In 1896 a Georgia couple suing for damages in the accidental death of their two year old was told that since the child had made no real economic contribution to the family, there was no liability for damages. During the nineteenth century, Viviana Zelizer argues, the concept of the “useful” child who contributed to the family economy gave way gradually to the present-day notion of the “useless” child who, though producing no income for, and indeed extremely costly to, its parents, is yet considered emotionally “priceless.”
For Zelizer the origins of this transformation were many and complex. The gradual erosion of children's productive value in a maturing industrial economy, the decline in birth and the development of the companionate family (a family in which members were united by explicit bonds of love rather than duty) were all factors critical in changing the assessment of children's worth. Yet “expulsion of children from the ‘cash,’ although clearly shaped by profound changes in the economic, occupational, and family structures,”Zelizer maintains,“was also part of a cultural process of ‘sacralization’of children's lives.”
Protecting children from the crass business world became enormously important for late-nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, she suggests; this sacralization was a way of resisting what they perceived as the relentless corruption of human values by the marketplace. In stressing the cultural determinants of a child's worth, Zelizer takes issue with practitioners of the new “sociological economics,” which have analyzed such traditionally sociological topics as crime, marriage, education, and health solely in terms of their economic determinants.
Allowing only a small role for cultural forces in individual “preferences,” these sociologists tend to view all human behavior as directed primarily by the principle of maximizing economic gain. Zelizer is highly critical of this approach, based on his conviction: the power of social values to transform price. As children became more valuable in emotional terms, she argues, their “exchange” or “surrender” value on the market, that is, the conversion of their intangible worth into cash terms, became much greater.