Couples who choose to not have children are stigmatised for their decision, even by complete strangers, according to a new study which offers the first known evidence that parenthood is seen as a moral imperative.
US adults are increasingly delaying the decision to have children or forgoing parenthood entirely, yet evidence suggests that voluntarily child-free people are stigmatised for this decision, researchers said.
Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in the US, studied this bias against those who choose to not have kids.
“What’s remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children,” Ashburn-Nardo said. “Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong,” she said.
The findings are consistent with other studies of backlash against people who violate social roles and other stereotypic expectations. When people violate their expected roles, they suffer social sanctions. Given that more and more people in the US are choosing to not have children, this work has far-reaching implications.
“Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children,” Ashburn-Nardo said.
“That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work,” she said. Participants read a vignette about a married adult person and then rated their perceptions of the person’s degree of psychological fulfilment and their feelings toward the person.
The vignette varied only in terms of the portrayed person’s gender and whether they had chosen to have children.
“Consistent with many personal anecdotes, participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children,” Ashburn-Nardo said.
“This effect was driven by feelings of moral outrage – anger, disapproval and disgust – toward the voluntarily child-free people,” she said. “Other research has linked moral outrage to discrimination and interpersonal mistreatment,” Ashburn-Nardo said.
“It’s possible that, to the extent they evoke moral outrage, voluntarily child-free people suffer similar consequences, such as in the workplace or in health care,” she said.
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