All Things Nice

by Kieran Healy on October 7, 2003

Over at Slate, Steven Landsburg has a piece on the finding that the parents of daughters are more likely to divorce than the parents of sons:

bq. In the United States, the parents of a girl are nearly 5 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of a boy. The more daughters, the bigger the effect: The parents of three girls are almost 10 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of three boys.

The article goes through a number of mechanisms that might explain the difference, though none are entirely convincing. The language of the article is egalitarian, talking mainly about the preferences of parents. But two of the three hypotheses put forward suggest that the preferences of the father drive the outcome rather than those of the mother. More importantly, the emphasis on parental preferences is ultimately a bit restricting.

We don’t have much formal evidence about parents’ actual motives or preferences, so Landsburg suggests three supporting bits of evidence to support the hypothesis that parents do in fact have a preference for sons. First,

bq. divorced women with girls are substantially less likely to remarry than divorced women with boys, suggesting that daughters are a liability in the market for a husband.

This says that fathers don’t like marrying women with daughters. The inference is that fathers prefer to have sons. Second,

bq. parents of girls are quite a bit more likely to try for another child than parents of boys, which suggests that there are more parents hoping for sons than for daughters.

This one could apply to both parents in principle. Finally,

bq. Take a typical unmarried couple who are expecting a child and have an ultrasound, which more often than not reveals the child’s sex. It turns out that such couples are more likely to get married if the child is a boy. Apparently, for unmarried fathers, the prospect of living with a wife and a son is more alluring than the prospect of living with a wife and a daughter.

Here the father’s preference is driving things again. Yet Landsburg concludes:

bq. But the most natural way to interpret their data is that parents, on average, prefer boys to girls.

Two of the three bits of evidence presented concern the choices of fathers. The five per cent difference in divorce rates between the two kinds of families is not huge. The most natural way to interpret the data, it seems to me, is that most American parents manage perfectly well with children of either sex, but there are enough fathers with a sufficiently strong bias against daughters to tip the divorce ratio in the direction shown by the data.

Inferring motives from aggregate patterns is a difficult business. My own bias is against treating explanations of that sort as final. Landsburg himself brings up other countries — like China and India — where the killing of daughters is common. But of course talking in terms of preferences misses the bigger picture. People in these countries don’t just happen to prefer sons so much that they’ll kill their daughters. In these societies, property, status and social mobility are tightly integrated with patriarchal gender relations. Family wealth and position are much more difficult to manage when you have daughters rather than sons. Individual preferences are generated in the context of institutionalized gender relations that are tied to other sources of social power. That’s what patriarchy is all about.[1]

A natural comparative hypothesis, therefore, would be that the divorce rate for parents of daughters tends to converge with that for parents of sons as gender discrimination (e.g., in the labor market) declines. The idea is that there’s no need to have a bias for boys when daughters and sons can do equally well. It’d be tricky to study, because divorce rates differ for other reasons, but I’d say you could at least compare many OECD countries in this way.

A different way to approach the question — restricting ourselves to the narrow question of individual preferences again — would be to allow parents to choose the sex of their babies and see what happens. This may be on the cards, at least if the engagingly-named Microsort Corporation continue to improve their methods. As it happens, most of the people who avail of Microsort’s services want to have a girl. (This may be due to the success rates of the method itself.) I heard about this company at a talk by a biologist who was arguing that in the future, rational parents will invest in the genetic endowment of their children (height, IQ, looks, etc) in the same way they invest in their education today, and for the same reasons — to maximise the return on their investment in terms of the child’s earning potential. I asked him why rational parents would ever choose to have a girl, given what we know about gender and the wage gap but he seemed to have trouble grasping the premise of the question.

[1] If the word “patriarchy” gives you hives, well, tough shite. In any event, go read Gerry Mackie’s “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account”, American Sociological Review 1996 v.61 pp.999-1017 for an elegant treatment of one issue in this area from a rational-choice perspective. [J-STOR link.]



Rob 10.07.03 at 3:09 am

Actually, you could interpret the two points as the mother preferring not to marry present opportunities with a daughter while they would with a son. So it could be mothers of daughters are more picky when it comes to mates.


dop 10.07.03 at 3:23 am

Yes, I’d have to agree somewhat with Rob. I’d think a woman might have “higher standards” for the kind of people she would allow near her young or teen-aged daughters — both from the protection point of view and from the *competition* point of view.

Alternately, from a man’s perspective, if you find a woman you’re interested in has young sons about to enter puberty, that’s not too big a deal. On the other hand, many, many, many men I know are very uncomfortable around young or adolescent girls just because of the “what if they say I touched them?” factor. It isn’t that they “prefer” boys so much, it’s more that they feel more at risk for charges of abuse with a girl.


brayden 10.07.03 at 3:27 am

Your patriarchy explanation sounds dead on to me. I wonder what happens to the effect of daughter when one controls for immigrant status or adds an interaction effect of immigrant status X daughter. The argument would be that people immigrating from a country with rigid patriarchal gender relations are more likely to see a daughter’s birth as unfavorable.


EKR 10.07.03 at 3:37 am

An alternative hypothesis is that couples under a lot of stress–those likely to get divorced–are more likely to have daughters. I elaborate on this a bit at:


Laura 10.07.03 at 5:53 am

As a mother of two boys, I’m somewhat comforted by that study. Other studies have shown that women who have boys have shorter life spans than women who have girls. I might die sooner, but I’ll still be married.

Maybe parents of boys are too exhausted to fool around.


MWD 10.07.03 at 8:01 am

Who decided only Daddy has a choice in marriage/divorce situations?

To spin Rob’s point a bit further, Mommy might decide little Johnny needs a father more than little Joanne. Mommy might decide she doesn’t want to raise a son alone. Mommy might know that sons are more likely to die in before twenty, and want an experienced hand about to guide them through the most dangerous years. Note that these don’t necessarily need to be true, Mommy just has to believe it.

Divorce would then require more cause, Mommy might be a little more likely to marry Daddy.

This doesn’t explain the pattern of trying to have children after having girls, but the pattern could just as easily be stated as “Parents who have boys STOP trying to have more children”. This could be preference, or it could be the reality of having one of the little terrors scares parents off. If Laura is correct and male children shorten lifespan, there must be a mechanism, and that mechanism might be noticible by the parents early.

Of course, the mechanism might be the boy children learning to drive. One never knows.

I can’t quibble with the studies numbers, but the interpretation seems to be a case of the researchers finding exactly what they were looking for from the beginning.


drapetomaniac 10.07.03 at 10:53 am

Landsburg himself brings up other countries — like China and India — where the killing of daughters is common.

I wouldn’t put it this way. Female infanticide is quite common in specific communities in India, and occurs much less commonly in a larger number of communities.

And my understanding is that it is most common in those subaltern communities which are ‘sanskritizing’, i.e. adopting elite mores that elite communities have themselves discarded. This emphasizes status rather than just the economic benefits to having sons.


Ben 10.07.03 at 12:24 pm

As an interesting aside to the point made in the article that people tend to prefer to have boys, women in general express a preference for adopting girls,and single women more frequently have adopted girls than boys.


Tim 10.07.03 at 3:02 pm

I think you’ll find that Dr John Gray has documented pretty conclusively that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Clearly, something more than patriarchy is at play here, a point inexplicably not addressed by this research.


Tripp 10.07.03 at 3:56 pm

Men and Women both may believe that women can best raise daughters and men can bet raise sons. That would explain a lot of the survey results.


Joe 10.07.03 at 6:41 pm

My own two theories:

1.) Men tend to spend more time with male children. Women tend to stay married to (and get married to, in the case of a single or divorced mother) men that they perceive to be a better father. Thus, because men interact more with their (actual or potential) sons, they appear to be better parents, and thus, more attractive to their spouses or potential spouses.

2.) Women communicate better with their female children. One of the reasons that otherwise unhappy women do not get divorced is a fear of loneliness. That fear is abated if a daughter is present. Thus, women are less likely to stay married.

Conversely, it could just be a holdover from developing societies, with immigrants skewing the otherwise neutral U.S. results.


brayden 10.07.03 at 7:54 pm

Tim: Your point seems to miss one of the main findings in this study. While the effect of daughters on divorce is present in the U.S., it is relatively small compared to other countries. In Vietnam, parents of a daughter are 25% more likely to divorce. Cross-national differences in this effect suggest that it may be related to societal-level differences in gender institutionalization, or perhaps you would argue that Vietnamese women and men are even more dissimilar than in the U.S. Or perhaps Vietnamese women and men are from different galaxies?


Harry 10.07.03 at 7:57 pm

What’s wrong with the following hypothesis? Girl children provide better for their parents in old age; they give more care, ore more likely to live near their aging parent, and are more likely to give financial support (and divert their spouse’s income to this end, so their own lack of earning power is not an issue). If mothers know that they are more likely to get support in old age (when they’ll need it) they have less need to stick with otherwise unsatisfactory partners, and the threshold of acceptability for aspirant subsequent partners gets higher.

This explanation works at least as well, if not better, when girls have slightly worse economic prospects than boys. It also explains why parents choose girls rather than boys when they can select sex (though there are other explanations of this — people know that girls are easier than boys in the early years; they are more fun to dress up, etc).
What about men? They prefer boys, maybe, but 1) they have better financial expectations on divorce than women and 2) they expect to repartner and get emotional and caring support from younger partners, and to predecease their partner, so anticipate having less need of support from their children.


Thomas 10.08.03 at 5:19 am

What kind of parent invests in his or her child’s education to maximize the child’s earning potential, and how is that investment rational?

I want my children to be well educated so they can live a good life–and not just in a material sense.

I don’t expect my children to support me, any more than I support my parents. Social insurance schemes and private savings generally provide for those needs now, which suggests that the “rational” thing is to forego having children, letting other people do all the work while still sharing in their gain.

Luckily, life isn’t rational in that narrow sense.


Ruth 10.08.03 at 3:51 pm

As an explanation for why parents who use Microsort often aim for girls, don’t forget that many genetic disorders are sex-linked. As common as sociocultural preferences for boys are, even in oh-so-enlightened contemporary America, it’s still officially frowned upon to medically manipulate conception or pregnancy just as a matter of personal preference for a son. Sex-selection places tend to market themselves to prospective parents who know that it’s genetically risky to have a child of a particular sex — and, although I could be wrong about this, I think there are more known problems linked to the Y chormosome (perhaps because w/X-linked traits, since every girl has 2 X choromosomes, she could end up being merely a carrier of Syndrome A, whereas any son would automatically exhibit Syndrome B if it’s carried on his father’s Y chromosome? Help me — it’s been years since I studied genetics).

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