Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From the archive: Do girls cause divorce?

We talked about this in class recently, but I neglected to post this:

There is evidence that they might. Steven Landsburg discusses the evidence and the debate in two columns in Slate. The reseach it is based on is by Gordon Dahl and Enrico Moretti. Thier paper can be found here. Here is the abstract to the paper:

This paper shows how parental preferences for sons versus daughters affect divorce, child custody, marriage, shotgun marriage when the sex of the child is known before birth, and fertility stopping rules. We document that parents with girls are significantly more likely to be divorced, that divorced fathers are more likely to have custody of their sons, and that women with only girls are substantially more likely to have never been married. Perhaps the most striking evidence comes from the analysis of shotgun marriages. Among those who have an ultrasound test during their pregnancy, mothers carrying a boy are more likely to be married at delivery. When we turn to fertility, we find that in families with at least two children, the probability of having another child is higher for all-girl families than all-boy families. This preference for sons seems to be largely driven by fathers, with men reporting they would rather have a boy by more than a two to one margin. In the final part of the paper, we compare the effects for the U.S. to five developing countries.

What do you think is going on?

Think two things are going on, depending on the conditioning of the mother:
[assuming that fathers appreciate male offspring more than female offspring, which seems to be the general rule]
A.) In the case that the mother--on her own--appreciates a daughter more than a son (either because she empathizes more with the father's feelings towards a son or because she identifies with the daughter more), it would seem more likely that she is willing to forgo having a father figure around that she does not respect (as may be the case if the couple wasn't planning to have a child) and thus refrain from seeking marriage as much as otherwise; or
B.) in the case that the mother appreciates female offspring less than male offspring, as is often the case in undeveloped countries where sons maintain the family line and daughters are often considered a burden unless they strengthen social ties through marriage, the mother may seek marriage with the father more forcefully (perhaps getting the mother's patriarch involved to secure the deal).
I think that there are probably several things going on here, not just a simple preference for boy children over girl children. The fact that couples with boys are more likely to have shotgun marriages and less likely to get divorced could easily come from a deep concern about raising fatherless boys. If a couple is not married, their child nearly always stays with the mother, and mothers get custody of children more frequently than fathers do in divorce cases. If people are more concerned about fatherless boys than fatherless girls, then married couples considering divorces and expecting couples considering a shotgun marriage would be more likely to stay together if they had a boy than if they had a girl, even if there is no actual preference for male children.

The fact that families with girls are more likely to keep trying for more children than families with boys is harder to argue with, but there is something I want to bring up. Obviously this is just anecdotal evidence, but I've noticed (among the parents of kids I and my brothers went to elementary school with) a fairly common (nowhere near universal, but common) belief that boys are more troublesome/rambunctious/disobedient as small children than girls are, embodied by the incredibly sexist belief that "boys will be boys" ( I think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that's another argument). If parents do actually perceive boys as being more work to raise than girls, than they might well be likely to have fewer children if the older child(ren) is(are) male.

Essentially, I'm skeptical. I don't think it's that easy to draw conclusions about why people make decisions, even if they choose one option with greater frequency than another.
In many countries, the father is more willing to marry a woman carrying his son because the son will be able to maintain the family name. Therefore, it would be easier to have less kids out of wedlock. Men could be more attached to their sons for reasons of carrying forth the family name, while daughters would be more of a monetary and social burden. It makes sense that male offspring would be a preference over female offspring.
I agree with Rima on her thoughts for developing countries. While a country like the U.S. should hopefully have less of a sense of burden for having a daughter, I'm sure such thoughts, in less extreme forms, exist here as well.

A simple explanation, assuming that parents' utility function for a child is simply its gender and the only factor is like prefers like, (i.e. mother prefers daughter, father prefers son, as suggested by the research), is that the decision to stay is simpler for the father. While he can can simply leave after knowing the gender, a woman has to decide what to do with her situation, thus dealing with the issue of having the child. I would venture a guess that, if a woman brings the pregnancy to term, her perhaps even unintended attachment to a baby after carrying it for nine months, even if it was a less desirable son, is greater than a presumably detached father, who sees "no son" as a cue for "leave." While the mother might also see "no daughter" as a cue for "leave," she cannot leave so easily; first she must go through a moral dilemma and a long pregnancy. These added costs on the woman make giving up the baby less likely, relative to the father.

Therefore, I'm not sure this reality is a result of a woman being willing to forego a father figure for her daughter, but rather that the father is more capable of foregoing that role.
The relationship between the sex of the first child and divorce is new, but it has already held up to quite a bit of scrutiny. It seems men want to hang around their boys more.
I agree with the following:
“There is a hypothesis that boys make a marriage more attractive (to a prospective male marriage partner) has already been put forward. I think that it is also possible that women perceive their boys' future success to be more greatly affected by the presence of a man in the house, and so are willing to sacrifice more to obtain a mate if they have a male child. This could be either because a male role model is thought to be important, or because the resources and associated social status a man might bring would have more effect on a boy's later success than a girl's. Hard to say."

Note: I think a man who does not take care of his offspring (male or female), has serious problems with his manhood.
It is really interesting that there seems to be such an implicit preference for boys. Even more interesting would be able to see in which different time frames of regions is the prefrence scale tilted towards female babys.
Really relevant to high-light that health care is nor really a benefit. This idea can be lost given the rethoric used in and outside the health care system.
I think these are really interesting stats. I do think that the statement "women with only girls are substantially more likely to have never been married" is more irony then anything. Unless they can prove that being married or unmarried actually determines the gender of your kid. That being said, I wonder if you can set your life up in a certain way in order to have a baby of the gender of your choice. Weird but interesting.
Interesting concept. I understand man's desire to have a boy could have some effect on the way a marriage plays out, but I don't believe that having a girl causes divorce. If anything I would believe that having a girl would cause the man to try again to get a boy, keeping him in the relationship. I believe that marriage problems are within the two spouses, not their children. If man wants to have a son but has a daughter and decides to take that frustration out on his wife, he is the one causing the divorce through his insecurities of not having a male child.
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