Big Ideas: Tiny, happy people faring well

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Aristotle thinks children cannot fare well because they cannot, on account of their intellectual and moral immaturity, exhibit intellectual and moral virtues, as he understands them. But his conclusion follows only because he assumes the only way to fare well is to exhibit these virtues.

Herein lies Aristotle’s mistake.

Why think there is only one way to fare well across the human life span? It is possible, at least at some point during childhood, children fare well in a way that is different to adults? Aristotle may be right that children do not fare well as adults do. But he is wrong in saying they do not fare well at all. Indeed, we might think the fact his view entails that children cannot fare well is reason to reconsider his assumptions.


But in what does children’s welfare consist?

The aim of my research has been to answer this question by developing a theory of well-being for children. While most philosophers of well-being have not taken Aristotle’s view, few have devoted time to working out a view of children’s well-being. Most have focused on conceptions that seem to fit only adults.

To the extent that philosophers give any thought to what makes a child’s life go well, they tend to suggest it consists in surplus pleasure. Pleasure and enjoyment do seem to be crucial to children’s well-being. These are not, however, the only positive affective states that matter.

To capture these, we need to appeal to a broader psychological state. To get at this state, it is helpful to focus on the intuitive idea that a child’s subjective perspective – how she finds her life’s conditions – matters to her welfare.

This seems to be important to children’s welfare.

The most plausible way to capture this idea is to argue that faring well as a child, in part, involves being satisfied with one’s life, a notion broad enough to encompass all of the positive affective states that seem to matter to children’s well-being – from bare contentment to exuberance.

Let’s call this happiness.

Happiness is important, in part, because it ensures a child’s perspective, what matters to her, from her point of view, registers in thinking about how well she is faring. But satisfaction is not all that matters.

A child might be happy in mindless activities or in physical inactivity. Further, a young child’s perspective is immature, and so what matters to her from her perspective, may not be all that matters to her well-being.

One way to remedy these worries is to rely on the idea welfare consists, together with happiness, in measuring up well to some value standard. What does the standard look like in the case of children? My suggestion is the standard should be substantive, consisting in a range of things in which it seems good for a child to experience happiness, including valuable relationships, intellectual activity and play (especially of the unstructured variety).

This leads to the view that faring well as a child consists in experiencing happiness in valuable relationships, intellectual activity and play. This view meshes well with scientific research on children’s development. In The Good Childhood report, the United Kingdom’s Children’s Society emphasizes the importance of friends, family, mental health and schooling to proper development in childhood. A Harvard University study on childhood poverty notes the salience of robust opportunities for intellectual activity and active relationships with adults to constructing “a strong architecture of brain circuitry.”

My view is a hybrid, because it holds that happiness and the presence of certain goods are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a child to fare well.

The view faces a number of problems.

One is it entails an experience of happiness – passively enjoying the sunset – is not good for a child if it is not taken in one of the goods.

A second worry is the view suggests without happiness, intellectual activity – practicing one’s sums correctly – does not contribute to welfare. In my current research, I contend with such concerns.

A third worry arises from the fact children change a lot during childhood. There are big differences between toddlers and pre-teens and adolescents. This means any view of children’s welfare will have to be flexible enough to accommodate such changes. Whether the view gestured at above can do this remains to be seen. It is likely the nature and weight of the kinds of goods in which it seems good for a child to experience happiness will have to alter, perhaps significantly, as a child develops.

Philosophers have spent little time thinking about what makes a child’s life go well. This is a shame.



The good news is, philosophical research brought into contact with the relevant science of children’s growth and development, can remedy this situation. How well we do it matters greatly to how we educate and raise our next generation.

Philosophy professor Anthony Skelton is the associate director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. This summer, he will be a visiting researcher at the Fondation Brocher in Hermance, Switzerland.