PRICING THE PRICELESS CHILD; The Changing Social Value of Children. By Viviana A. Zelizer. Basic Books. 277 pp. $18.95.

OF THE MAKING of books about the history of childhood, there now seems to be no end. Nourished by the publication of Philippe AriMes' Centuries of Childhood in the 1960s, a mature field has emerged, occupying the attention and industry of historians, sociologists and psychologists. To this body of research and commentary, Viviana Zelizer, a Barnard sociologist, makes a provocative and significant contribution -- mainly, I should say at once, because of her unusual perspective.

What Zelizer wants us to see is that in the years between 1870 and 1930 a change took place in how children were valued by Americans, specifically a change from expecting children to be "useful" to demanding that they be "useless." Zelizer does not intend these terms as ironic, and does not put quotation marks around them. She means them to be construed as near-neutral descriptions of our pre-20th- and post-20th- century perceptions of children. In the 20th century, she argues, the child became economically useless but emotionally priceless. She calls this transformation the "sentimentalization of childhood" or, sometimes, the "sacralization of child life," and claims that it occurred at all levels of social class. As distinct from the child who was a significant contributor to the family income, "The new sacred child," she says, "occupied a special and separate world, regulated by affection and education, not work or profit."

The principal documentation of her claim resides in a fascinating and detailed historical examination of how the insurance business, compensation for the wrongful death of children, and the sale of children were altered as children became priceless, i.e., lost their economic value.

Like Arivide a clearly articulated theory as to why the idea of childhood emerged in the 16th century, Professor Zelizer does not put forward a sturdy explanation of why the productive child was replaced by the adored child. Partly, she says, it was a result of conflicting economic interests but mostly a result of an ideological dispute between two opposing views of childhood. On the side of the sacred child were reformers who were appalled at the abuses of child labor and who, among other things, advocated compulsory school attendance. On the other side were both the working class and middle class who not only needed their children's economic services but believed child productivity to be good for their character. Zelizer believes that the outcome of this dispute -- the triumph of the sacred child -- refutes the vulgar Marxist insistence that the needs of the market always reign supreme. Her book chllenges, as she puts it, "established assumptions about the inevitable social effects of a money economy." And yet, it is not entirely clear to me what alternative theory is being proposed. For me, there still remain the questions of why this ideological dispute arose when it did and why the useless child prevailed. On the other hand, that things happened as Zelizer chronicles them can hardly be disputed.

SHE CONCLUDES her book with a wide-ranging and deeply informed discussion of the different positions now being taken on the future of childhood. While she emphatically opposes a return to the economic exploitation and other horrors of the "useful" child era, she sides with those contemporary revisionists (her term) who believe there are social and psychic dangers in perpetuating children's uselessness, that is, she approves of present tendencies to de-sacralize child life. She chides several writers (including me) for our nostalgic yearning for a restoration of the "useless" child, and she quotes several distinguished psychologists -- among them, Jerome Kagan -- who assert that economic dependency, which is the hallmark of childhood uselessness, can be psychologically hazardous.

She also quotes Richard Farson (from his book Birthrights) to the effect that children should have access to economic power by having the right to acquire and manage money, and receive equal pay for equal work. She does not quote Farson's opinion, from the same book, that the principal objection to incest is that people are made to feel unreasonably guilty about practicing it; that all sexual behavior should be decriminalized, including sex between adults and children, and that arrangements need to be made to permit children to live wherever and with whom they wish. In pointing this out, I am not accusing Zelizer of concealing it from us. Rather, I am suggesting that public policies that encourage a restoration of the useful child of the 19th century may lead to something more unwholesome than Zelizer bargains for.

Nonetheless, the argument about the future of childhood will go on, and it must now include the facts, point of view and even taxonomy brought forward in Pricing the Priceless Child. For there are useless books on the subject and useful ones. This is clearly among the latter.