The Intrinsic Goods of Childhood: Trust, Time, and Play

I begin my examination of the goods of children by thinking first about children as rights bearers. If children have rights and those rights protect their welfare, then we need to know in what children’s welfare consists. On a predominant view of welfare-so mainstream as to pass by unnoticed—only the welfare of adults counts and we measure childhood goods by their contribution to adult life. For example, health care decisions for children are often justified on the basis of future health and well-being, discounting rather heavily impact on current well-being. As well, policies around education and school curriculum focus on producing competent adult workers and citizens often ignoring childhood. Discussions of corporal punishment and its justification often ask, “But does it work?” focusing entirely on outcomes setting aside its effects on childhood well-being.

But what if there are goods the value of which doesn’t follow from their contribution to the goods of adult life? Then these lines of justification and argument will be missing out on a morally significant factor. In many cases the results may be the same, but getting the reasons right matters. Good childhoods will produce good adults but as the examples I’ve given just show it does make a practical difference that we get it right. For example, we need to know the relative weight of instrumental goods and intrinsic goods. Consider the tough question of providing for our children sufficient opportunities to experience some bads, failure, for example, in order to produce resilient competent goods.

Are any of the intrinsic goods of childhood uniquely available to children? I suggest that play, trust, and time might be such goods. And here I consider these three goods as unique childhood goods. A final section of the paper considers three objections: First, that these goods aren’t unique to childhood. Second, that they are only instrumentally good. And third, that they are not necessarily good at all.