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Modern Western Conception Of Childhood, Children Within Families

Childhood is usually defined in relation to adulthood: the condition of being an immature person, of having not yet become an adult. In some societies, physical or reproductive maturity marks the transition to adulthood, but in modern Western societies full adult status is not usually achieved until several years after puberty. Childhood is legally defined here as a state of dependency on adults or as the status of those excluded from citizenship on the grounds of their youth. Dependence and exclusion from citizenship are in turn justified in terms of young people's incapacity to look after themselves or their emotional and cognitive unfitness for adult rights and responsibilities. Hence, psychological immaturity becomes a further criterion for deciding who counts as a child. The definition of childhood, then, involves complex cultural judgments about maturity and immaturity, children's assumed capabilities, and their difference from adults. Therefore, childhood is a social category, not merely a natural one.

Modern legal systems institutionalize childhood by setting an age of majority at which persons become legal subjects responsible for their own affairs and able to exercise citizenship rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen unless, under the laws of his or her country, the age of majority comes sooner. Even with such legalistic dividing lines, there are still areas of ambiguity. Within any one country there may be various markers of adult status, so that one ceases to be a child for some purposes while remaining one for others. For example, the right to vote and the right to marry without parental consent may be acquired at different times.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & Parenthood