Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men

Abstract

Nationally representative data indicate that adults in the United States are increasingly delaying the decision to have children or are forgoing parenthood entirely. Although some empirical research has examined the social consequences of adults’ decision to be childfree, few studies have identified explanatory mechanisms for the stigma this population experiences. Based on the logic of backlash theory and research on retributive justice, the present research examined moral outrage as a mechanism through which voluntarily childfree targets are perceived less favorably than are targets with children for violating the prescribed social role of parenthood. In a between-subjects experiment, 197 undergraduates (147 women, 49 men, 1 participant with missing gender data) from a large U.S. Midwestern urban university were randomly assigned to evaluate a male or female married target who had chosen to have zero or two children. Participants completed measures of the target’s perceived psychological fulfillment and their affective reactions to the target. Consistent with earlier studies, voluntarily childfree targets were perceived as significantly less psychologically fulfilled than targets with two children. Extending past research, voluntarily childfree targets elicited significantly greater moral outrage than did targets with two children. My findings were not qualified by targets’ gender. Moral outrage mediated the effect of target parenthood status on perceived fulfillment. Collectively, these findings offer the first known empirical evidence of perceptions of parenthood as a moral imperative.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

References

  1. Allen, T. D. (2006). Rewarding good citizens: The relationship between citizenship behavior, gender, and organizational rewards. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 120–143. doi:10.1111/j.0021-9029.2006.00006.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Balbo, N., & Barban, N. (2014). Does fertility behavior spread among friends? American Sociological Review, 79, 412–431. doi:10.1177/0003122414531596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bandura, A., & Huston, A. C. (1961). Identification as a process of incidental learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 311–318. doi:10.1037/h0040351.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Berdahl, J. L., & Moon, S. H. (2013). Workplace mistreatment of middle class workers based on sex, parenthood, and caregiving. Journal of Social Issues, 69, 341–366. doi:10.1111/josi.12018.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Burgess, D., & Borgida, E. (1999). Who women are, who women should be: Descriptive and prescriptive gender stereotyping in sex discrimination. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 5, 665–692. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.5.3.665.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. CBS/AP (2014, May 7). Dropping birth rates threaten global economic growth. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/dropping-birth-rates-threaten-global-economic-growth/

  8. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015–1026. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1015.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Çopur, Z., & Koropeckyj-Cox, T. (2010). University students’ perceptions of childless couples and parents in Ankara, Turkey. Journal of Family Issues, 31, 1481–1506. doi:10.1177/0192513X10361577.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Darley, J. M., & Pittman, T. S. (2003). The psychology of compensatory and retributive justice. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 324–336. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0704_05.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Devos, T., Viera, E., Diaz, P., & Dunn, R. (2007). Influence of motherhood on the implicit academic self-concept of female college students: Distinct effects of subtle exposure to cues and directed thinking. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22, 371–386. doi:10.1007/BF03173433.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Haslam, N., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Dehumanization and infrahumanization. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 399–423. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115045.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Heilman, M. E., & Chen, J. J. (2005). Same behavior, different consequences: Reactions to men’s and women’s altruistic citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 431–441. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.90.3.431.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Jamison, P. H., Franzini, L. R., & Kaplan, R. M. (1979). Some assumed characteristics of voluntarily childfree women and men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 4, 266–273. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1979.tb00714.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Kane, E. W. (2006). “No way my boys are going to be like that!” Parents’ responses to children’s gender nonconformity. Gender and Society, 20, 149–176. doi:10.1177/0891243205284276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kopper, B. A., & Smith, M. S. (2001). Knowledge and attitudes toward infertility and childless couples. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 2275–2291. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb00175.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Koropeckyj-Cox, T., Romano, V., & Moras, A. (2007). Through the lens of gender, race, and class: Students’ perceptions of childless/childfree individuals and couples. Sex Roles, 56, 415–428. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9172-2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Last, J. V. (2013). What to expect when no one’s expecting: America’s coming demographic disaster. New York: Encounter Books.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Livingston, G., & Cohn, D. (2010). Childlessness up among all women; Down among women with advanced degrees. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/25/childlessness-up-among-all-women-down-among-women-with-advanced-degrees/

  21. Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Osterman, M. J. K., Curtin, S. C., & Mathews, T. J. (2015). Births: Final data for 2013. National Vital Statistics Reports, 64, 1–65.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Rudman, L. A. (2010). When men break the gender rules: Status incongruity and backlash against modest men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 11, 140–151. doi:10.1037/a0018093.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Mueller, K. A., & Yoder, J. D. (1997). Gendered norms for family size, employment, and occupation: Are there personal costs for violating them? Sex Roles, 36, 207–220. doi:10.1007/BF02766268.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Mueller, K. A., & Yoder, J. D. (1999). Stigmatization of non-normative family size status. Sex Roles, 41, 901–919. doi:10.1023/A:1018836630531.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Okimoto, T. G., & Brescoll, V. L. (2010). The price of power: Power seeking and backlash against female politicians. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 923–936. doi:10.1177/0146167210371949.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Prentice, D. A., & Carranza, E. (2002). What women and men should be, shouldn’t be, are allowed to be, and don’t have to be: The contents of prescriptive gender stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269–281. doi:10.1111/1471-6402.t01-1-00066.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Riessman, C. K. (2000). Stigma and everyday resistance practices childless women in South India. Gender and Society, 14, 111–135. doi:10.1177/089124300014001007.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

  29. Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 574–586. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.4.574.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: The role of backlash in cultural stereotype maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 157–176. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.2.157.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (1999). Feminized management and backlash toward agentic women: The hidden costs to women of a kinder, gentler image of middle managers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1004–1010. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.5.1004.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 743–762. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 165–179. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.008.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Sandler, L., & Witteman, K. (2013). None is enough. Time, 182(7), 38–46.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., …Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 663-688. doi:10.1037/a0029393.

  36. Shields, S. A., & Cooper, P. E. (1983). Stereotypes of traditional and nontraditional childbearing roles. Sex Roles, 9, 363–376. doi:10.1007/BF00289671.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Starrels, M. E., & Holm, K. E. (2000). Adolescents’ plans for family formation: Is parental socialization important? Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 416–429. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00416.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Thompson, V. D. (1974). Family size: Implicit policies and assumed psychological outcomes. Journal of Social Issues, 30, 93–124. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb01757.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta‐analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 574–583. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00574.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Williams, J. E., & Best, D. L. (1990). Measuring sex stereotypes: A multination study. Newbury Park: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Megan Dumka, Scott Hall, Haley Kolp, Kassi Rains, Stacy Slavings, Kelsey Stephens, Jessica Thomas, and Logan Wikoff for their assistance with data collection.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Leslie Ashburn-Nardo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ashburn-Nardo, L. Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men. Sex Roles 76, 393–401 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0606-1

Download citation

Keywords

  • Parenthood
  • Gender
  • Childfree
  • Moral outrage
  • Stigma