The value of children

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Citation: Thomson, Elizabeth The value of children.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The value of children
Tagged: uw-madison (RSS), wisconsin (RSS), sociology (RSS), demography (RSS), prelim (RSS), qual (RSS), WisconsinDemographyPrelimAugust2009 (RSS), economics (RSS), children (RSS)


The economic value of children is a key component of fertility variation and change. In preindustrial societies, children were an economic benefit from adolescence onward, however, in industrial societies children provide little or no economic value. Children also fulfill psychological needs such as: conferring adult status and social identity; expansion of the self; morality; primary group ties and affiliations; stimulation, novelty, and fun; creativity, accomplishment, competence; power, influence, effectance; social comparison or competition. Childrearing also carries potential psychological costs such as stress and worry. However, recent work has rejected psychological benefits of children as sufficient to explain why people continue to have children. Schoen proposes that children produce social capital for their parents by strengthening ties to kin, linking parents with community resources, and bringing new information, ideas, and social relationships to parental households. Parents also lose social capital because they have less time to devote to other relationships. Economic benefits of children may be enough for parents to want children while social capital and psychological benefits are just added value. Economic value of children can be measured indirectly by estimating the value of children's labor and transfers over the life course, expenditures related to childrearing, and the value of parental time that might otherwise be spent on other activities. However, even if it were possible to measure the true net value of children, parents' perceptions pf those values are what enter into fertility decisions. First order births confer the status of parenthood and adulthood. Relationship stability, parent-child interaction and kin connections are given as primary reasons for becoming a parent. First order children are associated with the highest opportunity costs. The most important value of a second child is to be a sibling to the first. The value of higher order births is primarily economic. Men on average are more concerned with the financial costs and having a son to continue the family name. Women place more importance on the work and strain of raising children, the opportunity costs of children, and the benefits for the marital relationship. Sons are valued for kinship ties and financial assistance, while daughters are valued for household and childcare help. Social and psychological benefits do not appear to differ between sons and daughters. Psychological benefits and costs of children are higher in industrialized and urban settings. Education is inversely related to economic value, while directly associated with emotional value and perceived opportunity costs of parenthood. Increasing economic status is associated with desire for increased child quality. Cultural values may serve as sources of value of children. Religious institutions and beliefs may support the value of children. The relative value of sons and daughters is associated with cultural values on gender. Lesthaeghe identifies ideation change as an independent force underlying current low fertility in Western countries. Perceived economic benefits of children are associated with larger family sizes. Psychological benefits are associated with smaller family size. These relationships are not very strong. Child values can influence only desired fertility. However, when a particular parity progression is specified, when contraception is pervasive, and when precise measures of the expected net value of children are generated, intentions strongly follow actual births.