All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


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.


views updated



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

views updated


Children in Latin America have been deeply influenced by the impact of race, economic and social status, and a shift in ideas regarding the roles of family and government in the education and socialization of children. From the time of the Conquest, families, especially fathers, were invested with extensive powers over and responsibilities for their children. Gradually governmental authorities, as well as mothers, began to share the responsibility. Severe economic, political, and racial differences, however, have resulted in the inability or unwillingness to care for children. The result has been periodic surges in the numbers of abandoned or homeless children.

The basic unit of Latin American society is the legally and religiously sanctioned biological family. The offspring of these unions historically have transmitted familial economic, social, political, and religious status. During the colonial era, legitimate children perpetuated the patriarchal name as well as the material fortunes of both parents. In the case of upper-class families, this meant that the child inherited their social status, and efforts were made to prepare that child to perpetuate or enhance the family's reputation. Often selected children were promised to the Catholic Church as an indication of family piety. If the child were female, upon marriage she would assume the status of her husband's family.

Most Latin American children, however, were born to poor families who rarely were sanctioned by either the state or the Catholic Church. Furthermore, racial miscegenation (mestizaje) and poverty usually prevented offspring from improving family status by marriage or by service to the church. Instead of property and social status, children born to African or Afro-Latin American slave women inherited the stigma of slavery, regardless of the status of the father.

Indian mothers faced other realities. If the father was Indian, the children inherited the burdens of the family's tribute payments in the form of labor, produce, or money. The children, particularly the young women who learned how to weave and embroider, also helped celebrate indigenous identity through custom and clothing. If the father was not Indian, the mestizo offspring of Indian women lost both their Indian identity and their obligation to pay tribute.

From the Independence era onward, Latin American governments began to revise the significance of both children's legal birthrights and (thus) their political, social, and economic value. From the nineteenth century on, governments began to insist on greater involvement in education, public health, and the development of the economy. Consequently, many patriarchal privileges, such as the right to select an occupation and provide an education for offspring, were limited. There was also a weakening of economic responsibility for children through the decline of the dowry for young brides, and child abandonment. The inability of an unmarried mother to force the father to recognize his paternity, along with development of religious and secular institutions designed to care for unwanted children, exacerbated these conditions. By the twentieth century a father's patriarchal privileges over his children (patria potestad) were further restricted by laws regarding parents accused of abandonment, maltreatment, or moral turpitude. In practice, however, governments rarely enforce the laws and have been unwilling to pay the financial costs of rearing most of the children involved.

Thus, from the Conquest to the present, the social and emotional value that society has placed on children has been highly contradictory. At the same time that childbirth was often a welcome event, illegal abortions were common, and high infant mortality and popular Catholicism led to the belief that the death of young, baptized children transformed them into angels. There are patterns of ritualized celebration of infant death through portraiture and, by the nineteenth century, of photographs of the child. Examples of the angelito (anjinho in Portuguese) phenomenon are still common in Mexico and Brazil. The children, regardless of economic status, are adorned with a crown of flowers and often dressed in white.

During the same time periods, parents who could not afford the social stigma or the economic burden of illegitimate children gave them to better-off families or abandoned them on a turno (roda in Portuguese; foundling wheel), usually at a convent, or left them at the doorsteps of churches or town council halls, or in the doorways of families they believed would take pity on the child. These traditions dated from European medieval times and allowed children to be taken into new homes without the stigma of their birth. Despite this Catholic tradition, the strength of blood ties was so strong that fostered children could never share equal inheritance with legitimate offspring unless their identities were falsified. The practice of legal adoption reached many Latin American countries only in the twentieth century. Reforms of the Civil Codes authorizing adoption occurred in Brazil in 1917; Peru in 1936; Chile in 1934; Uruguay in 1868, 1934, and 1945; and Argentina in 1948. The enactment of these laws took place in the midst of debates regarding the right of parents to have legal heirs as well as the right of orphaned or abandoned children to have parents. Adoption laws have been reexamined after military antiterrorist campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s in Central and South America left significant numbers of orphans who were illegally adopted after their parents were executed.

The formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of a cadre of physicians specializing in public health took up the challenge of infant mortality by providing new technologies of childbirth, inoculations against childhood diseases, and improved water and sewage services, and by advocating programs for infant nutrition. Initially breast-feeding was the recommended strategy to save children of poor mothers, and campaigns against the sale of breast milk by wet nurses were launched. Until 1888 and the end of slavery, Brazilian doctors diverged from their counterparts elsewhere due to their belief in the superior qualities of black women's breast milk. By the early twentieth century, the availability of reliable sources of pasteurized milk in urban areas, along with the development of powdered milk and prepared baby formulas, created new opportunities for physicians to teach mothers how to feed their children. Some of these campaigns were influenced by principles of eugenics.

Elite women also had a significant role to play in the campaign against infant mortality. The Sociedad de Beneficiencia, for example, in 1823 was authorized by the Argentine government to care for sick women and children. By the 1880s it fed and provided shelter for hundreds of orphaned or abandoned children in Buenos Aires. Eventually, through government subsidies and private donations, it built children's homes throughout the province of Buenos Aires. Similar organizations were founded in Chile, Uruguay (1857), Costa Rica (1887), Cuba, and Mexico. Feminist women, often of upper- and middle-class origins, as well as socialist women in many Latin American countries encouraged puericultura (the scientific study of child rearing) and persuaded their male counterparts to enact legislation to help both women and their children. In addition to these organizations, municipal Defensores de Menores and the Patronato de la Infancia in Argentina (1892), the Mexican Asociación Nacional de Protección a la Infancia (1925), Gotas de Leche (Chile, Cuba, Argentina), the Asociación Uruguaya de Protección a la Infancia (1925), the Comisión Nacional de Protección de la Maternidad e Infancia (Cuba), and the Patronato de la Infancia (Costa Rica, 1930) worked to aid orphans or abused and neglected children.

Latin American child specialists began to meet in scientific and politically sponsored congresses. The Pan-American Union, predecessor of the Organization of American States, sponsored children's congresses from 1916 to 1984. In addition, Argentina hosted one in 1913, as well as a congress on abandoned and delinquent children in 1933. Mexico held one in 1923 and then another in 1925. Costa Rica's congress took place in 1931, and Venezuela held its first Congreso Nacional del Niño in 1936. Among the topics discussed were the need for special legislation to establish appropriate forms of re-education for delinquent children and juvenile courts, and ways to enable government authorities to intervene in what had previously been considered family matters.

These meetings resulted in the enactment of significant legislation in several Latin American nations. In 1919 Argentine legislators enacted the Ley Agote. For the first time judges had clear guidelines as to when the courts could remove the right of patria potestad from parents who were considered immoral or irresponsible, or who had abandoned their children. It identified the degree of responsibility for a child's crime by age and authorized expansion of reform schools for delinquent children so that they would not have to be jailed with adult prisoners, but provided no funds to accomplish this. (A newer, more comprehensive, version of this legislation, called Códigos del Niño, was promulgated in Uruguay in 1933.) It also created juvenile courts. Colombia already had the beginning of a juvenile court system in 1946, when the Estatuto Orgánico del Niño was promulgated. In 1934 Venezuela established its Código del Niño, which was superseded by the Estatuto de Menores in 1950.

Despite the early efforts to promote a scientific yet caring governmental policy dealing with children, recent economic and political events have made it difficult for Latin American nations to live up to both the spirit and the letter of the law. Extreme poverty, militarism, and the burdens of governmental debt have led to the abandonment of strong state intervention in the needs and care of children, and have relegated much of the social assistance to children to nongovernmental organizations. Impoverished children in the twenty-first century face the challenge of survival on the streets, often because of the actions of government elements. For example, in Brazil, in recent years, death squads of the military police have been murdering meninos da rua (street children).

See alsoEducation: Overview; Family.


Memorias del VII Congreso panamericano del niño reunido en la Ciudad de México del 12 al 19 de octubre de 1935, 2 vols. (1937); Actos y trabajos del Primer Congreso nacional de puericultura, 7-11 de octubre de 1940, 2 vols. (1941), for Argentina.

Carlos Bueno-Guzman, "The Child in the Civil Law of the Latin American States," in The Child and the Law (1975).

Silvia M. Arrom, "Changes in Mexican Family Law in the Nineteenth Century: The Civil Codes of 1870 and 1884," in Journal of Family History 10, no. 3 (1985): 305-317.

Donna J. Guy, "Lower-Class Families, Women and the Law in Nineteenth-Century Argentina," in Journal of Family History 10, no. 3 (1985): 318-331.

Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice, 1574–1821 (1988).

John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1990).

Emilio García Méndez, and Elías Carranza, eds., Infancia, adolescencia y control social en América Latina: Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Venezuela (1990).

Mary Del Priore, ed., Historia da criança no Brasil (1991).

Joseph M. Hawes, and N. Ray Hiner, eds., Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide (1991).

Elizabeth Anne Kuznesof, "Sexual Politics, Race, and Bastard-Bearing in Nineteenth-Century Brazil: A Question of Culture or Power?" in Journal of Family History 16, no. 3 (1991): 241-260.

Nancy Stepan, "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Alcubierre, Beatriz, and Tania Carreño King. Los niños villistas: Una mirada a la historia de la infancia en México, 1900–1920. México: Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, 1996.

Ardren, Traci, and Scott Hutson. The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2006.

Bolin, Inge. Growing up in a Culture of Respect: Child Rearing in Highland Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Ciafardo, Eduardo O. Los niños en la ciudad de Buenos Aires (1890–1910). Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1992.

González Uribe, Guillermo. Los niños de la guerra. Bogotá: Planeta, 2002.

Hecht, Tobias. Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

Klich, Kent, and Elena Poniatowska. El Niño: Niños de la calle, Ciudad de México. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Kramer, Karen. Maya Children: Helpers at the Farm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Marten, James Alan. Children in Colonial America. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin. Children on the Streets of the Americas: Homelessness, Education, and Globalization in the United States, Brazil and Cuba. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Post, David. Children's Work, Schooling, and Welfare in Latin America. Boulder: Westview Press, 2002.

Potthast-Jutkeit, Barbara, and Sandra Carreras. Entre la familia, la sociedad y el Estado: Niños y jóvenes en América Latina (siglos XIX-XX). Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2005.

Premo, Bianca. Children of the Father King: Youth, Authority, & Legal Minority in Colonial Peru. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Reimers, Fernando. Unequal Schools, Unequal Chances: The Challenges to Equal Opportunity in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2000.

                                          Donna J. Guy

views updated


The rights of the child are human rights. What makes them so special, requiring separate legal treatment, is their link with the social category "childhood." Childhood is a human construct, not a natural phenomenon; its meaning has varied in different historical periods and social environments. An understanding of childhood is necessarily associated with culture, tradition, and social structure. For that reason, children are too often perceived as small adults; once physically ready, they engage in different life activities. That has at times included hard labor, marriages, armed conflict, and other activities now deemed only appropriate to adulthood. However, despite worldwide legal protection, in many places around the world children still engage in all sorts of such harmful activities and situations. Probably the worst of all is a situation of armed conflict.

There is great concern about and awareness of the vulnerability of children, particularly in special circumstances such as armed conflict. So as to be clear in mandating protection, international law, and primarily the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, established an age limit and defined a child as a human being below the age of eighteen. This age limit also applies to situations where children must confront genocide and crimes against humanity. Therefore, the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts forbids recruitment and participation of children younger than eighteen years in any armed conflicts. Only strict respect of those provisions could prevent children becoming either victims or perpetrators of crimes against humanity or genocide.

Children as Victims

Throughout history children have been victims of genocide and crimes against humanity. Such criminal acts have been committed against children in both times of peace and armed conflict. In the past, wars were officially announced and waged by armies, far away from the civilian population, on the battlefields. Civilians, including children, were victims of wars, but on a lesser scale than in the twentieth century, when the situation dramatically changed. In World War II, 47 percent of the victims were civilians, including children (compared to 5% in World War I). Children perished as a result of not only aerial bombardment, but also genocidal actions. They were not separated from adults nor spared in the Nazi concentration camps.

After World War II approximately 150 armed conflicts had occurred worldwide by 2004. The previous strict division between civilians and armed forces became weaker, and so did the division between children and adults. In the last two decades of the twentieth century such a development produced a period that was probably the most detrimental of all to the lives of children across the globe. The deaths of an estimated 1.5 million children in the 1980s were directly war-related. Within the timeframe of civil wars in Mozambique, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Middle East, and other locales, several million children died as a direct consequence of atrocities. Relentless warlords and their combatants, more frequently operating outside of the constraints of regular army forces, do not respect the established rules of conduct concerning civilian populations and children; they often commit genocide and crimes against humanity, organizing the campaigns and carrying out the orders to do so.

Being that such crimes should not be forgotten nor go unpunished, the United Nations (UN) established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, with the task of prosecuting, trying, and punishing individuals who are found guilty of committing genocide or crimes against humanity. In these two countries two terrible wars were waged, conflicts that left many children dead, displaced, abandoned, parentless, wounded, and sick. All who survived bear deep emotional scars.

Energetic prosecutions within both tribunals have resulted in numerous convictions. With regard to the crimes committed, the judgments of both courts have addressed different aspects of crimes against humanity and genocide. Many of them included the charge of atrocities committed against children. At the Rwandan tribunal the most well-known cases that included charges of genocide against children were those of Kayishema and Akayesy. At the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia a general of the army, Krstic, was tried and convicted of genocide, and sentenced to forty-six years in prison. He was found guilty of numerous crimes committed in the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 1995. Those crimes included forcibly transferring children from their original place of residence that was considered an element of genocide.

The work of such tribunals, as well as that of national or combined courts (e.g., the Special Court for Sierra Leone), is very important because it deals with individuals who are responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity. By establishing such courts, the international community expresses its commitment to ending the impunity of warlords and criminals. A strong message is delivered to potential war criminals: Genocide and crimes against humanity will not be tolerated and perpetrators will face the consequences of their acts.

Child Soldiers as Perpetrators

As already noted, despite the high level of awareness and means of protection worldwide, children are still perceived as adults in some circumstances. Owing to such attitudes, children, sometimes as early as the age of five, are used as child soldiers. Several sources, including Save the Children UK (report 1989), claim that in the late 1980s children younger than sixteen participated in combat in twenty-five states and territories. In Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Iran, Rwanda, and many other places, children, mostly boys, have been brutally recruited, removed from their families, and forced to participate in all kinds of war activities. In some cases children joined military forces because of the absence of adult family members, and the only means of survival was joining some military group, whether legitimate or not. Child soldiers, usually under force, often perpetrate the most serious atrocities, including the crimes of genocide and those against humanity.

None other but national courts have dealt with children responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity. For example, thousands of children were recruited as soldiers in Rwanda. After the civil war ended, a significant number were arrested for being responsible, allegedly, for genocide against the moderate Hutu and Tutsi in that country. Since 1995 Rwandan authorities have arrested and detained some five thousand children under inhumane conditions for years without trial. In June 2002 four thousand children were still awaiting trial. A large number of the detainees are accused of having committed genocide. Rwandan cases indicate just how difficult it might be for a state to effectively try perpetrators, particularly when they are children.

The 1996 UN study on the impact of armed conflict on children notes: "The dilemma of dealing with children who are accused of committing acts of genocide illustrates the complexity of balancing culpability, a community's sense of justice and the best interest of the child." The severity of the crime involved, however, provides no justification for suspending or abridging the fundamental rights and legal safeguards accorded to children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Only when the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was drafted in 1998 was the act of recruiting children as soldiers established as a war crime. That should, in the future, serve as a disincentive to the recruitment of children as soldiers and also prevent their participation in such terrible crimes.

International Law Protecting the Rights of Children in Armed Conflicts

The international legal protection of children facing genocide and crimes against humanity is provided through general provisions that apply to children in the situation of armed conflict. The Geneva Convention of 1949, and the two Additional Protocols of 1977, directly recognized such children as having special needs. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide protects children by additionally defining the crime of genocide as the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 pays special attention to the protection of children in armed conflicts and also the prevention of recruitment of children for direct participation, as child soldiers. The same applies to a regional instrument: the African Charter on the Rights of the Child. The 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, addressing the involvement of children in armed conflict, raises the standard of child recruitment by establishing an age limit of eighteen. The 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC characterizes as a war crime the conscription or enlistment of children under the age of fifteen into national armed forces, or their use as active participants in hostilities. The International Labor Organization's (ILO's) 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention includes in its definition of the worst forms of child labor the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.

Besides the protection afforded by such binding international documents, there are numerous declarations, protocols, comments, and reports providing guidance to states in dealing with children in armed conflicts.

Key Roles in Protection

Several mechanisms exist whereby children are protected from such crimes. Some are legal, such as national and international courts. Besides legal actions, the numerous efforts of international organizations in the field can make a difference. The UN, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and other intergovernmental organizations work actively to protect children. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orchestrates various sorts of interventions including, among others, the protection of children, visits to prisoners of war, and tracing family members. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Medicines sans Frontier, Save the Children, Cooperative for American Relief to Everywhere (CARE), and other organizations, are also active protectors, particularly in the postwar recovery of children who have participated in armed conflicts, including those who were recruited to fight as soldiers, and the prevention of such activities.

SEE ALSO Guatemala; International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Rwanda; United Nations; Yugoslavia


Ackerman, John E. (2002). Practice and Procedure of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo: Müller.

Archard, David (1993). Children's Rights and Childhood. London: Routledge.

Freeman, Michael (1995). "Morality of Cultural Pluralism." The International Journal of Children's Rights 3:7.

Hitch, Lisa M. (1989). "International Humanitarian Law and the Rights of the Child." New York Law School Journal of Human Rights 7(1):118.

Human Rights Watch (2003). "Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War on Rwandan Children" Human Rights Watch 15(6).

Resler, Everett M., JoAnne Marie Tortorici, Alex Marcelino (1993). Children in War—A Guide to the Provision in Services. New York: UNICEF.

United Nations Security Council (2000). Report of the Secretary-General on the Establishment of a Special Court for Sierra Leone. UN Document S/2000/915.

Van Beuren, Geraldine (1995). The International Law on the Rights of the Child. Dodrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

Vuckovic Sahovic, Nevena (2000). The Rights of the Child and International Law. Belgrade: Yugoslav Child Rights Centre.

Nevena Vuckovic Sahovic

views updated


The central purpose of marriage in Jewish tradition is procreation. The commandment in Genesis 1:28 is fulfilled according to Bet Hillel with one child of each sex and according to Bet Shammai with two boys (Yev. 6:6; Yev. 61a–64a). The aim of a *levirate marriage is to perpetuate the name of the childless deceased. Children are considered a great blessing (Gen. 22:17; 32:13), and childlessness a source of frustration and despair (Gen. 30:1; i Sam. 1:10). A childless man was regarded as dead (Gen. R. 45:2), and the rabbis interpreted the biblical punishment of karet ("being cut off") to mean that the sinner's children would die in his lifetime, leaving him without continuation (Yev. 55a). A wife's failure to bear children during the first ten years of marriage was considered grounds for divorce (Yev. 64a).

The statement in the Ten Commandments (see *Decalogue) that children are punished for their parents' sins "unto the third and fourth generation" (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9) was explained by the rabbis to refer only to children who persisted in the wrong deeds of their parents (Ber. 7a; Sanh. 27b; etc.). If the children obey the Torah, they would not be punished for the sins of their fathers, "Every man shall be put to death for his own sins" (Deut. 24:16). The good deeds of parents, however, are rewarded to their children "unto the thousandth generation" (Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10). According to legend, an angel smites the infant on his face at the moment of birth so as to make him forget the celestial visions and wisdom that he possessed until then (Seder Yeẓirat ha-Valad in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash 1 (19382), 153–55). A newborn son was "protected" by the reading of the *Shema in the presence of the children of the community. The custom to visit a newborn male child and to hold a small feast in his honor ("Shalom Zokher") has been practiced since the Middle Ages. Boys are named at circumcision, girls when the father is first called to the reading of the Torah after the birth.

The duty to circumcise and redeem (pidyon ha-ben) the firstborn child if it is a son is laid upon the father, as is the injunction to provide him with a proper education, a trade, and a wife. According to some amoraim, the father should also teach him how to swim (Kid. 29a). A father must also see his daughter married (ibid. 30b). The mother is enjoined to breastfeed her children during the first 24 months (Ket. 60b; Yev. 43a), and it is srongly recommended that the father provide for them until their maturity (Ket. 49a–b), and not only, as the synod of *Usha held, until they were seven years old (ibid.). A father bears only moral responsibility for damages incurred by his children when they are minors, and even this moral responsibility ceases with girls at the age of 12 and one day and boys at the age of 13 and one day (see *bar mitzvah), even though the young man does not attain responsibility in such matters as real estate until the age of 20 (bb 156a).

Children's major obligations toward their parents and their teachers are to honor them (Ex. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 5:16) and, if they are needy, to provide them with food, dress, and personal attention (Kid. 31b; Sh. Ar. yd 240). Capital punishment should be meted out to those who curse or beat their parents (Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9, Deut. 27:16). A "*rebellious son" should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18–21), and children who offend their parents may be dispossessed by them (bb 8:5 and 133b), although such an action is otherwise frowned upon.

Great emphasis is placed on the training of children in religious observance and teaching them Torah. *Judah b. Tema advised that healthy male children were to be taught Scripture at the age of 5 and Mishnah at 10, to fulfill the law at 13, and to study Talmud at 15 (Avot 5:21). According to another opinion (Sif. Deut. 46; Suk. 42a), a child's education should begin as soon as he starts to speak distinctly. In the Middle Ages, the first day that a child attended school was considered an occasion for celebration. Jewish literature abounds in tales of child prodigies, and the wisdom of young Jerusalemites is especially noted. Lamentations Rabbah 1:1, 4 remarks upon the brilliance of a young girl of the town.

Children, when minors, are held to be free from the performance of religious duties; introduction into the observance of ritual law has, nevertheless, always begun at an early age. In Temple times, they participated in the ceremonies, and in the sabbatical year were brought to the Temple when the king read Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:10–12). The Mishnah (Yoma 8:4) suggests that children be trained gradually to fast on the Day of Atonement; the Gemara (Suk. 42a) states that a father ought to buy his son a lulav, tallit, and tefillin as soon as he can understand their import.

Parents are encouraged to take their children to the synagogue, where it is customary for them to sip Kiddush wine; to lead the congregation (in some communities) in the recital of *Pesukei de-Zimra, *Ein ke-Eloheinu, *Shir ha-Yiḥud, etc.; and to dress the Torah scroll (gelilah). Although a minor is usually not eligible for inclusion in a minyan, he may, in the opinion of some authorities be counted as an adult in case of emergency and if he holds a Bible in his hand (Sh. Ar., oḤ 55:4). In many congregations in the western world, it has become customary to hold special *children's services on Sabbath and on holidays in order to initiate them gradually into synagogue rites and regular attendance. On *Simḥat Torah, the children participate in the special hakkafot ("circuits"), carrying flags adorned with apples and candles. They are also called to the Torah reading under the patronage of the "Bridegroom of the Boys" (*Bridegroom of the Law). At the Passover seder, the child is an integral part of the ceremony because he recites the *Mah Nishtannah (the four questions).

The rabbis advised parents to be firm in the upbringing of their children (Ex. R. 1:1) and drew attention to the verse "He that spareth his rod hateth his son" (Prov. 13:24). They also warned against favoritism, drawing on the Joseph story "because of the two sela weight of silk [the coat of many colors], which Jacob gave to Joseph in excess of his other sons, the brothers became jealous of him and the mantle resulted in our forefathers' exile in Egypt" (Shab. 10b). According to R. Ze'ira, parents must fulfill promises made to children lest they should learn to tell untruths as a result of the example of unfulfillment (Suk. 46b). It is customary for a father to bless his children on Sabbath eves (and in some places also on Saturday night), after the synagogue service. For the legal aspects, see *Parent and Child.


S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 1 (1896), 282–312; L. Loew, Die Lebensalter (1875), passim; et, s.v.Av, Ben, and Bat; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1963), 516–22 and index.

views updated



Words for Childhood. At least six different words are used in Egyptian to mean child. In English, different words—such as infant, toddler, boy or girl, and adolescent—refer to stages of childhood. In Egyptian the variety of words used do not seem to have such specific meanings. For example, scholars Rosalind and Jacobus Janssen observe that khenu, meaning child, derives from the root that means “to wean.” Yet, this word is not limited in use to children who have recently been weaned. The High Priest Bekenkhons, who lived in the reign of Ramesses II (circa 1279-1213 b.c.e.), used this word to describe his entire childhood. Thus, it seems unlikely that the Egyptians recognized the stages of childhood as distinct. All of childhood was a period of preparation for taking on adult responsibilities.

Nurture and Nature. Few differences of opinion are voiced in Egyptian texts. Modern scholars often have the impression of an unnatural unanimity on most issues. Yet, remarkably, the instructions of the sage Any, in The Wisdom of Any (circa 1539-1292 b.c.e.), preserves a debate in the epilogue over whether a child can be taught virtue, as well as whether a child’s nature is either virtuous or not.

Any and Khonshotep. At the end of Any’s instructions, his son, Khonshotep, has the opportunity to reply to his father’s advice. At first he expresses both his admiration for his father’s ideas and the difficulty for a child to follow them, even when he is able to recite them. It is in the nature of a child to ignore words that are too hard to understand. Any replies with a series of images describing tamed animals that can change with

training, and argues that children can also be molded in a similar fashion. Any suggests that foreigners, such as Nubians and Syrians, can also be changed through

proper instruction. Khonshotep replies that the gods make a person with a particular nature and that only a god can alter that nature. Any then relates his belief that people can change; he uses an image of a crooked stick—even this wood can be properly shaped by a carpenter. Finally, both Khonshotep and Any use images that describe the satisfaction of consuming food. While Khonshotep refers to the infant who nurses without knowledge of anything else, Any believes that when the child learns to talk he will understand how to ask for more than mere sustenance. This comparison ends the discussion and probably reflects the official view that training is more important than nature in a child’s future.


The New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) scribe Any had many words of wisdom to impart to younger generations.

The scribe Khonshotep answered his father, the scribe Any:

I wish I were like (you)!
As learned as you!
Then I would carry out your teachings,
And the son would be brought to the father’s place.
Each man is led by his nature,
You are a man who is a master,
Whose strivings are exalted,
Whose every word is chosen.
The son, he understands little
When he recites the words in the books.
But when your words please the heart,
The heart tends to accept them with joy.
Don’t make your virtues too numerous,
That one may raise one’s thoughts to you;
A boy does not follow the moral instructions,
Though the writings are on his tongue!
The scribe Any answered his son, the scribe Khonshotep:
Do not rely on such worthless thoughts,
Beware of what you do to yourself!
I judge your complaints to be wrong,
I shall set you right about them.
There’s nothing [superfluous in] our words,
Which you say you wished were reduced.
The fighting bull who kills in the stable,
He forgets and abandons the arena;
He conquers his nature,
Remembers what he’s learned,
And becomes the like of a fattened ox.
The savage lion abandons his wrath,
And comes to resemble the timid donkey.
The horse slips into its harness,
Obedient it goes outdoors.
The dog obeys the word,
And walks behind its master.
The monkey carries the stick,
Though its mother did not carry it.
The goose returns from the pond,
When one comes to shut it in the yard.
One teaches the Nubian to speak Egyptian,
The Syrian and other strangers too.
Say: “I shall do like all the beasts,”
Listen and learn what they do.

The scribe Khonshotep answered his father, the scribe Any:

Do not proclaim your powers, 
So as to force me to your ways;
Does it not happen to a man to slacken his hand
So as to hear an answer in its place?
Man resembles the god in his way
If he listens to a man’s answer.
One man cannot know his fellow,
If the masses are beasts;
One man cannot know his teachings,
And alone posses a mind,
If the multitudes are foolish.
All your sayings are excellent,
But doing them requires virtues;
Tell the god who gave you wisdom:
“Set them on your path!”
The scribe Any answered his son, the scribe Khonshotep:
Turn your back to these many words,
That are not worth being heard.
The crooked stick left on the ground,
With sun and shade attacking it,
If the carpenter takes it, he straightens it,
Makes of it a noble’s staff,
And a straight stick makes a collar.
You foolish heart,
Do you wish us to teach,
Or have you been corrupted?
“Look,” said he, “you, my father,
You who are wise and strong of hand:
The infant in his mother’s arms,
His wish is for what nurses him.”
“Look,” said he, “when he finds his speech,
He says: “Give me bread.”

Source: Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 144–145.

Pride in Children. Egyptians made no secret of their pride in their children and the love they felt for them. The usual caption accompanying the image of a child in a parent’s tomb is “his beloved son” or “his beloved daughter.” The Priest of Amun, Bekenkhons, who lived in Dynasty 22 (circa 945-712 b.c.e.) and was a descendant of the Bekenkhons who lived in Ramesses II’s reign, proclaimed his love of his son on a statue he erected in the Karnak temple. He said, “I already loved him when he was still a small boy; I acknowledged him as a proper gentleman. As a child I found him already mature. His breeding was not in accordance with his (young) age. His speech was well-chosen. There was nothing uncouth in his words.” (Translated by Rosalind and Jacobus Janssen)


Rosalie David, Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt (New York: Facts on File, 1998).

Rosalind M. and Jac. J. Janssen, Growing Up in Ancient Egypt (London: Rubicon Press, 1990).

Joyce Tyldesley, “Marriage and Motherhood in Ancient Egypt,” History Today, 44 (April 1994): 20-27.

views updated

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).

views updated



Pregnancy. In Roman literature and culture, having children, especially a son, was a sign that the gods had blessed the marriage. In reality, getting pregnant was not always so easy. Part of the difficulty of conceiving came from a misunderstanding about the menstrual cycle and periods of fertility. Some women wore amulets, used potions, and prayed to various goddesses for children. Likewise, some women did not want to have children and therefore used a variety of means to prevent pregnancy, ranging from wearing talismans, to using concoctions that they inserted before or after intercourse, to instrumental or medical abortions or mistaken techniques such as riding horses or jumping up and down vigorously when they discovered, to their dismay, that they were pregnant. Men may have used slaves or prostitutes to satisfy their sexual desires in an effort to limit the number of legitimate children, but it was unlikely—and was considered improper—for husbands to avoid their wives’ beds altogether.

Raising Children. If a couple had a child, the father made the decision about whether or not to raise the baby. A father did not officially acknowledge the baby until it was nine days old, if a boy, or eight days, if a girl, because so many babies died soon after birth. On the appropriate day, the baby was placed at its father’s feet. If the father walked away, the baby was put out in the elements to die. If he picked up the child, he signaled that they would raise the baby. The baby now received its name. How often were babies rejected and exposed? It is a hard question to answer. Deformed babies were almost always exposed. Legal texts suggest that poor families exposed children for whom they could not provide adequate care. During difficult times in the empire, some families refused to raise their children. During the reign of Nero a parent abandoned an infant son in the midst of the Roman Forum with the note “I will not raise you, lest you slit your mother’s throat,” in reference to Nero’s recent murder of his mother, Agrippina the Younger. Emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian, and Constantine passed decrees providing public assistance to poor families who had children they could not afford to keep. Such measures suggest that infanticide was a practice driven more by poverty than by a disregard for human life.

Rites of Passage. Freeborn boys wore the toga praetexta (the toga with a purple border) and an amulet called a bulla until they reached an age and maturity that made them ready to assume the toga virilis (toga of manhood). At that point, the boy took off his child’s clothes and his bulla and dedicated them to the household gods. Then he, his family, and friends went to the Roman Forum, where he would be introduced as a citizen and his name would be recorded in the register of his family’s tribe. Many families chose the festival of the Liberalia on 17 March as the day for their sons to become men. After the dedication of the Forum of Augustus in 2 B.C.E, boys assumed the toga virilis on the steps of the Temple of Mars Ultor. Girls were recognized as women on the eve of their marriage. They would dedicate their childhood toys and child’s garb to the household gods and put on the stola (gown) of a married woman. They would also begin to wear their hair in styles up on top of their heads, rather than down and loose.

Adopted Children. The process of adopting children in ancient Rome was different from modern processes of and reasons for adopting. There is no evidence that Romans adopted babies or very young children or daughters, except for foundlings. Adoption first and foremost was to provide an heir for a family that had no son to carry on the family name or receive the family’s property. Therefore, a family would adopt a young man, someone whose character they could judge and who appeared strong and healthy enough to provide the family with a future. A family with several sons had a dilemma because the law required that each son inherit an equal amount of the family property. This meant dividing land and resources and decreasing the overall wealth of the family. Adoption, therefore, provided a benefit for both families involved: the adopting family gained an heir and ensured that their family would not die out; the birth-family of the adoptee was better able to provide for the rest of the children.


Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Beryl Rawson, ed., The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986).

Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

views updated

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.
views updated

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.

More From