Kids as consumer goods

by Rob Horning

3 March 2008


From Reason‘s site comes this essay by Ron Bailey, which argues that couples are having fewer kids for the simple reason that many couples don’t actually like them.

So, modernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre. But that’s just the problem—according to happiness researchers, people don’t really enjoy rearing children.

This makes intuitive sense to me. Since society has changed and women are no longer forced to be mothers, children have become voluntary, they represent choices, and the atmosphere that we are conditioned to associate with choice, the place where our choices matter, is the marketplace. Choices are less deliberative, evaluative acts than opportunities for consumption. A choice is a moment in which we can bask in all the privileges and pleasures of consumerism.

Surely, some would be appalled at the selfishness implied by viewing children as toys manufactured for the parents’ amusement, but would such an attitude be so incongruent with the values generally promulgated in commercial society? In the abstract—to the prechild couple perhaps—children are seen as precious objects to add to a collection of quirky, self-defining things—it’s perhaps the ultimate identity good, as it’s literally a piece of yourself made into something else. And children can function as lifestyle accoutrements that announce a certain set of priorities, that you subscribe in some way to “family values” and take a pride in nurturing. And children allow parents to show off a host of attendant status-signaling goods, like strollers and elite preschools.

Bailey cites happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert, who says people claim to say children make them happy because that is what they are expected to say, and because a form of the sunk-costs effect kicks in:

Gilbert observes that the more people pay for an item, the more highly they tend to value it and children are expensive, even if you don’t throw in piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and college tuitions.

That’s a rather benign explanation; those with a more conspiratorial bent might attribute the cheerleading for a childcentric culture to a wish among reactionaries and conservatives to preserve the old order of gender roles: the impositions and imperatives of child care tend to lead to women doing a bunch of domestic work, rendering them less fit to compete with men in the non-domestic sphere. If women aren’t staying at home altogether, they are instead working the “second shift” of managing family life and attending to its emotional and physical needs. As Tim Harford points out in The Logic of Life (citing Gary Becker), the comparative advantage women often have in performing domestic labor encourages families (“rationally”) to organize the division of labor in a household so that women do most of the housework. “There is no reason to believe that men were breadwinners because they were any good at it,” Harford explains. “They might simply have been breadwinners because getting them to help around the house would have been even worse.” In this argument, domestic work is regarded as primary, and comparative advantage is adjusted in accordance to who best performs that fundamental labor for reproducing society. Ironic, then, that such primary work is poorly compensated and inadequately recognized socially—in fact, society seems organized around sentimental principles that invalidate the notion that domestic work is work at all. Worshipping children is one way of negating the work of rearing them.

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