Spanish Words for Talking About Children

Word choice varies with context, region

Children in a Mexican playground.
Niños jugando. (Children playing.).

 Russell Monk / Getty Images

Chico, muchacho, niño—and their feminine equivalents, chica, muchacha, and niña—are just a few of the words you can use in Spanish to refer to children. But they aren't all used in the same way.

In most cases, you're safe to use any of the above words to refer to boys and girls. However, in some cases they can have more specialized uses.

Using Chico and Chica

As a general adjective, chico is simply a word for "small," especially when referring to something that is smaller than other beings or things of its type. When it becomes a noun referring to people, however, it usually refers to someone of a young age rather than someone of short stature. The age of children used for chico and chica varies somewhat with region.

However, it is often used as a term of affection for people other than children. For example, in Cuba it frequently is used to address friends, something like "hey dude" or "buddy" might be in the United States.

It is also very common to use chica when referring to young, single women, especially those who are of potential romantic or sexual interest—something like the equivalent of "babe." To a lesser extent, chico can fulfill a similar role. Similarly, the two terms commonly are used for "girlfriend" and "boyfriend," respectively.

The main characters in a movie, TV show, or novel are often referred to as chico or chica, especially if they are young and attractive.

Using Muchacho and Muchacha

When referring to adolescents or teenagers, muchacho/a can usually be used interchangeably with chico/a. In most areas it isn't used often when referring to younger children.

Muchacho/a can also be used to refer to a young servant or maid.

Using Niño and Niña

Niño and niña are more general and sometimes slightly more formal words for children. Their use might be preferred in situations where we'd talk about a child in English rather than a boy or girl. For example, a school handout might say something such as "Cada niño debe leer un libro por mes" for "Each child should read one book per month." (Following the Spanish rule of gender, niños can refer to a mixed group of boys and girls, not necessarily just boys. In sentences such as the above, the context suggests that cada niño refers to each child, not necessarily just each boy.)

Niño is also used in situations where the speaker is referring to young age or inexperience in general. For example, a child soldier is a niño soldado, and a street child is a niño/a de la calle. Similarly, someone who is "worse than a child" is peor que un niño—words such as chico and muchacho wouldn't work well in that context.

Using Joven and Adolescente

Joven and adolescente are the rough equivalents of "youth" (as a noun) and "adolescent" and can refer to young people of either sex. Although the words are often translated as "teenager," their use isn't strictly limited to the ages of 13 to 19.

Both words can also function as adjectives.

Other Words Referring to Children

Other words for talking about children include:

  • Hijo and hija refer specifically to a son or daughter, respectively. Niño/a can also be used with the same meaning if the context is clear.
  • Criatura, a cognate of "creature," is sometimes used an affectionate term. For example, "¡Qué criatura hermosa!" might be translated loosely as "What a beautiful little angel!" Note that criatura is always feminine, even if it refers to a boy.
  • Descendiente can be used as a replacement for hijo or hija; it is used much more than the English "descendant." The word can be either masculine or feminine depending on whether it refers to a son or daughter. It can also refer to descendants such as great-grandchildren.
  • Bebé is the most common word for baby. It is always masculine, even when referring to a girl.
  • Infante and infanta, cognates of "infant," can refer to young children, not necessarily as young as would the English word. The adjective form is infantil. In context, they are also the words for "prince" and "princess," especially when referring to the royalty of Spain and Portugal, the latter of which no longer has a monarchy.

A Note About Nonbinary Children

There is no universally agreed-upon vocabulary for referring to children who identify as neither female nor female, and such usage is a subject of debate and controversy.

In written Spanish, it is become more common to see the arroba used to form nongendered nouns, so words such as nin@ and muchach@ are sometimes used as nongendered or to include both male and female. Some activists also have proposed changing the gendered o and a endings to e to form words such as niñe, but such efforts are gaining little traction.

Elle (plural elles) has been proposed as a nongendered pronoun to be used in grammatically the same as él and ella, but it receives almost no use and is not recognized by the Spanish Royal Academy.

Pronoun issues surface less often in Spanish than in English, because they can often be omitted as sentence subjects.

Key Takeaways

  • Niño or niña, muchacho or muchacha, and chico or chica are the most common words used in Spanish to refer to children.
  • In traditional Spanish, masculine plural forms such as niños are used to refer to groups of children that include boys and girls.
  • When "child" refers specifically to a son or daughter, it is best translated as hijo or hija.