social change of values

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

“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

December 23,2015  |

extended family

Moral education and the extended family governed Motherhood in 1800-1850, not Mother love

Motherhood was about creating the religious and dutiful house

Once the nineteenth century started things changed. There was increased concern with the children’s moral and spiritual development. Science and religion will much determine this century and this will have an impact on childcare. The ideal of domesticity was reinforced by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars on the continent. These were times of patriotism, loyalty and reproduction of striding and defending soldiers and soldier wives.

Mothers needed to look after the moral and spiritual development and their good example would shape the mind and hearts of the children, less Mother love itself. The extended family played an important role. And propaganda towards a religious and dutiful house was what mothers left alone kept going. They were told that taking care of the children would be just as useful and sacred to society than their husbands fighting to defend the country.

The importance of the extended family and no mother love

However there is no mention at all of the emotional attachment from the child to the mother and dangers of separation of the mother were simply not an issue at the time. Members of an extended family did  often most of the work. Mother love seemed not to exist at all. That was not before Freud would arrive on the scene. Ideas of mothers have changed radically with the role of women in general. By that time mothers were needed to stay at home but not for sentimental reasons. Too much sentimentality and softness could even be bad for children. The mother did not only to look after the morality of the children but also had a responsibility in providing a safe haven and refuge for her husband who worked ‘outside’ in a corrupt and hard world. Yes, her responsibility was also making the home peaceful, harmonious and uplifting for husbands and children which is still different than the emphasis in Mother love we have today. She was the good spine for all relatives. With the help of the extended family, she ‘managed’ family life and children.

The appearance of childcare books

By the mid nineteenth century a massive amount of books in childcare debarked. All with a similar message: the moral and spiritual welfare. The books came with loads of good advice.

Mothers are the best teachers for their children and this job is the most rational and pleasing employments in which human mankind can engage’


‘It ought… to enter into the domestic policy of every parent to make her child feel that home is the happiest place in the world; that to imbue them with this precious home-feeling is one of the choicest gifts a parent can bestow

are two examples of two very popular childcare books in that time, Advice to the Teens by Saac Taylor of Ongar , from 2nd London ed., Boston, 1820 (p.64) and H. Montgomery Hyde. Mr. and Mrs. Beeton, re-edited in London, 1951 (p. 98).

Although this might sound similar to the advice experts would give today the reality is very different. Mothers were cold and intolerant to their children. They were very little with their children either because they were educated by nurses or extended family if they were at least middle class or the mother and sometimes the children would be working. Mother love would not be useful or provide the needed results. The duty to love was more prevalent than the love itself. Children were treated like guests when entering in the living room if there was one and could eat in the kitchen with the servants.

But all in all, the nineteenth century had been good to children in general because it was the first time since long that they were not seen anymore as small adults. It began to be less obvious to let them go to work for fourteen hours a day. Childcare, a new science, was for some interesting as a new fashion and for others a tool for a better soul or a way to be (seen as) a religiously good and faithful person. All good reasons really if this period ended up providing better living conditions for children.

Children and their needs appear in literature

Since the end of the eighteenth century there had never before been so many books about children. Literature in general was unconcerned with children. It did not exist as an important or continuous theme. It actually simply did not exist at all. But that changed. In the written world, the child became the symbol of creativity in an increasingly mechanical and industrial society. The child was pure and innocent in a world of bigger communities and alienation. The child represented escape and refuge because his world was smaller, simpler and perceived as happier. William Blake, Wordsworth, Dickens and Mark Twain all used these themes when writing about children our childhood.

The birth of the family unit versus the extended family

One could say that from the nineteenth century family and children took a bigger dimension in most parent’s lives. The unit “family” increased its significance in opposition to the “larger community”  or extended family of this industrial area. The family had never had such a big importance in society nor did it exercise such an influence on it. The economic dependence on a larger community or extended family had diminished and people organized themselves more around a few members and intimacy and privacy became important notions.

Sentimentality, feelings, small habits and routine, gave comfort and identity, were remembered at old age. Family’s idealization had started. The family before was loosely together and open and unprotective of privacy. A family (and not the extended family) existed no longer for only materialistic and economical reasons.

If you want to move  into the second part of the 19th century, head over to the more disciplinary education during 1850 and 1900.

extended family
Eleven Stages Of Womanhood 1840s. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common

April 6,2015  |