Are parents of firstborn girls more likely to split?

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There are seven ways to divorce-proof your marriage.

Or is it in ten? Or five? Or perhaps it’s eight.

Whatever the number, economist Enrico Moretti from the University of California Berkeley has added another to the list: make sure your firstborn is a boy.

In a startling interview on Freakonomics Radio, Professor Moretti revealed that in marriages where the firstborn is a boy, there is less chance of the husband leaving the marriage.

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‘Parents who have firstborn girls are significantly more likely to be divorced and parents who have firstborn boys are significantly more likely to stay together,’ he said.

No, this interview was not recorded a hundred years ago and the research sample did not come exclusively from the Taliban and the Saudi royals.

The interview was conducted just two weeks ago and Professor Moretti’s research is based, among other things, on US census data. 

‘Fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters rather than sons. This overall effect is fairly large…We estimate that over a 10 year period that accounts for about 50 thousand firstborn daughters [in the US] who are living without their fathers.’

Not only are dads less likely to stick around if the nursery is painted pink. If the new parents aren’t married, they are less likely to marry if they have a daughter rather than a son.

‘The gender of the kid affects the probability of shotgun marriages’ said Professor Moretti. ‘In particular, we found that for parents who are not married upon conception of the kid, those who learn that their future child will be a boy are more likely to marry by the time of delivery, compared to parents who learn that their future child will be a girl.’

The economic impacts of this gender bias aren’t a trifling matter. Professor Moretti estimates that ‘For children in families with an absent father due to a firstborn daughter, family income is reduced by about 50 per cent.’

Fathers are also less likely to seek custody of daughters rather than sons.

The preference for a boy is so strong that in families with a firstborn daughter the probability of trying for a second child is significantly higher.

‘Families whose firstborn is a boy seem to feel less of a need [to have another child] related to families whose first born is a daughter,’ Moretti said.

Before we assume that these statistics indicate that parents value boys more than girls, it’s possible that what has been termed as ‘the daughter affect’ is not caused by a gender bias. It may be that fathers believe that having a man around is more important for boys than it is for girls, and therefore they stay because they think they are needed as a role model.

But this may be an overly generous explanation, particularly in light of a 2011 Gallop poll that revealed that American’s prefer boys.

When asked, ‘Suppose you could only have one child, would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?’ 40 per cent of respondents preferred a boy. Twenty-eight per cent of the respondents said that preferred a girl, while just over a quarter — 26 per cent — said it didn’t matter.

And this preference was mostly driven by men. When women were asked if they would like to have a boy or a girl their preferences were evenly split.

The preference for boys has not changed since the Gallop poll was originally conducted back in 1941.

While Moretti concedes that there are many factors that determine divorce or marital stability, the fact that the child’s gender is one of them shows a deep-seated cultural bias that, from the moment of conception, continues to value boys more than girls.

 

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

15 comments

  • The research is about whether parents of first born boys or girls are more likely to get divorced. But Kasey Edwards spins this as whether the husband is more likely to leave the marriage.

    Divorces are initiated by women too.

    Commenter
    Kevin Abbott
    Date and time
    August 14, 2013, 10:02AM
    • Actually, the _majority_ of divorces are initiated by women (although there's always arguments about how many of those cases are due to the man leaving and not bothering with paperwork).

      In my limited experience, women are more confident in their ability to be a solo parent to girls, and think that boys would benefit more from having their father around (wrongly, in my opinion). That wouldn't (and shouldn't) be enough to make them stay in an abusive or deeply unhappy marriage, but when things aren't great but not hopelessly bad either, then maybe it's enough to swing the decision?

      Commenter
      Phil
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 11:34AM
  • I read something recently that said Canadians have a preference for girls when it comes to PDG or embryo sex screening. As a father I was hoping for a daughter and over the moon when the obstetrician said "it's a girl!". I'm surprised as the relationship between father and daughter is a special one in my view.

    Commenter
    Cam
    Date and time
    August 14, 2013, 10:21AM
    • "Not only are dads less likely to stick around if the nursery is painted pink. If the new parents aren’t married, they are less likely to marry if they have a daughter rather than a son."

      You can't assume causation from correlation. What if it is women that are less likely to want the father around if they have a daughter?

      Commenter
      Adman
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 10:24AM
      • +1 Good call.

        Commenter
        Tom
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 14, 2013, 1:02PM
      • Excellent comment. Similarly, in many cases I've seen girls clash with their mothers, and I think that general lack of harmony can place added strain on a marriage/relationship - regardless of who finally makes the decision to end the union.

        Commenter
        Lobo Gris
        Location
        Hawthorn
        Date and time
        August 14, 2013, 2:23PM
    • I always suspected there is something wrong with the Americans. Now I have a proof. Thanks K.E.

      Commenter
      kikki
      Location
      perth
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 11:17AM
      • OR,

        Mothers are more likely to leave if the firstborn child is a son.

        Why does the author assume its the men leaving or initiating the divorce? Methinks your bias is showing.

        Commenter
        Freddie Frog
        Date and time
        August 14, 2013, 11:36AM
        • Probably because they asked who initiated the end of the relationship?

          Commenter
          Christian
          Date and time
          August 14, 2013, 1:10PM
        • you mean "less likely"

          Commenter
          ?
          Date and time
          August 14, 2013, 1:33PM

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