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Choosing to Be Childless Comes at a Cost

New research finds surprisingly negative attitudes toward adults who opt out of having kids.
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In an era when political leaders manipulate prejudices rather than condemn them, newly published research suggests there’s another group of individuals who, by their very choices, evoke anger and disgust: people who choose not to procreate.

“Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical or surprising, but also as morally wrong,” psychologist Leslie Ashburn-Nardo of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis said in announcing the results.

“Despite the fact that women and men, with increasing frequency in the U.S., are delaying the parenthood decision, or are opting out of parenthood entirely, the cultural prescription to have children persists,” she writes in the journal Sex Roles. “Violators are subject to social backlash.”

The study featured 197 undergraduates (most of them women) at a university in the Midwest. All read a short vignette that purportedly described a married alumnus of their school who was having trouble settling on a career. Two elements of the story were manipulated: The person was identified as either male or female, and as the parent of either two children or none.

Participants were then asked questions related to the (fictional) person’s “psychological fulfillment or adjustment.” Among other things, they noted how likely they felt it was that he or she had a good marriage, and “a satisfying life overall.”

In addition, they indicated on a one-to-five scale the extent to which the person made them feel disapproval, outrage, anger, annoyance, and disgust.

“Child-free targets were perceived to be significantly less psychologically fulfilled than targets with two children,” Ashburn-Nardo reports. In addition, “participants reported significantly greater moral outrage toward targets who had chosen to have no children” compared to their counterparts with kids, expressing higher levels of anger, disapproval, and disgust.

“Voluntarily child-free male and female targets were stigmatized equally,” she adds. “These findings point toward parenthood as an imperative, rather than as a typical choice.”

The findings “have some troubling potential implications for how people transition to parenthood,” Ashburn-Nardo writes. They suggest “many young people view children as a necessary ingredient for fulfilling lives. Thus, they may feel tremendous pressure to have children.” She notes that a 2003 meta-study found this assumption has “no basis in reality.”

They also raise the question of whether childless people, like members of other non-conforming groups, are discriminated against. While that’s the subject of further research, this study is a reminder that, for all our talk of an open-minded, inclusive society, people who break from the norm are often viewed with suspicion — or worse.