Throughout the world, many children play a key role in both productive and reproductive household labor, and may contribute to their household maintenance in both paid and unpaid ways. However, many children's tasks are not recognized as work and can be underestimated or undervalued. For example, domestic labor is considered something that children should automatically carry out without pay. In this sense, child labor can be compared to the invisibility and undervaluation of women's work. It can also be invisible since children's work is often masked as 'training' or 'helping'. Partly, this may be because children's labor is often controlled by women, and is intended to help women with their reproductive tasks or to replace women releasing them for more productive labor. However, care must be taken not to assume that all children's work is within the stereotypical female sphere of domestic work and childcare.
Children carry out a wide range of unpaid and paid work in diverse contexts, such as at home, on farms, in shops, restaurants, factories, and in a variety of jobs in the tourist industry. Sometimes the work they do is similar to that of adults, and at other times it is adapted to their age and particular competencies. For example, children's division of labor within households may be divided according to their gender, age, birth order, and sibling composition.
Since the 1990s, an increasing number of studies have examined the nature of child labor from children's own perspectives. This is partly because of the growth of the new social studies of childhood which views children as social actors whose own perspectives should be sought when constructing knowledge about their daily lives. In relation to child labor, this has also led to a recognition of the importance of children's work during their childhoods in the present rather than only as having socialization value for their future lives as adults. Most of the literature on children and work can be placed within three broad categories: definitions of child work/labor; policy and legislative debates of protection versus abolition; and the reasons why children work, which include debates on the economic utility of children. Each of these will now be considered.