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Makeba Greene, review of Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child

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Makeba Greene

Book Review


Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. 1985.


Viviana Zelizer begins her thorough sociological study by addressing the shift from late 19th century views of children as wage earners, to the modern “sacralization” of childhood.  Zelizer defines sacralization as being invested with sentimental or religious value.  As a preface to her argument, Zelizer distinguishes her study of the sociology of childhood from existing (and numerous) writings on the psychological nature of childhood.  She also offers a critique that looks beyond purely economic factors in the changing nature of childhood, by finding important relationships between economic and non-economic factors that create unique conditions in the perception of childhood.  In her own words, Zelizer’s study is on, “the independent effect of cultural factors redefining the value of children in the United States”(p.11). 


The first chapter looks at the startling change in response to child death.  Once considered a detached loss of economic contribution, child death becomes cause for emotional outbursts of grief and loss.  As an eye-opening example, Zelizer cites two scenarios in which a child is killed by a street car, and the child’s parents go before the courts for restitution.  In the first case, occurring in the late 19th century, the parents are told that because the child was not old enough to provide for the family, he was thus economically useless, and the courts could not award any damages for his death.  Zelizer contrasts this with a similar case in the early 20th century, where the court found that while a sum of money could ease suffering, no amount of money could replace the loss of a child. 


Beyond the changes in economic value of children, Zelizer jumps into an in-depth analysis of reaction to child death.  Early 20th century reactions to child death became public acts of outrage (mobs of people attacking transit ‘murderers’) and shifted into memorial acts of remembrance, prevention and education about child safety and health.  Using a saturating amount of data, primary news reports and quotations, Zelizer shows how the creation of mothering programs, public health initiatives, preschools, playgrounds, and child spaces were efforts that both reduced risk to children, and increased the assimilation of low-class immigrant children.  Including a study of the difference in attitude and perception between poor and rich children, Zelizer effectively argues that changes in attitudes around childhood encompassed more than just economic factors, by showing the concern for child safety across class.


The complexity of changing perceptions of value around children are manifested in the continual challenge of defining the value of children, the reward or harm of child labor, and what exactly constituted child labor.  In a fascinating example, Zelizer uncovers the child actor as a moral exception to the evils of child labor.  Here, like in farm work, the definition of child labor becomes increasingly complex.  Ironically, Zelizer points out that the removal of child labor eventually leads to the conception of an allowance (sometimes earned), which creates a system of child labor within the home. 


In the second half of the book, Zelizer looks to profound changes in the life insurance industry, tort law, and adoption/foster care resulting from the changed value of children.  Created from the conception of child worth, the notion of child insurance became a scandalous effort to commercialize the life of a child, and later morphed to become an acceptable form of funding for the possible funeral of a working-class child.  Thus, insurance became a symbolic recognition of the value of a child – even a poor child, and insuring children became a common and profitable business. 


In the courtroom, 19th century law allowed compensation for a child’s death to be figured by the cash equivalent of the child.  As the value of children dramatically shifted, the role and opinion of the courts were also significantly changed.  The core question, as Zelizer states it, is how to “assess value when price is absent.”  The great paradox is that the assigned value of a child increased, while the actual economic value (as a child laborer) decreased.  A child’s value upon death now became a function of their sentimental, rather than economic value. 


As a final striking example of the dramatic shift in perception of child worth, Zelizer explains the late 1900’s trend of mothers paying to get rid of children through baby farms, to the 1930’s high-priced industry of buying infants for adoption.  As opposed to wanting children for economic gain, Zelizer analyzes how “adoption practices were revolutionized into a search for child love and not child labor” (p.170). Earlier adoption and foster care practices were used as a “quasi-employment” for families, and often poor women would abandon their babies for lack of anyone that wanted them.  Zelizer convincingly argues that the efforts of child welfare workers, taking advantage of the sentimentalization of childhood, worked to reform adoption and foster parenting into culturally popular practice.  “The quest for a child to love turned into a glamorous and romanticized search as a number of well-known entertainment and political figures proudly and publicly joined the rank of adoptive parents” (p. 190).  The shift from economic to sentimental value in fostering and adopting youth meant that demand for babies (economically useless), especially blue-eyed girls, soared, while demand for older children (economically useful) went into steep decline.  With this sudden demand, a black market of baby traffickers emerged, ironically creating an increased economic “price-tag” for a child. 


Written in the mid 1980’s, Zelizer’s observations about modern times are a bit outdated, but still significant.  She argues that as late 19th century value of children changed from economic usefulness to uselessness, current trends show a “growing interest in finding innovative ways to include children in the productive life of the community” (p. 209).  Not a return to child labor, Zelizer argues, but a possible re-construction of childhood to consider alternatives to the drastic separation of the adult and child worlds.  Citing concerns for the ‘disappearance of childhood’ and the declining birth rate, Zelizer looks at the privatization of child love, as opposed to “public” love of children, and the view of children as obstacles to a career or life achievement.  While inconclusive, Zelizer makes the all-too important point that “It is no coincidence that the re-evaluation of a child’s place is taking place just as the world of their mothers is being dramatically transformed” (p. 221). 


Overall, while Zelizer’s argument and analysis are well-cited and complex, I believe her intense focus on the value of children in the context of industrial cities, leaves a significant gap in her assumptions about the overall value of children.  While commenting on the relationship of child value to immigration, feminism, and industrialization, Zelizer leaves out discussion of childhood in the rural south, especially in regard to African-American families.  This noted absence weakens her analysis on child value, especially in regard to the drastic differences in the role of social policy between black and white America. 


Still, Zelizer makes a compelling, and well-document case for the changing value of children in a cultural context.  She effectively argues that there is more at play than just market forces, and that the changing societal value of children results from the complex interplay of a variety of factors and cultural expectations. 




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