The aphorism “birds of a feather flock together” describes the fact that people tend to prefer associating with others who are similar to themselves. It’s also known as homophily by psychologists, in-group favoritism by psychologists and affective polarization by political scientists. It’s observed in a wide range of demographic and social characteristics including sex, race, religion, age, education and political party.
What about parental status? What about the preference of parents for other parents? What about child-free people who don’t want to be parents? Are these preferences really important?
In many countries, pronatalism is a set or beliefs that encourage and favor human reproduction. Therefore, it’s not surprising that people tend to have more positive attitudes about parents than they do about child-free people.
People are also reading…
People generally view parents as more emotionally fulfilled and kinder than people who have children. People also express admiration for mothers and disgust at child-free women.
However, these are general attitudes and don’t tell us about how people feel about others who have made the same reproductive choices as themselves. That’s why, in a 2022 study of 1,500 Michigan adults, we asked parents how they felt toward other parents and toward child-free people. We also asked people who were not children how they felt towards parents and towards other child-free persons.
We found that parents strongly favored other parents, but child-free adults didn’t necessarily favor other child-free adults. That is, parents exhibit in-group favoritism, but child-free adults don’t.
Psychology calls it “in-group favoritism.”SolStock/E+ via Getty Images
Measurement of interpersonal warmth
A “feeling thermometer” question is one common way to measure how people in one group feel about people in their own group or in other groups. The question asks for a person’s rating of how warmly they feel about a group, on a scale from 0 (very cool) to 100 (very warm).
Pew Research Center asked people to rate their feelings about different religions and their own members in 2017. White evangelicals felt very warm towards other white evangelicals with an average warmth score 81. Atheists also reported feeling warm towards other atheists with an average warmth score 82.
This is evidence for in-group favoritism. Evangelists also reported feeling cool towards atheists with an average warmth score only 33. Atheists felt the same way, with an average warmth score just 29. This is evidence of what’s called “out-group derogation” – people dislike members of other groups.
The same method was used to compare children-free adults and parents, and we discovered three patterns.
First, children-free people are just as friendly to other child-free persons as they are toward their parents. This is surprising as people tend to feel more warm toward their own group members than they do towards their parents. However, we did not find any evidence of child-free individuals being favoritists within their own groups.
Second, parents are more open to children-free parents than they are to their parents. This is a classic example of in-group favoritism – parents like other parents.
Finally, parents and children-free people have the same feelings toward one another. This is important because it means that although parents really like other parents, they don’t dislike child-free people. This means that we didn’t see evidence of any out-group derogation.
Is it really important?
Although these results weren’t as extreme as comparisons between evangelicals and atheists or between Republicans and Democrats, they may still matter.
In a similar 2022 study, 1,000 adults were surveyed in Michigan. We asked them how satisfied they were about their neighborhoods. Our results showed that children-free adults were less happy with their neighborhood than those who are married and those who plan to have children.
Parents might be influenced by their strong in-group preference for other parents. We did not find any evidence that parents dislike children, but their preference for other parents may still cause them to exclude their childless neighbors. For example, when it’s time to plan a neighborhood event like a block party, parents may be more inclined to recruit other parents to help. This could result in children-free individuals feeling out of their place in child-focused or parent-oriented neighborhoods.
When neighborhoods are focused on parents and children, as commenters increasingly suggest they should be, they are often described as being “family-friendly.” As a result, there are websites offering advice about how to find a family-friendly neighborhood. These neighborhoods might be more welcoming to certain types of families than others.
The number of people who are childless in America is likely to rise as fertility and marriage rates decline.
As this new family type becomes more common, it’s important to rethink who neighborhoods are for and what it means for a neighborhood to be family-friendly. It also requires a rethinking of other aspects of life, such as workplace policies that balance work and family, and government tax credits.
Zachary P. Neal received funding from the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research of Michigan State University.
Jennifer Watling Neal is awarded funding by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan State University.
The States with the highest child care spending
States that spend the most on childcare
Preschool and daycare prices have increased faster than the general market.
The highest childcare costs are in Alaska and Minnesota.
Children’s care costs are particularly burdensome for minorities and households with low incomes
Leave a Reply