History, Topic of the Past

How the Change in the Value of Children Can Raise the Value of Humanity

social change of values

“Kids are economically useless, but emotionally priceless”.

–Viviana Zelizer

Author, economic sociologist, and professor of sociology at Princeton University, Viviana A. Zelizer examines the cultural and moral foundations of developing economies. In her view, the economy consists of much more than financial profit and loss and cannot be fully understood without first understanding what society values and why. In her book, “Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children“, she focuses on the historical changes in the social change of values regarding children as expressed by a changing economy.

According to Zelizer, the economy is affected by that which society deems sacred. Things acquire value through the process of sacralization, or being endowed with religious or sentimental meaning. Zelizer demonstrates, through the use of examples of changes in both the legal and economic system, society’s view of children has changed throughout history.

Child Labor and the Social Change of Values

In the past, children were often viewed as an additional source of labor and income to help provide for the family. Their value was more practical than sentimental, and that view was reflected by the legal system. To illustrate this, she provides the example of a 19th century legal case of the death of a child. In that case, the court ruled that the parents could not be awarded damages because the child wasn’t old enough to provide for the family. In the 20th century, that changed with courts awarding money in such cases primarily to ease emotional suffering.

Within the economic system, the value of children began to be commercialized and exploited by the insurance industry. Insurance policies on children’s lives expressed their value as potential future family income. As the economic value of children decreased, partly in response to the creation of social programs for the elderly, their sentimental value increased. That change was also reflected in the insurance industry, with policies focusing more on covering burial expenses in the event of a tragic early death.

Effects of the Social Change of Values Regarding Children

After child labor laws were enacted, the concept of an allowance for children in exchange for performing tasks within the home became popular. Another manifestation of the social change of values regarding children is the construction of playgrounds. Changing values also resulted in a number of positive social constructs that benefitted children, such as the creation of children’s health programs and preschools. Positive social change of values were reflected within the legal system by the creation of the foster care system and adoption laws.

However, there were also some negative results as the social change of values regarding children shifted from economic to sentimental. One of those results was an increase in the demand for babies to adopt, which had the unintended effect of putting an economic price on children. Additionally, that price was often determined by the age, race, and gender of the child, with more value being placed on white, blue-eyed babies. Older children and children of color, less in demand by those who can afford to adopt, are therefore devalued.

The rise of the black market adoption industry is another example of an unintended negative side effect of the social change of values regarding children.

Towards a Continuing Social Change of Values

According to one review of the book, Zelizer believes that many of the negative effects of the social change of values could be solved by bridging the gap between the world of children and that of adults. Few people would want to go back in history to a time in which children labored under often inhumane and unsafe conditions, like those written about by William Blake and Charles Dickens.

However, there are many instances in which work and play coincide.
Zelizer writes to increase awareness of the interconnectedness of social values regarding intimate familial relationships and how they are reflected in the economy. While some of her work focuses on children, she writes about social attitudes towards the value of women as well. In an article in the Huffington Post, she points out that in the past, many housewives, like children, were also given an allowance. She raises the question of whether homemakers should receive a regular salary for the important services they provide. According to Zelizer, society must recognize that households represent a kind of collaborative economy, and reward women’s contributions in accordance with their true value.

The importance of her writing in raising social awareness with the goal of promoting positive social change in values is the reason that she was elected to the PEN American Center PEN American Centein 2006 and to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2007. As a result of continuing work such as hers, we can all look forward to the day when every man, woman and child enjoys equal value.

Cosette's doll, oil painting by Léon-François Comerre. Photograph of reproduction by Siren-Com
Cosette’s doll, oil painting by Léon-François Comerre. Photograph of reproduction by Siren-Com
Previous ArticleNext Article