Gender Preferences for Children

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Parents and prospective parents, separately or as couples, often have preferences concerning the gender of their children. This article discusses patterns of gender preference in various countries and regions of the world, the different value of sons and daughters, the effect of gender preferences, and the differential treatment of girls and boys.

Patterns of Gender Preference

Gender preferences exhibit a variety of patterns. Most common are a preference for sons and a preference for a balance of daughters and sons (often expressed as a desire to have at least one child of each sex). Son preference is particularly strong in a band of countries from North Africa through the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. The strongest preference for sons has been found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, South Korea, and China. The diversity of these countries indicates that son preference does not emerge from a single set of cultural or historical experiences. Even in countries with a strong son preference, many parents want to have one daughter among their children. An overall preference for daughters over sons is rare but has been found to exist to a small extent in a few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Widespread preference either for sons or for daughters is not common in developed countries or in most countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. In these areas, the most common survey responses to questions on the topic indicate a preference for an equal number of daughters and sons, at least one daughter and one son, or no preference at all. Where a preference for a gender balance is paramount, however, some parents prefer to have a son for their first child.

Value of Sons and Daughters

Gender preferences for children can be based on community norms or personal desires. Children of a particular sex are usually desired because they provide certain utilities (that is, satisfactions or tangible returns, primarily in the economic, social, psychological, or religious domains) or they entail smaller costs. Economic considerations often favor sons for their ability to help on the family farm or in the family business, to earn wages from work outside the home, and to provide support for parents when they get old. Sons may also be valued for their ability to help out the family in emergencies and help younger siblings through school. Daughters are more likely to be valued for providing assistance with household chores and caring for younger siblings. Daughters are sometimes seen as a more reliable source of emotional support and even economic assistance to elderly parents, although in many cultures their services are lost to their parents on marriage. Marriage patterns often provide a strong (even an overriding) incentive for preferring sons in countries where large dowry payments are the norm and for preferring daughters where a substantial bride-price is required as is the case in some countries in Africa.

In the social sphere, sons may be seen as useful for enhancing the power and prestige of the family and for carrying on the family line and the family name, and daughters may be wanted to "balance the family." Both daughters and sons may provide companionship and psychological satisfaction for parents, but women often express a particular desire for a daughter for companionship. Although both daughters and sons may be called on for the performance of religious rituals, many religions favor sons for performing religious functions at the time of a parent's death (e.g., burial rites or lighting of the funeral pyre).

Effect of Gender Preferences

One of the most contentious issues regarding gender preferences is the effect of gender preferences on demographic behavior and the extent to which preferences and their impact are likely to change over time. On the one hand, it is argued that couples who have reached their desired family size may nevertheless continue having children if they have not yet achieved their preferred sex composition of children, thereby delaying the transition to low fertility. On the other hand, there are several examples of countries (such as Korea and China) that have achieved very low levels of fertility in a short span of time despite a continuing strong preference for sons. In 1997 Monica Das Gupta and P. N. Mari Bhat posited that gender preference is likely to intensify over time as fertility falls, but the evidence for this effect is not consistent across countries.

There is no doubt that strong gender preferences may have an effect on such demographic outcomes as contraceptive use, fertility behavior, birth spacing, and the incidence of induced abortions, but the magnitude of these effects is uncertain. Fred Arnold has developed a measure to quantify the impact of gender preferences on demographic behavior. This measure is designed to assess what would happen if gender preferences were to suddenly disappear in a country. Application of the measure in a number of countries with a strong preference for sons demonstrates that gender preferences can reduce levels of contraceptive use and increase fertility, but that gender preferences are not likely to be a major obstacle to fertility decline.

One other consequence of gender preferences is the increasing use of sex-selective abortions (and, more recently, chromosome separation techniques applied to the sperm prior to artificial insemination) to achieve the desired number of daughters and sons. In China, Korea, and India, selective use of abortion for female fetuses has resulted in more masculine sex ratios at birth, leading to skewed sex ratios for children (particularly for younger children born into families that already have many children). Such a pattern may have various unfavorable social consequences in the future–not least, a "marriage squeeze" due to a shortage of marriageable women relative to men.

Differential Treatment of Girls and Boys

If parents prefer children of a particular sex (usually sons), they might give favored treatment to those children in health care, nutrition, educational opportunities, or other areas. In most countries, children receive approximately equal treatment regardless of their sex and the nature of gender preferences in the society. There is ample evidence, however, that in some countries with a strong son preference, boys are often given preferential treatment with respect to medical care, educational opportunities, and (less often) food allocation.

In serious cases, discrimination against girls may result in an increased risk of infant and child mortality. In most countries, male mortality is higher than female mortality at almost every age, but Dominique Tabutin and Michel Willems in 1995 showed that in high-mortality countries, females often have an appreciably reduced advantage or even a higher mortality than males during childhood. This pattern is particularly pronounced in South Asia and Egypt. The precise reason for higher than normal mortality among young girls relative to boys in these countries is not certain, but discrimination against girls, particularly in health care, must be considered the most likely cause.

See also: Family Size Intentions; Sex Ratio; Sex Selection; Women's Status and Demographic Behavior.


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Fred Arnold

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Gender Preferences for Children

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