Children and Youth
The term “child” can refer to anyone below the age of 18, which is the age of legal adulthood in the U.S. In some cases, a child is defined as someone below the age of 13, and those between 13 and 18 are referred to as adolescents or teenagers, though different definitions of age classifications exist and vary in scope. For example, some definitions extend adolescence to age 19. “Childhood” and “youth” are other general terms for the period of life between the ages of 1 and 18 and are usually defined by certain developmental and transitional events, like rapid growth and beginning schooling. Referring to people by their age group or educational level (teens, elementary school age children, etc.) is one way to be more specific when discussing or referring to children and youth. Terminology is an individual preference and should be treated as such.
Children and adolescents account for an estimated 22% of the U.S. population. Childhood is a crucial time of development in the human lifespan. From birth to age five, children’s brains are developing rapidly, producing up to 40,000 neural connections per second. The connections made during this period of growth enable movement, language acquisition and emotional expression, and form the building blocks for skills developed later in life, like self-regulation, problem-solving, and motivation . Childhood experiences have lifelong effects on behavior, learning, physical and mental health, and overall well-being. Today, children and youth are growing up in uncertain and dangerous times—in 2020, gun violence surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of childhood, including education, social and emotional development, and access to routine medical care. Caring for these aspects of children’s health and well-being is vital, not only for their sake today, but for the sake of the adults they will become in the future.
Historically, children have been a particularly vulnerable population. It was not until the mid-19th century that children were recognized as a distinct and unique population as opposed to just smaller versions of adults. Programs specifically for children, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the National School Lunch Program, and Head Start and Early Head Start, have improved the health and well-being of American children, in addition to raising awareness of the importance of children’s health.
Though awareness about and understanding of the factors contributing to childhood health and well-being has improved in the last century, not all of America’s children and youth have reaped the benefits. Racial and ethnic health disparities in the United States are pervasive and extend to America’s children, including in mortality, access to and quality of care, use of services, and prevention, among other areas. From 2018-2019, the proportion of children who were reported as not in excellent or very good health was 10% overall, but was 13% for Hispanic or Latino children and 15% for Black children. Children of color are also disproportionately affected by lack of insurance: 14% of Native American and 9% of Hispanic/Latinx children did not have health insurance coverage in 2019, when the average for all children in the U.S. was only 6%. Additionally, children and youth that are economically poor, disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or of color experience compounding marginalizations and are overall more likely to struggle to thrive.
Achieving health equity and justice for children and youth requires continued dedication to their well-being and acknowledgement of their vulnerability—many negative health outcomes that children face are preventable. Special attention should be paid to marginalized groups, especially children of color, in order to improve their access to opportunities, care, and health equity. Institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice throughout the education, child care, child welfare, and health care sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of people with lived experience. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the perspectives and voices of children and youth are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being.