In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Approaches to Children’s Work and the Concept of Child Labor

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Concepts of Childhood Relating to Children’s Work
  • Children’s Agency with Respect to Work
  • Work and Poverty
  • Assessing Benefits and Harm
  • Migration for Work
  • Children’s Work and Their Rights

Childhood Studies Critical Approaches to Children’s Work and the Concept of Child Labor
Michael Bourdillon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0117


In much of human history, and in the majority of the world today, children participate in the work activities of the communities in which they are growing, and thereby learn to become productive members of the societies in which they live. Relatively recently, the principal work of children has switched from productive work to schoolwork, a change that has created conceptual problems for understanding the continuing importance of children’s work outside school. An attempt to divide children’s work into harmful “labor” and benign “work” fails to account for the vast majority of children’s work, which combines potentially positive and negative elements. References to harmful work and exploitative conditions can be found in the Oxford Bibliographies article on Child Labor. More positive accounts of children’s work in different cultural contexts appear in the article on Children’s Work and Apprenticeship, which focuses on unpaid work in the family context and work associated with learning. Neither article defines its topic in relation to the other. This indeterminate division leaves gaps, omitting some literature on children’s work that does not easily fall into either category, such as the benefits that children can derive from employment and how to assess costs and benefits in children’s work. This article, therefore, has two roles: it points to publications that provide a more comprehensive view of children’s work and it fills some of the gaps left by the other two articles.

General Works

Among academics and organizations supporting children, discontent grew in the 1990s with the conventional approach to child labor and the international standards behind it. In particular, children’s work cannot be correctly understood if attention is paid only to the risks and harm, while the benefits are ignored. Nor can it be understood if the agency of children is ignored. Boyden, et al. 1998 presents a range of evidence showing that work can benefit as well as harm children, and that alternative approaches to simple abolition of child labor could be more beneficial to children. Woodhead 2004 considers the place of work in child development in the light of developmental psychology. Work in child development is a central theme in the more general consideration of children’s work found in Bourdillon, et al. 2010, which also considers political implications of intervention. Liebel 2004 focuses on the agency of children. Hungerland, et al. 2007 provides a range of case studies, and Bass 2004 looks holistically at children’s work in Africa. White 2009 provides a concise summary of key issues. Lancy 2018 surveys children’s work in diverse situations and cultures.

  • Bass, Loretta E. Child Labor in Sub-Saharan Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 2004.

    A well-presented regional study that looks at both problems and benefits arising from children’s work. The book presents a wide range of work situations in different African countries.

  • Bourdillon, Michael, Deborah Levison, William Myers, and Ben White. Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

    Uses a range of disciplines and research material from high- and low-income countries to place work in the lives of children, taking account of children’s perspectives. It places work as a component in child development. Later chapters discuss harmful work and the politics of intervention as well as providing suggestions for the way forward.

  • Boyden, Jo, Birgitta Ling, and William Myers. What Works for Working Children. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1998.

    Still a standard text, the argument is based on a wide range of empirical research. It provides a good discussion of the benefits and problems in children’s work and why children take it on, as well as considering a range of interventions.

  • Hungerland, Beatrice, Manfred Liebel, Brian Milne, and Anne Wihstutz, eds. Working to Be Someone: Child Focused Research and Practice with Working Children. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

    This collection contains useful theoretical articles and a range of case studies that consider different work situations of children holistically and in context.

  • Lancy, David F. Anthropological Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-53351-7

    Draws from worldwide ethnographic literature to classify the work of children from help of the young, through contributions to family enterprises, to extensive employment.

  • Liebel, Manfred. A Will of Their Own: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Working Children. London and New York: Zed Books, 2004.

    Argues that work contributes to social recognition and development as well as offering financial rewards. To stop exploitation, people must first recognize the benefits of work, and why children undertake it. This book pays attention to the voices of children and the choices they make.

  • White, Ben. “Social Science Views on Working Children.” In The World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey. Edited by Hugh D. Hindman, 10–18. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2009.

    A concise and readable summary of the main considerations in this approach to children’s work.

  • Woodhead, Martin. “Psychosocial Impacts of Child Work: A Framework for Research, Monitoring and Intervention.” International Journal of Children’s Rights 12.4 (2004): 321–377.

    DOI: 10.1163/1571818043603607

    Considers implications of child development theory and research for interpretation of children’s rights relating to work and exploitation. Woodhead points to the contextual nature of child development and suggests that, combined with effective schooling, there is a niche for work. Available online from the World Bank, which commissioned the paper.

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