Value Of Children Research Paper

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In demography, the term ‘value of children’ most often refers to the benefits parents receive from having and rearing children. Benefits may accrue from the children themselves, from the experience of rearing them, or from the responses of kin, community, and society at large. Children also entail costs for parents and the ‘value of children’ sometimes refers to their net value (benefits less costs). Benefits and costs of children are shaped by the economic conditions of life, by forms of social organization, and by cultural beliefs and practices. The net value of children underlies parents’ desires for children; childbearing desires, in combination with the ability to achieve them determine whether or not individuals or couples have children and how many children they have.

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1. Theoretical Development

The economic value of children is a key component of fertility variation and change. In agricultural economies and during early periods of industrialization, parents and kin make the heavy investment of time and money in young children in order to reap the rewards of children’s labor from adolescence onward (Schultz 1973). The old-age security value of children is particularly important in contexts where no public provisions exist for elder care (Cain 1985). For large numbers of people throughout the world, the economic value of children continues to be a primary benefit of parenthood.

For most parents in industrial societies, however, children provide very little or no economic value. Children’s labor does not produce subsistence for the family nor do children often support their parents in old age. Children are extremely costly to raise and often require economic support well into the young adult years as they complete their formal education. The location and organization of paid employment produces high opportunity costs of childrearing for parental employment. Fertility declines in the twentieth century have been attributed in large part to declines in the economic value and increases in the economic costs of children to their parents (Fawcett 1983).

Of course, scholars have long recognized that the value of children extended beyond their economic benefits. Hoffman and Hoffman (1973) identified the following psychological needs fulfilled by parenthood and the experience of childrearing: (a) adult status and social identity; (b) expansion of the self (tie to a larger entity, ‘immortality’); (c) morality (including religion, altruism, good of the group); (d) primary group ties, affiliation; (e) stimulation, novelty, fun; (f ) creativity, accomplishment, competence; (g) power, influence, effectance; and (h) social comparison, competition. The influence of such benefits on fertility would depend on the availability of alternative mechanisms for fulfilling the identified needs. They also recognized that childrearing carried with it potential psychological costs such as stress and worry.

Recent theoretical arguments reject lists of psycho- logical benefits as sufficient to explain why people continue to have children when they become economic liabilities. One alternative theory claims that the reduction of uncertainty is the primary goal of parenthood (Friedman et al. 1994). Those with limited access to other means for uncertainty reduction, such as stable careers and marriages, will want to become parents. Few of the hypotheses derived from this theory stand up to empirical scrutiny and those that do can be explained by the economic and social opportunity costs of children (Lehrer et al. 1996).

Building on the work of cultural anthropologists and sociologists, Schoen et al. (1997) proposed the theory that children produce social capital for parents. Social capital consists of social relationships and the social resources they provide. At birth, children strengthen parents’ ties to kin. Through schooling and other activities, they link parents with community resources. As adolescents and young adults, children bring new information, ideas, and social relationships to parental households. And most parents eventually obtain in-laws and grandchildren as a consequence of parenthood. Parents may also, of course, incur loss of social capital because they have less time to maintain friendships, relationships with co-workers, or connections to social and political organizations.

While the distinctions among economic, psychological, and social benefits and costs of children make some sense (and also fit disciplinary boundaries), it is important to recognize their interrelationships. Economic subsistence comes first in a list of parental needs, so the economic value of children may be sufficient to stimulate parenthood, whether or not children have any social or psychological value. Social and psycho- logical benefits may be viewed as extras that make the task of childrearing less burdensome, or at least outweigh the social and psychological costs of parenthood. On the other hand, the kin and community ties produced by children may be indirect sources of economic benefits. Several of the benefits identified as psychological also have social components: primary group ties include the parents’ relationship, itself a form of social capital; expansion of self includes ties to larger social groups, including kin, community, and society.

2. Measuring The Value Of Children

The economic value and costs of children could be measured indirectly by estimating the value of children’s labor and transfers to parents over the life course, expenditures related to childrearing, and the value of parental time that might otherwise be spent on income-producing activities (e.g., Rosenzweig 1978). Similar estimates of social or psychological values have not been attempted, and it could be argued that a shared metric for economic, social, and psychological values does not exist. Even if it were possible to measure the true net value of children, parents’ perceptions of those values are what enter into fertility decisions.

The term ‘value of children’ is most closely associated with a set of surveys conducted in the mid-1970s in the United States, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Thailand (Fawcett 1983). Although based on the psychological values of children discussed above, the surveys also contained information on the perceived economic and social benefits and costs of children. Respondents were asked open-ended questions about reasons for having or not having children and were asked to rate the importance of several lists of child benefits and costs as reasons to have or not have children or their next child. Analyses of these data remain the primary source of current knowledge about variation in the value of children.

Measures of the benefits and costs of children are also the basis for subjective-expected-utility or expectancy-value models of fertility decisions (e.g., Davidson and Jaccard 1979). Respondents are asked to rate the value of possible outcomes of having or not having a child and also the subjective probability that having or not having a child will produce the outcome. The product of those two responses comprises the importance of a given outcome as a reason to have or not have a child. Almost all of the research based on these models has focused on the total expected utility of having a child, rather than on the relative importance of specific child benefits and costs.

More recently, several European Fertility and Family Surveys and the US National Survey of Families and Households used structured importance ratings to measure the value of children to parents. In these surveys, the rating scales are more extensive than the three-point scale used for the earlier VOC surveys, but the questions do not cover all of the theoretical benefits and costs discussed above. Analyses of these data to date have combined ratings of social and psychological benefits of children into a single scale (e.g., Schoen et al. 1997).

3. Variations In The Value Of Children

3.1 The Value Of First And Later-Born Children

First, second and higher-order births are associated with distinct benefits and costs (Bulatao 1981, Fawcett 1983). The first child confers the status of parenthood, so that benefits associated with parenthood per se can be acquired by having only one child. Adult status, relationship stability, parent-child interaction, and kin connections are all cited as primary reasons for becoming a parent. The first child is also associated with the greatest increase in opportunity costs, that is, constraints on parental time and energy.

The most important value of a second child is to provide a sibling for the first (Bulatao 1981). Second, children may further strengthen partnership and kin ties and provide additional opportunities for rewarding parent-child interactions. The value of higher-order births is predominantly economic—each child contributes additional labor or economic security for parents. Restrictions on parents’ time are also associated with higher birth orders, but at a diminishing rate. Financial costs of children become more salient to parents at the birth of fourth and higher-order siblings.

3.2 Gender And The Value Of Children

Overall, men and women perceive the values and costs associated with children in much the same way. The few differences that are observed are consistent with traditional gender roles (Fawcett 1983). Men are on average more concerned than women about the financial costs of childrearing and about having sons to continue the family name. The latter difference is particularly pronounced in patrilineal societies. Women place greater importance than do men on the work and strain of raising children, the opportunity costs of children for other activities, and the benefits of children for the marital relationship; the last difference is also larger in patrilineal than in bilineal kinship systems.

Differences in the perceived benefits of daughters and sons are also related to differences in the roles and behaviors of men and women (Fawcett 1983). Sons are valued more than daughters for kinship ties, that is, to continue the family name, and for financial assistance. These values are especially pronounced in patrilineal family systems and where men have greater access than women to economic opportunities. Daughters are valued more than sons for household and childcare help and companionship. In patrilineal societies, the values associated with sons are produced for the most part in adulthood, those associated with daughters during childhood, consistent with the practice of daughters’ leaving the parental home upon marriage. Many of the benefits of children, particularly social and psychological benefits, do not appear to differ for sons and daughters.

3.3 Socioeconomic Variation In The Value Of Children

As noted above, the economic value of children is associated with agricultural and household economic production and the absence of social insurance for elderly parents. Although children also entail high economic costs in such contexts, they are necessary for survival. Industrialization and urbanization reduce the economic value of child labor and increase the costs of rearing children to be economically independent. Economic development eventually leads to the development of social insurance that reduces further the economic value of children for support in old age. As a result, children’s net economic value is perceived to be lower in industrialized wealthy countries than in poorer countries with a greater dependence on agricultural and household production (Fawcett 1983).

Psychological benefits and costs of children are reported to be more important in industrial and postindustrial settings than in agricultural settings (Fawcett 1983). This difference may arise because of the priority of economic survival over psychological wellbeing, that is, children may provide psychological benefits (and costs) for parents in all settings, but these components of child value become salient only when children become irrelevant to economic survival. On the other hand, the increasing complexity and impersonal character of daily life in industrialized urban societies may produce a greater need for the love and companionship and stimulation of children. At the same time, psychological costs of childrearing may increase because kin and community take less responsibility for the supervision and care of children.

Because the social capital value of children has only recently been introduced into theoretical discussions of the value of children, it is difficult to know how such values might vary under different economic conditions. In agricultural settings there may be a stronger association between economic and social ties so that the latter are not distinguishable from the former. Only in industrial and urban societies may social capital be sufficiently separable from financial capital to identify it as a separate source of child value.

Socioeconomic variation in the value of children is also evidenced across families within societies (Fawcett 1983). A consistent finding from VOC surveys was that urban respondents place a lower economic value and a higher emotional value on children than do respondents living in rural areas. Similarly, education is inversely associated with children’s economic value and directly associated with their emotional value as well as with perceived restrictions or opportunity costs of parenthood. Direct financial costs and childcare stresses do not vary substantially across countries or across individuals in different economic circumstances. Increasing economic status is associated with desire for increased child ‘quality’ which means greater financial and time energy investments in each child. Thus, the perceived cost of childrearing, other than opportunity costs, remains essentially the same across socioeconomic levels.

3.4 Culture And The Value Of Children

Broad cultural values may also serve as sources of specific or general values of children. Religious institutions and beliefs may support the value of children for social and psychological benefits. For example, Catholicism is viewed as a support for large-family values in the Philippines, Confucianism for the high value of sons to carry on the family name in some Asian countries. The relative values of daughters and sons are associated with broad cultural values on gender equality (Fawcett 1983).

Lesthaeghe (1983) argued that ideational change is an independent force underlying current low fertility in Western countries. He identifies the two most salient features of this change as secularization and individuation. Secularization allows more latitude to individual morality, individuation stresses the importance of personal self-actualization. Using national surveys of social and family values, Lesthaeghe and coworkers (e.g., Lesthaeghe and Meekers 1986) distinguished two dimensions of family values—a nonconformity dimension linked to partner relationships and nonmarital childbearing; and the ‘meaning of parenthood,’ including beliefs that children are necessary for ‘fulfillment’ and for marital success. Measures of secularism and individuation were strongly associated with nonconforming family values, but only weakly associated with the meaning of parenthood.

4. The Value Of Children And Fertility

Studies using ratings such as those in the Value of Children Surveys have generally found that high perceived economic benefits of children are associated with a large family size. The importance of psycho-logical benefits and restrictions on parental activities are associated with a small family size (Fawcett 1983). The relationship between perceived child values and fertility is not, however, as strong as some scholars had hoped, and the financial and time effort costs of children are not associated with family size.

Relatively moderate associations between values of children and completed fertility should not be surprising. Specific values are associated with particular numbers of children, not consistently with large or small numbers. Child values can influence only desired fertility, so that the relationship between values and outcomes depends on the degree of fertility control. In addition, measures of the perceived value of children have often been relatively crude (e.g., 3-point response scale). When a particular parity progression is specified, when contraception is pervasive, and when precise measures of the expected value (net of cost) of children are generated, very high correlations are observed with birth intentions and eventual births (e.g., Davidson and Jaccard 1979).


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