In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overview
  • Children’s Moral Status
  • The Nature and Value of Childhood
  • Children and Autonomy
  • Children’s Rights and Responsibilities
  • The Right and Responsibility to Parent
  • Parental Responsibility and the Role of the State
  • Children and Bioethics
  • Social Value and Costs of Children

Philosophy Philosophy of Childhood
Amy Mullin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0435


In this entry, questions raised by pregnancy, abortion, and assisted reproductive technologies are set aside. A child is born. What philosophical questions and issues now arise? After a brief account of the historical context in which philosophical discussion of children and childhood emerged, works are grouped by the questions they seek to answer. Answers to these questions of course overlap. The questions include: What is the moral status of children and do children have full moral status? If so, is this possessed by all children? What kinds of rights and responsibilities do children have and what grounds them? What differentiates childhood from adulthood and are childhood and adulthood life stages of comparable value? Are there goods that make a childhood go well apart from its serving as adequate preparation for adulthood? How are parental rights and responsibilities acquired and what serves as the moral ground for them? What responsibilities do parents, nonparents, and the state have for children’s care? How suddenly or gradually should children acquire the rights and responsibilities of adults and when should their autonomy be respected? Answers to these questions lead to a host of difficult bioethical questions about children’s health and medical decision-making involving children. Some of the major bioethical topics connected to children’s health are outlined. Finally, most philosophical discussion of children focuses on the value of children’s lives to children and their parents. Another set of important works ask about broader social costs and benefits associated with children.

Historical Overview

Children and families have been a sustained topic of philosophical interest for philosophers writing within the Confucian tradition (Cline 2015) for more than two millennia. However, relatively little sustained philosophical attention was paid to children in Western philosophy until the emergence of feminist philosophy. Rousseau 1993, which focuses on the moral development of children, is one exception. Certainly, philosophers have made scattered remarks about children (discussed in Blustein 1982 and Turner and Matthews 1998), but children and childhood were far from a standard topic of discussion in Western philosophy. Until the 1980s, 20th-century theoretical attention to children was more frequently found in other disciplines, such as history (Ariès 1962). In the 1980s and 1990s a robust body of feminist philosophical work included a new focus on children. This was initially primarily within care ethics, understood as an approach to ethics that stresses the moral value and significance of care, and of relationships involving vulnerability and dependency, such as those with children. Baier 1994, Noddings 1984, and Ruddick 1989 are three such examples. Works by feminist critics of that approach, such as Okin 1989, pointed to problems with failing to supplement attention to care with attention to justice, but shared the view that families and children are important topics of philosophical discussion. In addition, works by philosophers such as Blustein 1982 were influenced by feminist insistence on the importance of thinking about human vulnerability and dependency more broadly as well as children more specifically. In the twenty-first century, ethical evaluation of family relationships has emerged as an increasingly important part of moral philosophy and is frequently labeled “family ethics” or the “philosophy of the family.” Archard 2003 is an important early book that brought together questions about the rights and interests of children and the role of the family. Outside of philosophy, childhood studies emerged in the same period as an interdisciplinary field that contests sharp distinctions between children and adults in examining questions about the lives of children, taking children’s competence seriously. Philosophers interested in children’s rights and responsibilities, including, but not only, their rights to make decisions that affect their own lives, could potentially benefit from more engagement with childhood studies. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies module on “Childhood Studies.”

  • Archard, David. Children, Family, and the State. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

    Offers an extended engagement with questions about the rights and interests of children, the definition of family and rights of adult members of families, and the legitimate place of the state in the lives of children and families. These questions are discussed in a historical and legal context.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.

    Argues that childhood is conceived of differently in different historical eras. Children can have different responsibilities and statuses depending on the ways in which childhood is understood and some cultures do not make a sharp distinction between childhood and adulthood.

  • Baier, Annette. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Argues that philosophers have paid scant attention to moral relations structured by care and trust, and this can be traced in part to a failure to attend properly to the ethical significance of children’s care and development.

  • Blustein, Jeffrey. Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    The book is divided into two parts. The first part outlines philosophers’ views about parents, families, and children, ranging from Aristotle to Hegel. The second part focuses on the duties of parents and children and argues young children have duties to obey.

  • Cline, Erin M. Families of Virtue: Confucian and Western Views on Childhood Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7312/clin17154

    Provides an overview of Confucian and Western conceptions of childhood, with a focus on children’s moral development.

  • Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    Argues that caring relations are the only thing of absolute moral value. The author suggests that it is frequently appropriate for people engaged in caring to become absorbed in the needs and perspective of the person needing care, and presents the caring relationship between mother and infant child as an exemplar of a morally valuable relationship.

  • Okin, Susan Moller. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

    Argues that typical patterns of interaction within families are both gendered and deeply unjust. More equal distribution of work involved in caring for children and ill family members is required for justice. Without it, children are unlikely to develop a deep and widespread sense of justice.

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Translated by Barbara Foxley. London: J.M. Dent, 1993.

    Divides the moral and social development of children into stages and argues their development typically involves moral corruption, but with the right kind of moral education innate moral goodness can be maintained. Originally published in 1762.

  • Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

    Argues that work involved in caring adequately for dependent children is not instinctive but requires characteristic skills and ways of thinking, including a commitment to preserving life, fostering growth, and social acceptability, with the latter involving tensions in unjust societies. Further argues that both men and women can and should engage in what Ruddick terms maternal thinking.

  • Turner, Susan M., and Gareth B. Matthews. The Philosopher’s Child: Critical Perspectives in the Western Tradition. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998.

    The book’s nine essays interpret the views of philosophers on children and childhood, including Socrates, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Mill, along with three 20th-century philosophers: Wittgenstein, Rawls, and Firestone.

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