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Biologically, a child (plural: children) is generally a human between the stages of birth and puberty. Some vernacular definitions of a child include the fetus, as being an unborn child. The legal definition of "child" generally refers to a minor, otherwise known as a person younger than the age of majority.
"Child" may also describe a relationship with a parent (such as sons and daughters of any age) or, metaphorically, an authority figure, or signify group membership in a clan, tribe, or religion; it can also signify being strongly affected by a specific time, place, or circumstance, as in "a child of nature" or "a child of the Sixties".
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as "a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier". Ratified by 192 of 194 member countries. Some English definitions of the word 'child' include the fetus and the unborn. Biologically, a child is anyone between birth and puberty or in the developmental stage of childhood, between infancy and adulthood. Children generally have fewer rights than adults and are classed as unable to make serious decisions, and legally must always be under the care of a responsible adult.
Recognition of childhood as a state different from adulthood began to emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries. Society began to relate to the child not as a miniature adult but as a person of a lower level of maturity needing adult protection, love and nurturing. This change can be traced in paintings: In the Middle Ages, children were portrayed in art as miniature adults with no childish characteristics. In the 16th century, images of children began to acquire a distinct childish appearance. From the late 17th century onwards, children were shown playing. Toys and literature for children also began to develop at this time.
All children go through stages of social development. An infant or very young child will play alone happily. If another child wanders onto the scene, he/she may be physically attacked or pushed out of the way. Next, the child can play with another child, gradually learning to share and take turns. Eventually, the group grows larger, to three or four children. By the time a child enters kindergarten, he or she can usually join in and enjoy group experiences.
Children with ADHD and learning disabilities may need extra help to develop social skills. The impulsive characteristics of an ADHD child may lead to poor peer relationships. Children with poor attention spans may not tune in to social cues in their environment, making it difficult for them to learn social skills through experience.
Social attitudes toward children differ around the world in various cultures. These attitudes have changed over time. A 1988 study on European attitudes toward the centrality of children found that Italy was more child-centric and Holland less child-centric, with other countries, such as Austria, Great Britain, Ireland and West Germany falling in between.
The age at which children are considered responsible for their society-bound actions (e. g. marriage, voting, etc.) has also changed over time, and this is reflected in the way they are treated in courts of law. In Roman times, children were regarded as not culpable for crimes, a position later adopted by the Church. In the 19th century, children younger than seven years old were believed incapable of crime. Children from the age of seven forward were considered responsible for their actions. Therefore, they could face criminal charges, be sent to adult prison, and be punished like adults by whipping, branding or hanging. Today, in many countries like Canada and the United States, children twelve and older are held responsible for their actions and may be sent to special correctional institutions, such as juvenile hall.
Surveys have found that at least 25 countries around the world have no specified age for compulsory education. Minimum employment age and marriage age also vary. In at least 125 countries, children aged 7–15 may be taken to court and risk imprisonment for criminal acts. In some countries, children are legally obliged to go to school until they are 14 or 15 years old, but may also work before that age. A child's right to education is threatened by early marriage, child labour and imprisonment.
China's one-child policy forces some couples to have no more than one child. China's population policy has been credited with a very significant slowing of China's population growth which had been higher before the policy was implemented. It has come under criticism that the implementation of the policy has involved forced abortions and forced sterilization. However, while the punishment of "unplanned" pregnancy is a fine, both forced abortion and forced sterilization can be charged as intentional assault, which is punished with up to 10 years' imprisonment. If born with another child and kept, parents must pay a large fine for every day he/she is alive.
During the early 17th century in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four. During the Industrial Revolution, the life expectancy of children increased dramatically.
According to population health experts, child mortality rates have fallen sharply since the 1990s. Deaths of children under the age of five are down by 42% in the United States, while Serbia and Malaysia have cut their rates by nearly 70%.
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