Children & Youth

Childish BehaviorOne thing you will probably notice in my prose (including the language I use throughout this blog) is my minimal use of the words “child” and “children” while substituting for both with words like “youth” or “young people” or the more colloquial “kids”. I have become more and more uncomfortable with the “C Word” since its varying forms are often used to describe immature or unmediated behavior, dependence, or otherwise convey a derogatory context. Whenever you hear, “You are behaving like a child!” or a description of “childish behavior”, you can bet there is a criticism involved.

In conventional usage, any person who is not an “adult” (generally a person eighteen or over) can be described as a “child” (non-adult). Of course, if you say that, “A child walked into the room”, no one is going to picture that a seventeen-year-old just entered. Luckily we do have the words “teenager” and “adolescent” to describe the older non-adult, though those words have their own connotation issues as well.

The more positive connotations of the “C Word” I think of in its use in terms like “child of the universe”, “child of God”, “all my children” or “inner child”. The first three focus the word on the concept of progeny, while the last describes a pure (generally perceived as good in this mostly post-Calvinistic age) primal state that one builds an adult personality on top of.

In the Unitarian-Universalist community I am involved with, we do a kind of semi-formal definition of “children” as people from birth to the age of about seven to nine, “youth” as ages above that to 17, with “young adults” and just plain “adults” at age 18 and above. So where other people might say “children” to refer to all people under 18, we UUs often say instead “children and youth”, differentiating those under 18 that have moved beyond the dependence implied in childhood.

Becoming increasingly uncomfortable myself with the negative connotations of the words “child” and “children”, I have come to avoid using these terms wherever I can, and have mainly relegated the term to identifying progeny. So for example, I would describe “my two grown children” to identify their connection to me as one of their parents. I have otherwise adopted a protocol of referring to any multi-age aggregate of people under 18 as “youth” (plural) and a single young person roughly old enough for kindergarten as a “youth” (singular).

My take is that being described as a “youth” engenders more respect than being referred to as a “child”, with its connotations of immaturity and dependence. The word “youthful” has generally positive connotations when applied to an adult where “childish” has the opposite.

I won’t belabor this much more, hopefully you get where I’m coming from. The words we choose to use can have hundreds of years of convention behind them, and I try more and more to choose them wisely and try to appropriately acknowledge myself or the other person I apply them to.

All that said, I applaud others fighting to rehabilitate the words “child”, “children” and “childhood”.

One reply

  1. I couldn’t agree more, I started noticing the negative connotation of “children” in our homeschool community and started trying to use the word “student” wherever possible and as “my” children matured using “teens”–for some reason I tend to think of “youth” as male???

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