The primary purpose of “Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children” by Viviana A. Zelizer is to assess the why the values of children have continuously changed throughout history. It details historical facts and current events in order to foster understanding about evolving place of youth in society and how the functionality of this role was impacted by ethical and moral values, economic difficulties, and needs of the period in which these roles were defined. This evaluation attempts to explain the reasoning behind the transition from children as helpful workers to the decrease in their usefulness.
Zelizer’s historical account begins in the 1900’s during a time in which children were expected to be useful; many worked to bolster their family’s income. They were seen as essential workers needed to support a family and many couples had multiple children in order to increase their household income and treated them as little adults. This purpose and outcome of raising children is dramatically different in today’s society; we generally have children to procreate and make us happy. Instead of being made to work, we work hard to cater to their every need and ensure that they are content. A specific example of this transition is demonstrated in chapter 2 .
“From Useful to Useless: Moral Conflict Over Child Labor”. Zelizer used census data to determine the percentage of total family income that were generated by minors; she found that in Philadelphia in 1880, Irish children generated about half of their family’s income (Zelizer, 1985). While this is startling, it reflects the economic need of the time period; it was easier for children to find jobs because companies can pay them less. Now that there is less of an economic need to send children to work in modern times, politicians have been able to pass laws that protect children against harsh labor; in fact, these laws are so strict that minors are only able to babysit or farm in a few states and require working papers from their schools to do so. Americans coped with the declining economic value of children by having smaller families, as larger ones became increasingly expensive to maintain.
I neither agree nor disagree with Zelizer’s argument. While she makes it seem cruel that children were treated as they were before the labor laws, I understand the necessity behind this practice. I do however, agree that the major shift in attitude towards children was sparked by the establishment of life insurance policies; this marked their recognition as human beings with rights and privileges which provoked the court to treat them differently (Zelizer, 1985). Before this point however, it was wrong that children were made to work long hours for low wages, often without their consent. Although their lives were difficult, I feel that the children who grew up during this time period were more responsible and ready to care for themselves as adults. Today’s children are protected from these labor laws, but as a consequence are often spoiled and lazy. They don’t realize how hard their parents must work to feed them, clothe them, and give them the latest toy on the market. It takes modern children a longer time to grow up, and when young adults start living on their own for the first time, they usually still need a great deal of help and guidance from their parents. I believe that treatment of children before labor laws and the treatment of modern children are two extremes that should have never occurred; for a child to grow up well and prepared for adult life, they must be given responsibility during their childhood, although they shouldn’t be worked too hard. In this case, moderation is the perfect solution to this problem; the child will be slightly useful and not completely useless, which is all we can hope for in their upbringing.
Although Zelizer demonstrates that as a society, we have substantially increased the value we put on our children and explains why, she does not explain how we should properly raise our children in order to prevent them from being “useless”. Although we take pleasure in our children, they are not a pet; we must invest in their future and ensure that they are raised well. However, it is important to consider that although children are “pricy” modern parents usually get a return investment. While parents in the early 1900’s saw the return investment on their children immediately in the form of a paycheck, children in the modern era usually ensure that their parents are taken care of once they are older and unable to care for themselves. It is the initial investment that the parents put into their children that will guarantee their ability to do so. Although it is slightly depressing to look at this in terms of finances, this concept emphasizes that our children will not be totally “useless” so long as we are good parents, put time and effort into raising them, and help them grow into adults that are useful members of society.
Zelizer, V. (1985). Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton University Press.