December 19, 2017

Earlier this year, the Washington Post published an article under the sensational and attention-grabbing headline “Americans Are Having Fewer Kids. But Child-free People Are Still Stigmatized.” The article claims that – though the US fertility rate is at an all-time low, with more single adults and couples choosing to delay or forego parenthood than ever – that “remaining child-free still isn’t socially accepted.” It then proclaims that this conclusion “was reconfirmed in a study detailing the stigmatization, social backlash, and moral outrage toward child-free people.”

The study in question was titled “Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men.” It was done by Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, a psychology professor at Indiana University and published in the March 2017 issue of Sex Roles.

The problem with this narrative is that Asburn-Nardo’s study presents no basis for its claim that child-free adults are stigmatized. In fact, when properly interpreted, it is a shining testament to the tolerance young people today have toward others’ life choices. Quite simply, this study assumes stereotyping and stigmatization, but never confirms it.

In fairness to the Washington Post, Ashburn-Nardo sets up her study in “backlash theory” and describes parenting as a “moral imperative” in our culture that creates “social backlash,” “stereotyping,” and even “moral outrage” toward individuals who choose to not have children. The study is presented with a clear narrative that the author wants to advance – one that the media is happy to propagate as well – whether or not the results actually support these conclusions.

So what did the study actually find? Ashburn-Nardo asked 197 college undergraduates from a large Midwestern university to read a vignette about a married graduate from the school who was described (alternately) as male or female, with either zero or two children. The study participants were then asked to rate their feelings toward the person described in the vignette. The goal was to discern whether the participants would view the child-free alums with more “moral outrage” than their parent peers.

However, a close examination of the data reveals a different conclusion than the one trumpeted in the Post. In order to measure “moral outrage” toward the individual described in the vignette, the participants were asked five questions. Specifically, to indicate the extent the person in the vignette made them feel “disapproval, angry, outraged, annoyed, and disgusted.” Their responses were rated on a five-point scales that ranged from 1 (“not at all” disapproving, angry, etc.) to 5 (“very much” disapproving, angry, etc.). The average scores were then compared between childless targets and those with two children. Ashburn-Nardo found that participants “reported significantly greater moral outrage toward targets who had chosen to have no children … than toward targets who had chosen to have two children.”

While this sounds damning, Ashburn-Nardo gives no discussion to the actual mean scores of the two groups. The average rating of the child-free person was 1.37 (out of 5.0) compared to 1.16 for the person with two children; remember, a score of 1 means “not at all” disapproving. Therefore, the overwhelming response by the overwhelming majority of the sample was tolerance for childless and parenting adults, though not at identical levels. While these differences may have reached the threshold of being statistically significant, they clearly don’t reach the threshold of being practically significant.

With such low mean scores, we can also induce that those participants who did not mark “not at all” on a few items rated them at the low end of the scale; or, that a handful of participants rated them higher, thus pulling the score up a few tenths of a point. Either way, the general message that child-free individuals are subjected to widespread or intense moral outrage and stigmatization cannot be supported by these responses. In fact, with such a dominant response of “not at all” disapproving or angry, the participants in this study showed that they are tolerant, approving, and accepting of the individual who choose to not have children, even if that choice is not the one they intend for their own lives.

To be honest, given the fertility trends in the United States and around the globe in recent years, a more relevant question may be what level of disapproval would have been reported toward those who have more than the average number of children. What would be the reaction to a vignette that described someone who had chosen to have four children? What about someone with six children? Many families with several children can tell anecdotal stories of snide comments at the grocery store or others expressing disapproval of their child-centered lifestyles. Or, we may find that the young people in this study would also extend their tolerance to large families.

In describing her study to the Washington Post, Ashburn-Nardo explained, “People experience moral outrage when they perceive someone has violated a morally prescribed behavior, something we’re ‘supposed to do’ because it’s what we see as right.” The broader suggestion is that having a child-centered culture is a problem; that living in a culture that values children and promotes their welfare is something to move beyond. Do we really want to erase the “moral imperative of parenting”? Not everyone will choose to be a parent and should certainly be permitted to remain childless. But it is hard to imagine a culture that recognizes children as an inherent good and promotes true child-centeredness without extolling the virtues of people who organize their lives to promote their children’s welfare.

If being pro-child labels one as stigmatizing those who don’t have children, then being child-free runs the risk of stigmatizing those who do. I’m not sure we can have it both ways.

Image Credit: Flickr user Hernán Piñera // CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Author

Jason S. Carroll, Ph.D. is a Professor of Marriage and Family Studies in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution. He is an internationally-recognized researcher and educator in the areas of marriage fragmentation, sexual intimacy, marriage readiness among young adults, the effectiveness of marriage education, and modern threats to marriage.

About our Editors