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Superstition, Family Planning and Human Development

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Aug 2006, Quy-Toan Do and Tung Duc Phung 1

Are “wanted” and “unwanted” children treated equally by their parents? Is a child who has been planned by his parents more likely to grow up in a favorable environment? Giving an answer to these questions is not straightforward, simply because there is no reliable way to observe whether a given child has been “wanted” or not.

Nonetheless, this theme has been central to the literature on abortion regulation. Despite a significant number of studies on the impacts of access to abortion on children outcomes, the question remained largely unanswered. By the very nature of the adopted methodological approach, it is not possible to tell whether the average “unwanted” child is worse-off than average because he or she received less parental attention, or because he or she is more likely to be born into a family with lower socio-economic status.

To address this issue, the authors look at the specific cultural context of Vietnam in Policy Research Working Paper 4001. According to Vietnamese astrology, dates of birth are believed to be determinants of success, luck, character and good match between individuals. Superstitious parents should thus time birth so that their children are born in auspicious years. The analysis of household data collected in 1992-93 and 1997-98 confirms this initial presumption. Figure 1 below graphs the sizes of cohorts for each year for the time period 1976-1996, and indicates whether a given year was auspicious for boys (B), girls (G) or both (B&G).

Figure 1.  Vietnam Family by Quy-Toan Do

As can be observed, most auspicious years are above the trend (smooth line), indicating that fertility in Vietnam has been responsive to the horoscope.

Using survey data, the authors characterize the “superstitious” family. They find that parents are more likely to time birth according to astrology when they are younger, or when the mother is more educated, but not when the family is wealthier. When parents are younger, they plausibly have more time to plan birth, and more educated mothers are likely to be more able to control fertility timing.

Turning to human development outcomes, the authors find that children born in auspicious years show better educational and health status than otherwise. These results hold for both boys and girls. Although the differences might be due to differing family background, the gap is almost identical between siblings: a child born in an auspicious year will on average be in better health and show better educational achievement than his or her sibling born in a non-auspicious year.

The explanations behind these findings are twofold.

First, the Vietnamese horoscope might be accurate. Yet, without this necessarily being the case, the fact that a child, his or her parents and the environment believe that auspicious years are actually good omen, can be enough to boost the child’s confidence. It might also induce parents to pay more attention to him or her. In the end, whether true or not, the horoscope might have a direct effect on children human development.

Second, if family planning relies on the horoscope, it also comes along with financial, psychological and emotional preparation. A carefully planned child is then more likely to grow up in a more favorable environment, arguably from the very first moments of the pregnancy. As a child born in an auspicious year is more likely to be the fruit of family planning, he or she is then more likely to benefit from good conditions for better human development.

To see which of the two possibilities is more likely to be driving the empirical findings, the authors note that the horoscope differs between boys and girls. Furthermore parents cannot tell the gender of their offspring at the time of the fertility decision. Suppose then that the year 9 months ahead is an auspicious year for girls but not for boys, and parents plan to have a child then. If they happen to have a boy, the first scenario suggests that the child will be favored neither by Nature, nor by his or her environment. However, the second scenario predicts that the child will be born into a family with on average well-prepared parents. And the same predictions will hold if one considers a girl born in a year auspicious for boys only. Thus, these two scenarios deliver two opposite predictions for a certain category of children. The data analysis strongly favors the second argument: family planning is crucial in determining children’s human development.

The findings of this paper are potentially important when it comes to the implementation of social policy programs aimed at children. Targeting based on parental characteristics might not be sufficient to reach the child who needs it most. A child in a household above the poverty line might well end up below, vice and versa. However as opposed to gender, “wantedness” is not observable. This therefore calls for a refinement of targeting schemes, possibly based on child characteristics instead.


 1.   World Bank and Vietnam General Statistics Office respectively.

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