Pricing the Priceless Child

By Zelizer Viviana (1985)

Book Review

Azher Hameed Qamar

“The child labor conflict is a key to understanding the profound transformation in the economic and sentimental value of children in early twentieth century. The price of a useful wage-earning child was directly counterposed to the moral value of an economically useless but emotionally priceless child.” (Zelizer, 1985:82)

United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child was finalized in 1989 and was opened for signatures in 1990. Within four years it was globally ratified. Regardless of its worldwide popularity, children’s participation rights have been debated, particularly in the countries where children participation is seen as a part of socialization process. Emergence of the new sociology of childhood in the last decade of twentieth century further constituted the socially constructed childhood and context specific social value of the child. In this connection Zelizer’s work on value and status of the child in western context published in 1985 is noticeable in contemporary discourses on childhood.

Viviana Zelizer, an American economic sociologist and historian, pointed to a shift from societies valuing children for being economically useful (engaged in child labour) to modern societies, valuing children for their emotional value, which she called the priceless child. The work of Zelizer was a significant contribution to the understanding of the social value of children. She pointed to the importance of the historical shift and related change in the value of the child in USA during the early period of industrialization. She suggested that the social value of the child is about giving meanings to the parents’ lives.

Her work shows how the contemporary family has drastically changed from an economic unit where children were important assets in contributing economically, to a ‘sacred family’ where children have a non-economic but an emotionally highly valued status. Children are offered care and love and they, in return, give emotional satisfaction, instead of economic support. This trend shifted children’s labor to non-economic, educational and learning activities of the children in the middle of the 19th century. Policies related to children were designed to ensure a healthy and productive child, eliminating child labor and economic value of the children. Middle-class parents used to provide their children with financial assistance to support their ‘unproductive’ childhood, and education was seen necessary for child wellbeing. In 1930, US legislation to eliminate child labor and implement compulsory education promoted a ‘non-productive’ childhood with an emotional and sentimental value that was taken as a non-economic definition of the child, what Zelizer termed as ‘economically worthless’ and emotionally ‘priceless child.’ As seen by Zelizer, and others (such as Qvortrup, 2005; Sanchez-Eppler, 2005) eviction from child labor and growing attention towards child’s need for nurturance, protection and increased affection lead towards sentimentalization of childhood. Modern North American parents experience joy, pleasure and emotional satisfaction with the child. Such as a parent’s response that Zelizer quotes; “what we have done for the child is not a drop in the bucket compared to what it has done for us — the experience, joys, emotions …. it has put into our lives” (1985:170). With an exclusively emotional value of the child the expectation of being economically useful were turned down and the child was moved from an exchange framework (an economic investment with a return) to a privileged status supported by the modern notion of ‘ideal childhood’ (as stated in UNCRC 1989) where children were protected from having to offer economic return (see Montgomery, 2009). Childcare took a new dimension and social campaigns advocated health, education, hygiene care as good and compulsory childrearing practices and essential rights of the child. Parenting became aimed at guidance instead of control.

Zelizer also brought to light the revolution in child mourning expanded in the late 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, a dramatic revolution in mourning children had taken place. The death of a young child became the most painful and least tolerable of all deaths in the upper — and middleclass families in England, Europe and the United States. A need to create separate sacred space was linked to the new value of child life and the deepening moral offensiveness of killing children. Parents became intolerable of their children’s death. Love and emotions influenced child care practices and parents used protective strategies for the survival of the children. In the 1930’s, children were spending more of their time safely indoors, in school. A great concern for protecting child life was promoted. Children were increasingly supervised and domesticated. The magnification of child mourning in the 20th century is seen as a measure of the transformation in the cultural meaning of childhood, specifically children’s sentimental worth. The domestic grief of all parents for their dead child became gradually a public concern and a social loss (see Cunningham, 2005; Pollock, 1983).

Qamar, A. H. (2022). Social Value of the Child. Contexts21(1), 40–45.

Zelizer present theory dealing with the economic situation connected to children. The theory is concerning the cost of children and children’s income. She makes a distinction between different ways of valuing the child during history. Until 1930 there was a decrease in child labor, but it didn’t vanish. In 1930 there were still children working in rural areas and in streets. They were also seen as very useful in household. Zelizer also discussed the child labor controversy that lasted for about fifty years. American child labor legislation was resisted on different forum including church that saw working child as ‘noble assistance’ to parents and family. Another perspective was seeing children learning the ‘discipline, sense of duty and responsibility’. Hence, the middle-class families also showed their concerns regarding family autonomy, and rights of the parents to shape the families. With the passage of time the economic participation of the children in familial, cultural and social context were redefining. In the middle of twentieth century, there was a consensus among the opponents and supporters of child labour on the removal of health hazardous or dangerous child labour, and legitimate or illegitimate labours were defined. Children’s economic activities were reconsidered in a non-productive way and as a mean of educational progress and character-building. Child labour was shifted from utilization of children in economic activities to child participating in educational activities. Children were only tended to help in houses to learn helpfulness and selflessness.

In the contemporary debates on children rights (after the universal acceptance of united nation’s convention on the rights of the child, 1989) and presentation of childhood as socially constructing category in new sociology of childhood, Zelizer’s contribution becomes significant to understand the historical shift in the social value of the child and parenting practices in western context.


Cunningham H (2005) Children and childhood in western society since 1500. Pearson Education Limited.

Montgomery H (2009) An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives. John Wiley & Sons.

Pollock LA (1983) Forgotten children: Parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge University Press.

Qvortrup J (2005) Varieties of childhood. In Studies in modern childhood (pp. 1–20). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sanchez-Eppler K (2005) Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zelizer VA (1985) Pricing the Priceless Child. The changing social value of children, New York: Basic Books, Inc.

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