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Word Matters: What’s in a Name—‘Children’ and ‘Youth’

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor
Here’s a phrase I keep seeing when I edit public documents for Family Development: “children and youth.” Since part of my work is to look at things from the eyes of ordinary readers, I began to wonder what the difference in meaning between the two words might be.

My initial thoughts were that “children” refers to anyone from roughly toddlerhood to the pre-teen years and that children are a sub-set (or part) of “youth,” which also encompasses teenagers. That led me to ask, “Why not just say ‘youth’ in our public communications?” But then my thoughts turned to young adults. Aren’t they also called “youth” or “youths?” What’s more, would everyone understand that the term “youth” encompasses all three categories? Or is more specificity required?

By this time, my head hurt — so I contacted Cari Michaels, Extension Educator with the Children, Youth & Family Consortium (CYFC). Her department’s name, after all, includes both terms “children” and “youth.” She told me that CYFC defines “children” as roughly anyone from toddlerhood to age 15 and “youth” as teens and young adults from age 16–24, adding that this is in keeping with other centers at higher education institutions that have a similar purpose and charge.

Cari also noted that the full name of her department includes “Family,” as well as “Children” and “Youth” to reflect CYFC’s holistic approach to educational programs. Actually, many parts of Extension take this holistic approach so that children, teens, and young adults are not just seen as individuals living in a vacuum, but as part of a family environment that can either support or impede their development. Thus, a number of Extension programs seek to help families create healthy environments for “youth” in the broad sense.

And “youth” in the broad sense is what Wendy Huckaby, Communications Manager with the Center for Youth Development, cited when I asked for her take on the terms “children” and “youth.” Here’s what she said:
We generally use the term “youth” broadly to define the entire range we serve (kindergarten through one year past high school), but when I hear conversations about a more specific breakdown, people have said they think of the terms “children” or “kids” to cover kindergarten through beginning of middle school and “youth” and “young adults” for middle school up.
After conversing by email with Cari and Wendy, I concluded the following:
  • Both CYFC and YD essentially define “children” as anyone from toddlers or kindergarteners to pre-teens, and “youth” as anyone from teenagers to young adults.
  • CYFC has chosen to distinguish the two terms in the name it presents to the public.
  • YD makes no such distinction in its public-facing name, and essentially uses “youth” to represent everyone from toddlers to young adults.
Which brings me back to, “Why not just say ‘youth’ in our communications?” And sometimes that will do, such as when we’re talking about creating healthy family environments for youth or other instances where it’s not necessary to name all three categories of youth. But other times, I think we need to be specific. Those instances depend on context and whether it’s important for users to know exactly what we’re talking about.

That’s why, unless we’re writing for other professionals (as in the CYFC Monthly), I’ll continue to evaluate the context when I see the phrase “children and youth” in public documents written by FD staff and educators. And if it looks like more specifics are required, I’ll ask FD educators and staff to tell me what they mean and then edit the phrase accordingly. That might result in a change to either “children, teens, and young adults,” “children and teens” or “teens and young adults.”
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