Bryan Caplan  

Perceived Duty to Have Children, by Gender

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At risk of provoking more psycho-analysis...

In 1996, the GSS asked:

If the husband in a family wants children, but the wife decides that she does not want any children, is it all right for the wife to refuse to have children?
and
If the wife in a family wants children, but the husband decides that he does not want any children, is it all right for the husband to refuse to have children?

Survey says: 82% affirmed the wife's right to refuse, but only 61% affirmed the same right for husbands. Other than a simple men's rights story, anyone got an explanation?

P.S. Men and women are almost equally likely to hold this double standard. 83% of men (versus 81% of women) affirm women's right to refuse; 60% of men (versus 61% of women) affirm men's right to refuse.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
liberty writes:

What would the survey have said 100 years ago? My guess is it would have been lopsided in the other direction. I think it may be a matter of over-correction.

mgroves writes:

Sounds like something that should probably be worked out *before* marriage to me.

bbass writes:

The woman incurs greater costs for both having children if she doesn't want them (via the pregnancy itself, lost wages, etc) and not having children if she does (due to less years of fertility than men), so it makes sense that their opinion would count for more.

Scott W writes:

It seems like women have to do a disproportionate amount of work here (so they feel the costs more).

People may believe that the husband's decision may not be accurately guided by a MC=MB decision (the marginal benefit being the satisfaction etc. with having children, the marginal cost being the work/pain that goes into that). If the woman is thought to bear a disproportionate amount of the cost (the 9 months of pregnancy and birth is only the beginning). It seems like more people would trust her judgment in making a good decision over the man on this. And, it looks like they do.

Scott W writes:

It seems like women have to do a disproportionate amount of work here (so they feel the costs more).

People may believe that the husband's decision may not be accurately guided by a MC=MB decision (the marginal benefit being the satisfaction etc. with having children, the marginal cost being the work/pain that goes into that). If the woman is thought to bear a disproportionate amount of the cost (the 9 months of pregnancy and birth is only the beginning). It seems like more people would trust her judgment in making a good decision over the man on this. And, it looks like they do.

caveat bettor writes:

In most 2-parent gender-diverse households with which I am familiar, the women have much more involvement with the care of the small children than the men. This would hold true even in households where both parents are working equal hours outside the home. (Respective incomes might be an interesting factor to study).

Blackadder writes:

I agree with liberty (I like the sound of that: "I agree with liberty). The difference is best explain by the fact that people don't want to say anything that could be construed as sexist.

Robert Scarth writes:

I find it shocking that at least 20% of people think it is ok to force someone to have a child they do not want. The decision to have a child should be unanimous between the parents. I might even argue that older potential siblings should have some say; or at least have their opinion canvassed. A child is a huge change for a family.

nicole writes:

Both men and women perceive a greater loss for a woman who doesn't have children than a man, because of course women want to have children--if they didn't, they would hardly be women. Motherhood is seen by many as a woman's highest calling and most fulfilling experience; men may get satisfaction and meaning from fatherhood, but not as much as from their career. I would expect to see people having greater pity for infertile women than for infertile men, for the same reasons. (I've found some abstracts that seem to support this but don't have access to full articles.)

ck writes:

Perhaps this has something to do with the man controlling the family surname.

Maybe at some subconscious level, people think that children are to a father's greater glory. (Or "prestige," if you prefer.) Who is he to refuse such a gift?

Lord writes:

A bit sexist isn't it, that women marry for children and men for sex.

Diego A. writes:

Both (men and women) accept that women bear a higher cost of having children; thus, they have a right to refuse marginal children.

Here's my analysis: if you marry someone who doesn't want kids and you do, then you're a moron, because the marriage isn't going to work out. YOu have to share the same basic values if you're going to have a successful marriage. You need to both be on board with having children or not, how much sex is the right amount, and basic ethics.

Richard writes:

I've answered here.

randy writes:

women actually wear the pants in a marriage. it's just that simple.

frankcross writes:

Maybe Will Wilkinson is right. The difference could not be more obvious. A woman risks, to some degree, her life, in childbirth. And she certainly bears lots of unique costs in the process.
Those costs should associate with more deference.

Bill writes:

I wonder how this relates to marriage. I agree that having a child is more risky for the woman, but I believe that marriage is more risky for the man. I'm curious how a similar question about marriage would come out.

liberty writes:

Bill, why is marriage more risky for the man?

SheetWise writes:
Bill, why is marriage more risky for the man?

A better question might be -- In todays world, what does a man gain from marriage?

Dr. T writes:

Women bear all the risks and bad effects of childbearing, so it is only logical that a woman's desire to not have children is given more weight.

They need to rephrase the survey questions to include adopted children if the wife cannot or will not undergo a pregnancy.

Matt K writes:

It seems more relevant to ask why one would get married without both knowing what one wants out of life AND finding a partner who shares similar aspirations.

If two people can't plan ahead for the big stuff (kids) and not worry about the small stuff (who risked or sacrificed what), then their relationship won't last. The fact that we're debating his vs. her rights and his vs her contributions in a marriage is a sign of trouble. We need to re-think what a marriage vow means and how we view the people we supposedly love.

Waldo writes:

Its this kind of mentality thats driving the popularity and subsequent higher costs of pets and pet care.

Unit writes:

If we make the analogy between family size and the size of the firm, and assume (I have no data) that employers have a bigger say than the workers on whether to expand or not, then what the above GSS stats seem to imply is that it's the women that hire the men and not viceversa.

Snark writes:

On a somewhat related note, I wonder what the results of the survey would be if we were to replace the word "children" with "sex" in each question? I suspect the percentages would again favor of the wife with respect to conjugal rights.

Is anyone familiar with such a study?

It seems to me that there's also a little something off if one of the two in a marriage don't want to have children. As Elaine Scarry points out, when you see something that is beautiful, you want to reproduce it. The person you marry should want to make copies of you. If (s)he doesn't, (s)he doesn't find you beautiful (not just physically, but personality-wise, intellectually, emotionally).

Umistar writes:

So what about unmarried, unattached women who just want children? Or couples who simply don't like or want children at all, no matter how much they love each other?

Besides, children aren't clones; they are a combination of their parents' genes, yes, and share characteristics, but they are individuals with their own unique personalities and should be respected as such. Parents who view their children as miniature versions of themselves are being narcissistic and unrealistic.

The desire (or lack thereof) to have children should be discussed before marriage, because incompatible desires for children can cause tension and bitterness in the marriage in the long run, and frankly, it's something you should know about your partner long before you tie the knot. It's things like this that lead to "failed" birth control and "accidental" pregnancies.

Robin Hanson writes:

It would be interesting to see similar surveys about whether it is all right to refuse to let your spouse switch to a more fulfilling but less lucrative career.

Mensarefugee writes:

My response here.

Beth writes:

I agree with bbass. Basically - women are dispportionatley affected either way.

If the bloke in the marriage/partnership says 'I'm too young to have children' - well he can still pro-create at age 60 and beyond. A woman in her mid 30's is more aware of the limitations on her ability to have a kid.

Like a friend of mine said who is about to give her partner the ultimatium - 'I could stay in the relationship for a few more years and then be in my early 40's, unable to have children. At the same time, he could have a change of heart, leave me and hook up with a young woman and have plenty of babies.'

Dylan writes:

This may not be the reasoning behind people's responses, but the woman is in a position to make sure that she has another child if she wants to and the man has to balance the chance of raising a "broken condom" child that isn't his in the equation. Increases in technology may make this less practically relevant, but psychology hasn't caught up to technology.

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