Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Wanting Mixed-Sex Children: Separate Spheres, Rational Choice, and Symbolic Capital Motivations

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Wanting Mixed-Sex Children: Separate Spheres, Rational Choice, and Symbolic Capital Motivations

Article excerpt

Substantial research concludes that most Americans want to have "at least 1 boy and 1 girl, yet few have empirically explored what drives this preference. The author used nationally representative data from the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 5,544) and generalized ordered logistic regression to evaluate 3 potential psychosocial frameworks motivating the mixed-sex ideal using gender and family attitude variables. The results supported a ' 'separate spheres ' ' ideology, through which parents may view the interests, traits, skills, and roles of boys and girls in families as very different. Second, the results supported a rational choice orientation, whereby achieving this goal maximizes having a variety of needs met in old age. Third, the desire for 1 boy and 1 girl may be motivated by its symbolic capital as a status marker, representing the image of a "balanced, ' ' ideal family. Based on beliefs about the nonsubstitutability of boys and girls, this ideal represents a form of gender inequality that persists in families.

Key Words: childhood/children, fairness and equality, family roles, family structure, gender, social psychology (family).

Before the routine use of ultrasounds in U.S. prenatal care in the 1990s, postnatal birth announcements were popularly headlined by the declaration "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" More recently, a desire to know the sex of a fetus is the most common reason for wanting a prenatal ultrasound (Stephens, Montefalcon, & Lane, 2000), and some variant of "Do you know what you are having?" is thought to be the second most popular question asked of pregnant women, after ' 'When are you due?' ' (Buchanan, 2005). Now, a new trend of ' 'gender reveal parties" broadcasts this information to parents and groups of invested friends and family months before the birth (O'Connor, 2012). Methods of knowing and/or controlling the sex of a fetus have preoccupied popular and scientific wisdom both old and new, from superstitions about "carrying low" to recent research indicating that a mother's diet may influence the outcome (Mathews, Johnson, & Neil, 2008). The process of childbearing, it seems, is intricately and inseparably tied to sexing a fetus or a newborn. Such pervasive and enduring cultural evidence for the need to do so suggests that sex matters. Yet gaps remain in what is known about why it matters; this is the question I addressed in this study.

A prominent preference for sons crossculturally is long lived and well documented, typically motivated by the economic assistance sons provide to a family, especially aging parents, and for their ability to pass on a family name, receive inheritance, and perform funeral rituals for parents (for reviews, see Hank, 2007; Marleau & Saucier, 2002; and Williamson, 1976). In some non-Western countries, such as India and China, son preference is manifested through extreme practices such as sex-selective abortion and infanticide and high female child mortality rates due to neglect (Das Gupta et ah, 2003). Even in the contemporary United States, some research has indicated an existing preference for sons by looking at divorce rates, payment of child support, use of nonrelative child care, and engagement and involvement with children in ways that favor greater resources for boys (for a review, see Raley & Bianchi, 2006). A recent Gallup poll also revealed that more Americans still say they would prefer to have a boy if they were able to have only one child (Newport, 2011). In terms of overall sex composition, though, parents in the United States exhibit a desire to have at least one son and one daughter: Same-sex compositions are the least popular in surveys, preferred by less than 10% (Coombs, 1977; Dahl et ah, 2006).

A decline over time in the preference for boys signals a shift in the gender order toward egalitarianism, as a preference for sons over daughters is more likely to occur in countries where the status of women relative to men is lower (Mills & Begall, 2010; Williamson, 1976). …

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