Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce? (Ep. 135)

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(Photo: Marie Smith)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

This episode was inspired by a question from a reader named John Dolan-Heitlinger, who wrote the following:

My wife has observed that in marriages where there is a son there is less chance of the husband leaving the marriage.

I wonder if that is true.

Thanks for your consideration.

Mr. Dolan-Heitlinger asks, and we deliver. And his wife, as it turns out, is right. In a paper called “The Demand for Sons,” the economists Enrico Moretti and Gordon B. Dahl examined differences in marital rates based on whether a first-born child is a son or daughter. Here are some of their findings:

  • Couples who conceive a child out of wedlock and find out that it will be a boy are more likely to marry before the birth of their baby.
  • Parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced.
  • Fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters versus sons.
  • In any given year, roughly 52,000 first-born daughters younger than 12 years (and all their siblings) would have had a resident father if they had been boys.
  • Divorced fathers are much more likely to obtain custody of sons compared to daughters.

“Son preference” is not new, of course (and we’ve dealt with a different version before on this show). Gallup has been polling on this question since 1941, and the results have barely budged. In 2011, 40 percent preferred sons and 28 percent daughters; the rest stated no preference or opinion. (In 1941 the margin was 38 percent to 24 percent.)

In this podcast, Stephen Dubner talks with Enrico Moretti about the research itself and the broader economic implications of so many girls living without their dads.

MORETTI: For children and families with absentee fathers due to a first-born daughter, family income is reduced by about 50 percent and poverty rates are increased by about 30 percent. So these are economically important effects.

Thanks again to John Dolan-Heitlinger for the question that sparked this discussion. Please keep your good questions coming!


One of my first thoughts is that this study should have looked at who initiated the divorce (perhaps it did, but I've only read the abstract at this point, and there's no mention of this there).

Women have just as much right to file for divorce as do men, and so blaming the higher divorce rates for couples with daughters on male preferences for sons seems unfounded. It seems just as plausible to me that women could feel more comfortable filing for divorce when they have only daughters; girls are generally seen as easier to raise and the importance of the father is more widely recognized in a young boy's life than in a girl's.


While I agree with your premise, that it is incorrect to just assume the higher divorce rate is due only to a father's preference for a son, I would challenge your statement that girls are generally seen as easier to raise. While I'm not a parent, I've consistently heard the opposite from parents that I know.

Also, while it is only anecdotal evidence, the other finding of the study, that men are more likely to obtain custody of a son than a daughter, does point to the disparity stemming from a father's preference for a son; the implication being that men fight harder for custody of sons, or are generally seen as better parents in the eyes of the court if they have a son. Of course, this could also be due to some bias in the court system.


> "I would challenge your statement that girls are generally seen as easier to raise. While I’m not a parent, I’ve consistently heard the opposite from parents that I know."

I have no particular opinion on whether boys or girls are easier to raise, though, if I were to make a guess, I'd say that boys are harder to raise in childhood and girls are harder to raise in their teenage years. I'd be curious if the people who say that girls are harder to raise are the ones with teenage daughters.


Is this only true for families with fathers? I'm wondering if it rings true for same sex couples (speaking as part of a same sex couple with a first born daughter... still together though! woohoo!)


I recall reading recently how there is growing evidence that monogamy evolved in primates to prevent infanticide. The evidence posted here makes me wonder if there is a connection between the two. That is, there is higher rates of male on male infanticide, so there is an evolutionary link to keep men present in their male-born offspring's lives to prevent this.


I have seen articles about that, and they leave me wondering where the researchers ever got the idea that humans are naturally monogamous. Where it exists, it seems to be externally imposed by religious/cultural authorities, while the people controlling those authorities frequently ignore their own strictures.


I don't believe that the study was looking at humans, but primates. I believe they went through already existing primatology research and performed their methodology through there. I recall reading that there is fairly strong consensus that humans aren't monogamous (something like 60% of cultures permit men to have multiple wives, and I believe it was also acceptable in the west until around 1000 A.D. ).

Not all primates are monogamous either.


Surely this should be "Do sexist fathers cause divorce?" not "Do baby girls cause divorce?"


My thought, too.


This is clearly disturbing and sexist. I'm disgraced to know that this happens. How can we disrespect and castaway the future sisters, mothers, and daughters of our nation? It takes two-- a husband AND wife (or any combination of the two)-- to raise a family. If the father cannot overcome his own personal bias, that should be labelled the cause. This article is inciting undeserving guilt in the daughters of our world. You can argue all you want, but treating the bearers of our children and our future progeny as inferior is inhumane. Men and women-- it takes two to make a civilization.


Here's the thing - at one point in the podcast, they acts like this was a big effect. But, they also said it made a small difference (of about 2%). To put it another way: "In any given year, roughly 52,000 first-born daughters younger than 12 years (and all their siblings) would have had a resident father if they had been boys." but there are over 4 million children born each year in the US, meaning that the effect is about 2.5% (since 52,000 is about 2.5% of 2 million children). We aren't "casting away our daughters" and this isn't even a widespread cultural thing. For all I know, this effect is limited to a backwards opinion in some small segment of the population. It could be common among the poor, or it might predominate among recent immigrants to the US. My point is that you can't conclude much of anything about the larger society and cultural norms based on this small of an effect. (I've also heard that parents who get invitro fertilization, when they decide to pick the gender of the child, tend to prefer girls over boys, which seems to suggest that people tend to prefer girls. Of course, that's a small segment of the population, and in-vitro fertilization is a path pursued by the middle-class and rich so it's not even a random sampling of the larger population.)

My point is: the effect is small and you shouldn't get too worked up over it. If you need to feel a little better about the place of girls in society, just think about the fact that girls make up 70% of high school valedictorians, are less likely to drop out of high school, and between 55% and 60% of all undergrads in college are female. For whatever reason (whether distractions or disinterest on the part of boys, or society's focus on girl problems over boy problems), girls are actually doing quite well - on average, they're doing better than boys.



Sports HAS to have something to do with this.

What is THE most popular sport in America? Football. And that is one of the key sports girls don't play.

Dads will engage more with children when they can engage with them regarding sports, and they will engage in the sports they've played and which they are best at.

Some sports are more gender "neutral/balanced" than others - swimming, running etc. where it's very similar for boys and girls both.

How do these figures correlate to what was dad's best sport, and/or the sport he is most interested in?

And how can these other sports be promoted more to get dads interested?

I have an older and younger daugher, with a son in the middle. I've learned to love girls softball, but even there I still struggle with teaching the underhand pitching and find it easier to be involved in my son's baseball where I can relate to all the skills involved and did all the same in my own youth.



Listening to the podcast, I couldn't help but wonder if something else was going on. For example, I had read some time ago that men with certain professions tended to have girls rather than boys. I believe the common thread was that, if men had jobs that took them away from home for long periods of time, that they were more likely to have girls. It made me wonder: if males with jobs that take them away from home for long periods of time are more likely to have girls, and if males with jobs that take them away from home for long periods of time are more likely to divorce, then couldn't it be that we're seeing two effects (increased chance of girls, increased chance of divorce) are actually caused by a third factor (being away from home for long periods of time)?


The article should also note that girls in households with unrelated males have a high rate of sexual abuse. Fathers of daughters might want to remain involved with their daughters in order to protect them.

Sorry, but it's true

A father can see a reflection of himself in the male baby easier than in a girl baby.

This actually happened to me, sad to say. But I didn't know about the pregnancy until a year after the baby was born. The mother and I weren't married, and were both professionals. Still, I was glad the baby was a girl. If it had been a boy, I would have insisted on some joint custody if possible. Being a girl, she probably grew up as independent as her mother, one hopes.

I don't see any of this as sexist at all. It is just a matter of identification.

Just Julie

I believe Brit nailed it,this is another curious phenomenon, but proportionately small, thank goodness. Some men just make better sperm donors than parents, period. Some women cannot parent either but that's not what this discussions about. I so agree that the title is catchy but wrong, so wrong. Blaming girls for a mans failure? Excuse me?


Wow I did not think it was possible for a freakonomics podcast to be actually offensive. "Why do male offspring seem to be better at holding marriages together?" I was under the impression that the married adults were responsible for holding their own marriage together, not their offspring.

Shane L

"- Parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced.
- Fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters versus sons."

Can I check is this "significant" the layperson's meaning (large and important) or the statistician's meaning (probably not caused by chance). If the latter, it could be saying only that there is a relationship, but not stating whether that relationship is large or not. I ask simply because I'm surprised by the results, if they are saying the relationship is big and important!