From economy to emotion: The changing value of children

CR234Jennifer A. Reich’s Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System is best know for its robust and compassionate analysis of child protection as a system. Yet in many ways, her book is also about the (ever-changing) value of parenting, families, childhood and childrearing. In just a few lines Reich, introduces the possibility that children’s value, once strictly economic, is now tied to emotional markers. She deconstructs current assumptions about family relationships to explain that:

In the last one hundred years, children have gone from being an economic resource to possessing symbolic pricelessness, undergoing what sociologist Viviana Zelizer calls a process of “sacralization.” While eighteenth century rural America viewed children as a source of labor and as security for aging parents, children born after the 1920s—as a repository of love and care—were seen as a source of emotional value.

In my view, these two perspectives about children are not mutually exclusive. Modern parents can view their children as a source of personal satisfaction while preserving an expectation for them to perform as companions and, if needed, as a source of security.

This transformation marked a move from children’s value stemming from their usefulness in work and as wage earners to intrinsic value as a source of emotional fulfillment. With children’s increasing value came concern about children’s emotional, moral, and intellectual development, and recognition that parents could be potentially harmful to children.

Reich’s finishing statement is a hard one to swallow. Not only does she suggest that parents can harm their children, but also that children’s needs are only visible once they have a direct impact on adults’ lives. The recognition of children’s emotional, moral, and intellectual development became the reason for the expansion of social institutions (now capable of monitoring, to some degree, people’s public and private lives) and the creation of new parenting standards. All these efforts notwithstanding, are we loosing sight of something else? How will we value (and attempt to protect) children in the decades to come?

For an unintended supplement on children’s economic work visit last week’s discussion on child labor.

—Alexia Raynal, Managing Editor

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Images by New York-based illustrator of children’s books, Raúl Colón. Colon has been awarded a Golden Kite Award, a Pura Belpré Award, and both a gold and silver medal in The Original Art show.

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