In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Politics

  • Introduction
  • The Impact of Politics on Children
  • Children in Political Economy
  • Children’s Understanding of Politics
  • Children as Political Subjects
  • Children as Political Actors
  • Exclusion from Voting
  • National Identity
  • War and Reconstruction
  • Participation and Democracy

Childhood Studies Children and Politics
Nigel Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0067


Children’s relation to politics can be understood in a variety of different ways, including the impact of politics on children, the political rights and status of children, children’s understanding of politics, and children’s involvement in political activity. Several academic disciplines have shown an interest in these topics at different times. In the 1960s children and politics tended to be the province of political sociologists and psychologists, using a lens of socialization theory; more recently it has begun to receive some attention from scholars in the new social studies of childhood, with greater attention paid to children’s agency. (This topic area has been given greater force by the impact of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1989.) The impact of political decisions and processes on children has been an abiding area of interest not only for children’s rights advocates but also for economists and political scientists. Lawyers and political philosophers have also addressed questions of children’s status in relation to the political world. However, children are remarkable in mainstream political theory mainly by their absence. The general picture is of a working assumption in the field of political writing that children, except as objects of policy, are not relevant to the discourse. The occasions when this notion is explicitly stated are rare and worth noting for that reason. More often it is unstated and, to all appearance, unthought. Apart from a period early in the last century when child labor was a major issue and a spell in the 1960s and early 1970s when political socialization received a great deal of attention, this lack of attention has been the picture for more than a century, and remains so now.

The Impact of Politics on Children

Whether they participate in politics and whether they understand it, children cannot escape the consequences. Decisions about the economy, taxes and benefits, planning and transport, and the general distribution of public spending (Bartlett, et al. 1999; Sgritta 1997) as well as decisions about more directly child-related matters such as education and health (Therborn 1996; Thomas 2009) and wider discourses around the politics of childhood (Goddard, et al. 2005; Pilcher and Wagg 1996; Seaford 2001) all have direct impacts on children’s lives. A key issue is how political systems that exclude children from participation can ensure that their wishes and interests are not overlooked.

  • Bartlett, Sheridan, Roger Hart, David Satterthwaite, Ximena De La Barra, and Alfredo Missair. Cities for Children: Children’s Rights, Poverty and Urban Management. London: Earthscan, 1999.

    Looks at the responsibilities of urban authorities for basic services that affect the lives of urban children, including issues around housing, community participation, working children, community health, education, and juvenile justice. Discusses the challenges that must be overcome to create governance systems that facilitate the level of economic security, social justice, and environmental care necessary to realize children’s rights.

  • Goddard, Jim, Sally McNamee, Adrian James, and Allison James, eds. The Politics of Childhood: International Perspectives, Contemporary Developments. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    Collection of papers that “attempt to locate the socially constructed character of childhood in a variety of political arenas.” Focuses on discourses of politics in relation to children and on children both as objects and as subjects of politics. Includes sections on Children in Theory and History; Children, Money and Work; Children at School; and Children, Power, and Decision-Making.

  • Pilcher, Jane, and Stephen Wagg. Thatcher’s Children? Politics, Childhood and Society in the 1980s and 1990s. London: Falmer, 1996.

    Looks at the impact of New Right talk of family values and responsibility and the emphasis from the Left on children’s rights. Examines the political issues surrounding childhood and social and political issues involving childhood.

  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Carolyn Sargent, eds. Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    A collection of essays by cultural and medical anthropologies that look at a wide range of situations in which children’s health and survival are in danger. The final part of the book focuses on children exposed to war and other forms of violence.

  • Seaford, Helen. “Children and Childhood: Perceptions and Realities.” Political Quarterly 72.4 (2001): 454–465.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-923X.00425

    Article written by the former Head of Planning at the Children’s Society. Critiques the conception of childhood underpinning current policies and argues for children to be valued for what they are rather than what they may become. Some errors, but a useful bringing together of social theory and practical policy. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sgritta, Giovanni. “Inconsistencies: Children on the Economic and Political Agenda.” Childhood 4.4 (1997): 375–404.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568297004004002

    Wide-ranging exploration of inconsistencies in the ways that children figure in political and economic agendas. In both the West and the former Eastern bloc, children are doing badly on many indicators of health and well-being. Argues that injustices and discrimination toward children actually increased following the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Therborn, Göran. “Child Politics: Dimensions and Perspectives.” Childhood 3.1 (1996): 29–44.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568296003001003

    Analyzes the different strands of public concern regarding children in the course of the 20th century and “the political process and the ideological constellation” (p. 29) that led up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The ratification of the convention and its political effects are analyzed, and hypotheses are offered about likely determinants of impact of the convention in different parts of the world. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Thomas, Nigel. “Children, Young People and Politics in the UK.” In Children and Young People’s Worlds: Developing Frameworks for Integrated Practice. Edited by Heather Montgomery and Mary Kellett, 7–22. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2009.

    Looks at three particular aspects of the politics of childhood in contemporary Britain: the relationships between children, their families, and the state; the progress of policies to improve children’s lives; and the scope for children to be political actors themselves.

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