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This is an issue that came up with my host family quite often. I have never been quite clear on which to use. In particular, 子 seems somewhat rude (much to the same effect as 男 or 女). On the other hand, 子供 "seems" less rude, but I'm not entirely sure if that's the case. Finally, お子さん seems very polite (for obvious reasons), but it seems almost too polite--especially to refer to kids, with whom you would most likely use casual language.

What is the difference between 子, 子供, and お子さん?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

子ども seems appropriate. If you want to be a tad more polite/considerate use their name: 真紀子ちゃん/健太郎君 for girls/boys under 10 and りんさん/正吉さん for girls/boys over 10.

お子さん is used for addressing the parents, not the child directly.

お子さんは何人いらっしゃるんですか。

子 by itself seems quite direct and is best reserved for parents talking about their own children.

この子は本当にお利口だから、助かるのよ。

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I may sound old fashioned here but to me the difference between 子供 and 子 is similar to the difference between "child"/"the children" and "kid"/"the kids", or at least it was once upon a time. (These days people seem more likely to refer to "the kids" in place of "the children" in all situations.) –  Tim Sep 15 '12 at 0:10
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Thanks. Nowadays, 子供たち is quite common, though, and gives a way to use 子供 as singular... –  Earthliŋ Sep 15 '12 at 0:36

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