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Legal Definitions of Childhood
Elizabeth Hogan, Edison Intermediate School, Westfield, NJ

CORE QUESTION: Throughout history how do various countries’ legal, societal texts define childhood?

OVERVIEW: Many societies have gone beyond traditionally defining who/what a child is in cultural or customary terms and have codified these definitions.  An investigation to view how modern societies across the globe define, and therefore treat, children will yield interesting sets of values.

TIME REQUIRED: 40 minutes

SUGGESTED GRADE LEVELS: High school but can be modified for younger students.

INTERDISCIPLINARY APPLICATIONS:  Social Studies, English, World Languages, World Literature

NEW JERSEY CORE CONTENT STANDARDS: 6.2 (11) Humanities, 6.3 (14) Human Rights, 6.5 (13 & 14) Cultures.


  1. Identify how various legal or social texts from different world cultures define childhood.
  2. To compare and contrast the definitions among the texts.
  3. To identify the sources the students most identify with.


  • Brainstorming - How would you define childhood?
  • Read passages from teacher selected texts (various ways to group the selections).
  • Students will make notes on a chart (Microsoft Word) organizing similarities and differences between the texts.  

MATERIALS: Selected texts and web sites.



Colon, P. A., and A. R. Colon, A History of Children: A Socio-cultural Survey Across Millennia, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2001 Themes: offers a disscussion on how there is an "unchanging, immutable nature of childhood despite" a broad range of societal, economic and political practices that shape children's lives. The universal love for children remains although their lives have been comprimised, shortened and plagued with child labor, exploitation, slavery, neglect and death. Themes that the Colons' book develops spans the roles of various "laws, religions, pedagogues, medicine, advocates, and the rogues of history—plagues, tyrants, wars, superstitions, poverty, famines---on the lives of children."

James, Allison and Alan Prout, eds., Constructing and Reconstructing childhood : New Directions in the Sociological Study of Childhood, New York: Falmer Press, 1990.

Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye, Children Through the Ages: A History of Childhood, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.  Archard, David, Children: Rights and Childhood, New York: Routledge, 1993.

Web Sites:

ASSESSMENT: Students will first complete their comparison charts to be evaluated. Students will work in groups of four to draft their own document defining childhood and the rights that children should enjoy.

To learn more about the influence of Children's Rights on our global society, click on the links below:
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