in their lives. According to Charles Corr, an educator who has written widely about issues related to children and death, such strivings should be aided by open communication and effective support from adults who love the child.

Expressions of Death-Related Attitudes in Games, Stories, and Literature for Children

Play is the main work of a child's life, and many childhood games are related to death. For example, little boys often stage car crashes or other scenes of violent destruction that they can manipulate and observe from a safe psychic distance, while little girls sometimes act out the ritual of a funeral or compare the deep sleep of a doll to death. Adah Maurer described peek-a-boo as a game in which the entire world (except, of course, the participating child) suddenly vanishes (is whisked away from the child's life) only to reappear subsequently in an act of instantaneous resurrection or rebirth. There is also the song in which "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out," the lullaby "Rock-a-Bye Baby" that sings about the bough breaking and the cradle falling, and the child's prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep," which petitions for safekeeping against death and other hazards of the night.

Similarly, children's oral and written fairy tales offer many examples of death-related events. For example, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are eaten by the wicked wolf in the original version of the story, not saved by a passing woodsman or hunter. The Big Bad Wolf in the "Three Little Pigs" died in a scalding pot of hot water when the wolf fell down the last chimney. And while Hansel and Gretel escaped being shut up in a hot oven, the wicked witch did not.

There is a very large body of literature for children and adolescents that offers stories with death-related themes or seeks to explain death to young readers. Books range from simple picture books about children who find and bury a dead bird in the woods to more detailed stories that relay experiences involving the death of a beloved grandparent or pet, parent, sibling, or peer.

Children Who Are Coping with Life-Threatening Illnesses and Dying

Children with a life-threatening illness experience changes in their daily routines, acquire new information about their illnesses and themselves, and find themselves confronted with unexpected challenges. Many are anxious about those experiences, most need information that they can understand, and all need support as they make efforts to cope. In 1997 Michael Stevens, an Australian pediatric oncologist, suggested that the emotional needs of dying children include those of all children regardless of health, those that arise from the child's reaction to illness and admission to a hospital, and those that have to do with the child's concept of death. One twelve-year-old girl infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) wrote: "Living with HIV and knowing that you can die from it is scary. . . . I think it is hardest in this order: Not knowing when this will happen. . . . Not knowing where it will happen. . . . Worrying about my family. . . . What will happen to my stuff and my room? . . . Thinking about what my friends will think" (Wiener, Best, and Pizzo 1994, p. 24).

Children Who Are Coping with Loss and Grief

Three central issues likely to be prominent in the experiences of bereaved children are: Did I cause the death?; Is it going to happen to me?; and Who is going to take care of me? These issues of causality, vulnerability, and safety cry out for clear explanations and support. In response, in 1988 Sandra Fox identified four tasks that are central to productive mourning for children: (1) to understand and try to make sense out of what is happening or has happened; (2) to express emotional and other strong responses to the present or anticipated loss; (3) to commemorate the life that has been lost through some formal or informal remembrance; and (4) to learn how to go on with living and loving.

When confronted with a death-related event, adults often try to block children's efforts to acquire information, express their feelings, obtain support, and learn to cope with sadness and loss. According to Charles Corr, this strategy cannot be helpful to a child in the long run because its effect is to abandon a child and its major lesson is that the child should not bring difficult issues to such an adult. By contrast, emotionally sensitive adults anticipate that sooner or later children need to turn to someone for help with death and loss. On that basis, they can try to prepare themselves for such moments, strive to ensure that they are responding to a child's real needs, try to communicate clearly and effectively, and work cooperatively with children, other adults, and relevant resources in society. This leads to a proactive program of helping that involves three elements: education, communication, and validation.

Experts note a good way to begin is with education; for example, by teaching children about death and loss in relatively safe encounters and by exploiting "teachable moments" for the insights they can offer and the dialogue they can stimulate. Next, one can turn to effective communication by asking three questions:

  1. What does a child need to know?
  2. What does a child want to know?
  3. What can a child understand?

Euphemisms and inconsistent or incomplete answers are not desirable because they easily lead to misunderstandings that may be more disturbing than the real facts. Honesty is dependable and encourages trust, the basis of all comforting relationships. So it is better to admit what you do not know than to make up explanations you really do not believe.

A third element of a proactive program is validation. Validation applies to children's questions, concepts, language, and feelings. It involves acknowledging these things in a nonjudgmental way and helping the child to name or articulate them so as to have power over them.

The advantages of a proactive program of education, communication, and validation can be seen in the examples of children who take part in funeral rituals and in support groups for the bereaved. Many adults in American society exclude children from funeral rituals, feeling that children might not be able to cope with such experiences and might be harmed by them. In fact, research has shown that taking part in funeral planning and funeral ritual in appropriate waysnot being forced to participate, being prepared ahead of time, given support during the event, and offered follow-up afterwardcan help children with their grief work. Similarly, being given opportunities to interact and share experiences with others who are bereaved in the protected environment of a support group can help children and adolescents come to understand and learn to cope with death and grief.

Adult Children

One other sense in which the term "children" can be and is used in connection with death-related experiences has to do with adults who remain the children of their older, living parents. As average life expectancy increases in American society, growing numbers of middle-aged and elderly adults are alive when their children become adults. Indeed, some of the oldest members of American society, including the so-called old-old who are more than eighty-five or even one hundred years of age, may find themselves with living children who are also elderly adults.

Death-related events are relevant to these population groups in many ways. Among these, two stand out. First, when an adult child dies that may constitute a particular tragedy for a surviving parent. For example, the adult child may have been the primary care provider for the parent in his or her home, the only person to visit that parent in a long-term care facility, the individual who took care of practical matters such as handling finances or filling out tax forms for the parent, or the sole survivor from among the parent's family members, peers, and offspring. In these and other situations, the death of an adult child may impact the surviving parent in myriad ways, invoking losses and challenges in forms that had not hitherto been faced.

Second, the death of a parent at an advanced age who is survived by an adult child has its own spectrum of ramifications. Deaths of family members (especially parents) from an earlier generation often exert a "generational push" on younger survivors. These younger survivors, especially adult children, are now no longer "protected" in their own minds by their perceptions of the "natural order" of things. Previously, death may have seemed to them to be less of a personal threat as long as their parents and other members of an older generation remained alive. Now the adult children themselves are the members of the "oldest" generation. These adult children may be relieved of care giving responsibilities and other burdens that they had borne when their parents were alive, but new and often highly personalized challenges frequently arise for these adult children in their new roles as bereaved survivors.

See also: Children and Adolescents' Understanding of Death; Children and Media Violence; Literature for Children; Suicide over the Life Span: Children


Balk, David E., and Charles A. Corr. "Adolescents, Developmental Tasks, and Encounters with Death and Bereavement." In Handbook of Adolescent Death and Bereavement. New York: Springer, 1996.

Blos, Peter. The Adolescent Passage: Developmental Issues. New York: International Universities Press, 1979.

Corr, Charles A. "Using Books to Help Children and Adolescents Cope with Death: Guidelines and Bibliography." In Kenneth J. Doka ed., Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America, 2000.

Corr, Charles A. "What Do We Know About Grieving Children and Adolescents?" In Kenneth J. Doka ed., Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America, 2000.

Corr, Charles A. "Children and Questions About Death." In Stephen Strack ed., Death and the Quest for Meaning: Essays in Honor of Herman Feifel. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.

Corr, Charles A. "Children's Understandings of Death: Striving to Understand Death." In Kenneth J. Doka ed., Children Mourning, Mourning Children. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America, 1995.

Corr, Charles A. "Children's Literature on Death." In Ann Armstrong-Dailey and Sarah Z. Goltzer eds., Hospice Care for Children. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society, 2nd edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. London: Faber & Faber, 1968.

Fleming, Stephen J., and Reba Adolph. "Helping Bereaved Adolescents: Needs and Responses." In Charles A. Corr and Joan N. McNeil eds., Adolescence and Death. New York: Springer, 1986.

Fox, Sandra S. Good Grief: Helping Groups of Children When a Friend Dies. Boston: New England Association for the Education of Young Children, 1988.

Kastenbaum, Robert. "Death and Development Through the Life Span." In Herman Feifel ed., New Meanings of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.

Kastenbaum, Robert. "The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies." Saturday Review 56 (January 1973):3338.

Kochanek, Kenneth D., Betty L. Smith, and Robert N. Anderson. "Deaths: Preliminary Data for 1999." National Vital Statistics Reports 49 (3). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2001.

Metzgar, Margaret M., and Barbara C. Zick. "Building the Foundation: Preparation Before a Trauma." In Charles A. Corr and Donna M. Corr eds., Handbook of Childhood Death and Bereavement. New York: Springer, 1996.

Papalia, Diane E., S. W. Olds, and R. D. Feldman. Human Development, 8th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Papalia, Diane E., S. W. Olds, and R. D. Feldman. A Child's World: Infancy through Adolescence, 8th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Ross, Eulalie S. "Children's Books Relating to Death: A Discussion." In Earl A. Grollman ed., Explaining Death to Children. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Silverman, Phyllis R., and J. William Worden. "Children's Understanding of Funeral Ritual." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 25 (1992):319331.

Stevens, Michael M. "Psychological Adaptation of the Dying Child." In Derek Doyle, Geoffrey W. C. Hanks, and Neil MacDonald eds., Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wiener, Lori S., Aprille Best, and Philip A. Pizzo comps., Be a Friend: Children Who Live with HIV Speak. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 1994.


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Although seemingly intuitive, the meaning of the term children depends on the context. From a strict biological perspective, the term children refers to the offspring of a female and male who have mated. However, the term need not refer only to biological offspring, as it also applies to socially defined categories of children including stepchildren, adopted children, and foster children. By law, one is considered a minor until the age of eighteen. However, the law distinguishes children from minors in general. According to the law, a child under the age of fourteen is a child of tender age . The term juvenile is used to categorize individuals between fourteen and seventeen years of age, thus distinguishing juveniles from children.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) sets forth the universal human rights of children: the right to survival; the right to develop to the fullest; the right to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and the right to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the convention are: non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and the right to participation.

Although these meanings are valid, the meaning of the term children extends beyond the concrete terms imposed by legal and biological reality. From a developmental standpoint, the term can be used to describe individuals from infancy through preadolescence (before puberty), thus including the following periods of human development: infancy, early childhood, and middle childhood. Children undergo significant biological, cognitive, and social changes during each of these stages.

Growth during infancy is characterized by rapid changes in height and weight. Children are born with reflexes such as those that enable them to suck and turn their heads. They are also sensitive and responsive to the facial features and vocalizations of others, particularly their primary caregivers. By twelve to eighteen months of age, children are able to share attention between a person and an object, known as joint attention, and they use words and gestures such as pointing to communicate. Children also transition through the stages of locomotion, from crawling to independent upright walking and their early fine motor skills develop. Social interactions initially emerge in dyadic turn-taking bouts between caregiver and child and features of temperament (personality) also emerge. By age two, children are able to recognize their reflections (self) in a mirror, combine words to communicate, search for hidden objects, and manipulate objects during play. Early experiences in infancy set the stage for childrens later growth and development. Developmental outcomes during this period are strongly influenced by both nature (genetic influences) and nurture (environmental influences) and risk susceptibility.

Ages two to five mark the early childhood/preschool age period of childrens development. By age three, although childrens body weight is only 20 percent of its adult size, childrens brain size is 80 percent of its adult size. By age five, childrens lexicon contains approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words and the syntactic complexity of their language increases significantly. Further developments in childrens self-concept and increased narrative skills facilitate childrens ability to form and share information about past events (autobiographical memory). Problem-solving skills involving planning and the use of strategies also emerge. Between ages three and five, childrens ability to distinguish their thoughts and beliefs from others, known as theory of mind, develops. Young childrens egocentrism affects their view of the world, themselves, and others and is reflected in their inability to effectively coordinate their actions with their peers in play contexts. Play during the early childhood years is parallel in nature, defined as two or more children engaged in related activities in close physical proximity to each other. Although parents actively structure and facilitate the social lives and experiences of their children during this period, peers also serve as influential forces.

The hallmark of the middle childhood period is the transition to formal schooling. Although many children attend daycare and/or preschool during the early childhood period, the first day of school marks a cultural passage around the world. Childrens physical growth is slow, yet consistent during this period. Between ages five and seven, childrens thought shifts from egocentric to concrete operational thoughtchildren are now capable of abstract thinking and understanding and interpreting the thoughts and beliefs of others. Executive functioning capacities, including their conscious ability to control and inhibit their actions, as well as problem-solving, reasoning, working memory, and attention further develop. The peer group becomes increasingly important, as children spend more than 40 percent of their day with peers. Children are labeled by their peers; categories such as popular and rejected emerge, as well as the consequences of such social status labels. The development of the self-concept in relation to self-esteem and self-competence as well as moral understanding and beliefs also play integral roles during this period. From a developmental perspective, childhood ends with the onset of puberty.

In addition to legal, biological, social, and developmental definitions of children, one must also consider the impact of the sociohistorical and sociocultural context in which children develop. Children learn by actively participating in cultural activities that promote their growth. Opportunities to learn are embedded in activities at play, school, and work contexts. However, the opportunities afforded to children vary as a function of their cultural upbringing, including the social and economic status of their community and the belief systems regarding their participation in cultural activities.

Children are the product of complex interactions between their genes and the environments in which their development is nested, including, but not limited to, family, school, and community contexts, and the broader cultural belief systems espoused by their nation. Childrens experiences and outcomes set the stage for their future development and adjustment in the next stages of human development: adolescence and adulthood.

SEE ALSO Attachment Theory; Child Behavior Checklist; Child Development; Development; Developmental Psychology; Family; Family Structure; Parent-Child Relationships; Self-Awareness Theory; Stages of Development


Berk, L. E. 2006. Child Development. 7th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cole, M., S. R. Cole, and C. Lightfoot. 2005. The Development of Children. 5th ed. New York: Worth Publishers.

UNICEF. 1989. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Vasta, R., S. A. Miller, and S. Ellis. 2003. Child Psychology. 4th ed. New York: Wiley.

Joann P. Benigno

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children. The proportion of children in British society has varied over time with little accurate documentation until censuses began in 1801. At that time, the proportion of children under 15 years was estimated to have been one-third of the total, increasing to almost 40 per cent by the mid-19th cent. By 1991 the proportion of children had decreased to about a quarter of the total population. These changes in relative proportions do not necessarily reflect differences in absolute numbers but are influenced by variations in life expectancy as well as birth rates. The numbers of children born in any family depended upon factors such as age at marriage, and the nutrition and health of parents, particularly the mother. Although many children were born, infant mortality rates were high until the major improvements in health care in the last quarter of the 19th cent. During the 18th and 19th cents. it was not uncommon for parents with a favourite or family Christian name to give it to several of their children in an attempt to guarantee its presence in the next generation. Official statistics indicate that the number of children per family varied little between social classes until the 1870s, when more reliable contraception was taken up by the better-off. The use of contraception to limit family size appears to have been associated with changing attitudes to women as well as the cost of the education of children in the rapidly expanding economy of Britain in the 19th cent. Access to contraception spread to all levels of society during the 20th cent., particularly after the introduction of the female contraceptive pill in the 1960s, which accelerated the decline in the birth rate and increased the proportion of childless couples. The numbers of children born have fallen below the rate needed to replace the population. Paradoxically, as the birth rate declined there was also a great deal of medical effort to understand and counter infertility.

Attitudes to children have varied over time, with gender, social status, and values about childhood shaping adult views and thus the children's experiences. The concept of childhood drawn from the old Roman catholic doctrine of original sin required that children be saved from the devil by a sound inculcation of Christian values beginning with the sacrament of baptism. Even very small children were expected to understand as though adult. The image of a child was not of innocence but of an imp, a little devil, likely to commit sin unless corrected. This concept continued after the Reformation when it was assumed that the young were likely to be corrupted by worldly ways and that a moral way of life could be attained only by strict, even forcible, guidance. It was accepted that all children at every level of society needed religious education whether formally in church or informally at home. Formal education and training for adult life assumed differing destinies for boys and for girls and for differing levels in society. The care of children was normally the task of parents and the immediate family, but, amongst the wealthy, care was the responsibility of special servants, such as nursemaids or ‘nannies’. In the later Middle Ages, the sons of the aristocracy were sent as pages into another noble household at about the age of 12 years. Later, children of the upper classes were educated at home by a resident tutor or governess while the middle classes sent their sons away from home to boarding schools. The education of children in modern times has been characterized by its increasing formality and length.

A dramatic challenge to accepted ideas about childhood emerged in the 18th cent., expressed at its most controversial in Émile by J. J. Rousseau. The English edition appeared in 1763, a year after its first publication in French. Rousseau argued that children were born innocent and would continue so unless corrupted by adults. Although this remained a minority view for many years, it helped to modify some severity towards children. In addition, this new view of children stimulated the development of special toys and pastimes to help them learn. A major innovation, led by the publisher John Newberry in the later 18th cent., was literature specifically designed for child readers. This period also saw the establishment of Sunday schools for children's religious education.

The enjoyment of leisure in the ways suggested in the debates about childhood was completely outside the experience of most children. In rural areas, children of the less well-off had always performed household and other tasks. This pattern was continued in urban and industrial areas with children as young as 3 years being employed in textiles, mines, and other occupations. Charles Kingsley's account of the London chimney sweeps in The Water Babies, and many of Dickens's novels, drew attention in fiction to the reality of life for many children. During the 19th cent. there was increasing involvement of the state to protect children by controlling working practices and, eventually, to finance and regulate full-time education. State intervention continued in the 20th cent., raising the age at which children might leave compulsory full-time education and giving access to a range of educational opportunities including those at university level. Parallel developments occurred in the punishment of juvenile offenders by the state. In 1846 young offenders were separated from adults and sent to industrial schools, the precursors of borstal institutions, for treatment and rehabilitation. In 1908 the Children's Act established special courts to deal with child offenders, a system which continued for the rest of the 20th cent.

Children are both the newest members of society and its future. The history of British attitudes to children has demonstrated their importance in maintaining property and family position. At the highest levels of society, children were used to enhance the political and social strength of their families. At other levels they were educated and trained to contribute to the family's status and resources. Children at all levels were recognized as a cost during their time of dependency but as having the potential to repay their family line as adults.

Ian John Ernest Keil


Aries, P. , Centuries of Childhood (1962);
Walvin, J. , A Child's World: A Social History of English Childhood (1982).

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77. Children

See also 153. FATHER ; 281. MOTHER ; 307. PARENTS .

bastardism, bastardy
the condition of being a bastard.
1. a parent who kills a son or daughter.
2. the killing of a son or daughter by a parent. filicidal , adj.
abnormal or excessive activity or constant excitability, especially in children. hyperactive , adj.
misopedia, misopaedia
an abnormal dislike of children. misopedist, misopaedist , n.
pedagogics, paedagogics
the science or art of teaching or education. Also called pedagogy . pedagogue, paedagogue, pedagog , n.
pederasty, paederasty
a sexual act between two males, especially when one is a minor. pederast, paederast , n.
pediatrics, paediatrics
the branch of medicine that studies the diseases of children and their treatment. pediatrician, paediatrician , n.
pedodontics, pedodontia
a branch of dentistry specializing in childrens dental care. pedodontist , n.
the branch of medical science that studies the physical and psychological events of childhood. pedologist , n. pedological , adj.
a sexual attraction to children. pedophiliac, pedophilic , adj.
an abnormal fear of children. pedophobiac , n.
the quality or condition of being the youngest child. See also 239. LAW .
the quality or condition of being a firstborn child. See also 239. LAW .
1. the crime of killing ones own children.
2. a parent who kills his own children. prolicidal , adj.
the quality or condition of being an only child.

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children children and fools tell the truth traditional view of the lack of guile associated with children, or those who lack awareness that the truth may not serve their own interests. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century; an earlier related saying in late 14th-century French is, ‘to know the truth about everything, listen to drunkards, children, idiots, and women.’
children are certain cares but uncertain comforts emphasizing the continuing responsibility and anxiety of parenthood, as against the possible ingratitude of children; saying recorded from the mid 17th century.
Children of Israel the Jewish people, as people whose descent is traditionally traced from the patriarch Jacob (also called Israel), each of whose twelve sons became the founder of a tribe.
Children's Crusade a movement in 1212 in which tens of thousands of children (mostly from France and Germany) embarked on a crusade to the Holy Land. Most of the children never reached their destination; arriving at French and Italian ports, many were sold into slavery.
children should be seen and not heard a recommendation as to behaviour which was originally applied specifically to (young) women. The saying is recorded from the early 15th century.

See also child.

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107. Children (See also Youth.)

  1. Pan, Peter determined always to remain a little boy. [Br. Lit.: J.M. Barrie Peter Pan ]
  2. Pancras, St. boy saint, patron of young boys. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 799]
  3. olive branches humorous appellation for children. [O.T.: Psalms 128:3]
  4. snaps, snails, and puppy-dogs tails what little boys are made of. [Nurs. Rhyme: Mother Goose, 108]
  5. sugar and spice what little girls are made of. [Nurs. Rhyme: Mother Goose, 108]

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chil·dren / ˈchildrən/ • plural form of child.

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childrenAran, Arran, baron, barren, Darren, Karen, Sharon, yarran •Biafran, saffron •plastron • Saharan • Sumatran •heron, perron •rhododendron • chevron •Aaron, Charon, Dáil Eireann •apron •matron, patron •Libran •decahedron, dodecahedron, octahedron, polyhedron, tetrahedron •children • citron • grandchildren •stepchildren • godchildren •schoolchildren •Byron, Chiron, environ, Myron, siren •sporran, warren •squadron • Cochran •Andorran, Doran, Lauren, loran •cauldron •Kieran, Madeiran, schlieren •Honduran, Van Buren •Aldebaran • Auberon • Acheron •Cameron, Decameron •cateran, Lateran •veteran •dipteran, hemipteran •lepidopteran • Lutheran

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