Ethics of research with young children

When we involve young children in our research, there are the usual things we well know that we must attend to – issues of access, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, protection, safety and well being. Discussions of these themes are well served in the literature (Danby and Farrell 2004; Cocks 2006; Dockett and Perry 2007; Heath et al. 2007), and they must form part of the moral fabric of anyone working with young participants in research. There are some even more difficult, more complex issues which are harder to resolve and acutely central to ethical research with young children.  Three things need some thought: i) the need for ‘guardians’ of young research participants, ii) the place of ‘care’ in research practices, and iii) a view of children as ‘Other-wise’.

i) Not ‘Gatekeepers’ but ‘Guardians’: Underneath the more obvious issues of how we obtain access to young research participants, if and how we gain their ‘informed consent’, how we ensure their protection, safety and well being, and how we protect their identities lies the issue of the  ‘gatekeepers’ (Balen et al. 2006).  But I suggest that it is not gatekeepers who are needed but research ‘guardians’ who can ask of the researcher questions such that young children’s specific interests are served.

ii) Not over protective – but deeply caring: Ethical governance procedures promote ‘protection’ of participants and researchers. But we can do better than this if we look beyond ‘protection’ to a culture of caring, vigilance, sensitivity and fidelity.  (see Noddings 1986, Schulz et al. 1997). Researching with young participants requires of researchers, an ethic of care.

iii) Not ‘Othered’ but ‘Other-wise’ : Lahman, (2008) argues that children are always ‘Othered’ by researchers, whatever sensitivities might be present. This view feels like a stop point.  But if we see children, not as ‘Othered’, but as Other-wise – having a different way of knowing – we can hope to learn what their wisdom might be.  They are research participants who hold a different kind of wisdom, the sort of wisdom which – as Socrates  advised – ‘begins with wonder’. 


Balen,  R., Blyth, E., Calabretto, H., Fraser C., Horrocks, C., & Manby, M. (2006) Involving children in health and social research: ‘Human becomings’ or ‘active beings’?   Childhood, 13(1), 29–48.

Cocks, A.C. (2006) The ethical maze: Finding an inclusive path towards gaining children’s agreement to research participation Childhood, 13(2),247–266.

Danby, S. and Farrell, A. (2004)  Accounting for young children’s competence in educational research: New perspectives on research ethics The Australian Educational Researcher, 31(3), 35-50.

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (2007) Trusting children’s accounts in research Journal of Early Childhood Research 5(1), 47–63.

Heath, S., Charles, V., Crow, G. & Wiles,  R. (2007) Informed consent, gatekeepers and go-betweens: negotiating consent in child and youth-orientated institutions British Educational Research Journal, 33(3), 403–417.

Lahman, M. (2008) Always Othered : ethical research with children Journal of Early Childhood Research 6(3) 281–300

Noddings, N. (1986). Fidelity in teaching, teacher education and research for teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 56 (4), 496-510.

Schulz, R., Schroeder, D. & Brody, C. M. (1997) Collaborative narrative inquiry: Fidelity and the ethics of caring in teacher research Qualitative Studies in Education, 10(4), 473-485.

For a fuller discussion of these issues see

Nutbrown, C (2011) ‘Naked by the pool? Blurring the image? :   Ethical and moral issues in the portrayal of young children in arts-based educational research’ Qualitative Inquiry 17(1)

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