Toward a Theory of Child Well-Being

Ramesh Raghavan, Anna Alexandrova

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Assuring the well-being of children has emerged over the past several decades as an important goal for health and social policymakers. Although the concept of child well-being has been operationalized and measured in different ways by different child-serving entities, there are few unifying theories that could undergird and inform these various conceptual and measurement efforts. In this paper, we attempt to construct a theory of child well-being. We first review the social and policy history of the concept of child well-being, and briefly review its measurement based on these conceptualizations. We then examine three types of theories of well-being extant in philosophy—mental states theories, desire-based theories and needs-based theories—and investigate their suitability to serve as prototypes of a theory of child well-being. We develop a constraint that child well-being is important in and of itself and not merely as a way station to future adult well-being (we call this a non-reduction constraint). Using this constraint, we identify the limitations of each of the three sets of theories to serve as a basis for a theory of child well-being. Based on a developmentalist approach, we then articulate a theory of child well-being that contains two conditions. First, a child’s stage-appropriate capacities that equip her for successful adulthood, given her environment; and, second, an engagement with the world in child-appropriate ways. We conclude by reviewing seven implications of this theoretical approach for the measurement of child well-being.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)887-902
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Indicators Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2015


  • Child development
  • Child well-being
  • Philosophy
  • Social policy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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