Parents are critical for teaching children how to be well mannered, skilled adults. But when it comes to gender expectations, boys and girls receive a different set of messages for how to behave. And while some of those messages are explicit — boys don’t cry and girls don’t play rough — others go unspoken. Still, children receive them loud and clear.
There is research to back up the claim that children pick up on subtle messages, particularly those centered around gender. In her 2020 systematic review The Effects of Gendered Parenting on Child Development Outcomes, published in the journal Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, Dr. Alina Morawska examined 45 studies linked to parenting behaviors or strategies that differed depending on the sex of their child. She found that what parents do will often differ from what they say.
“In fact, parents are more likely to endorse gender equality explicitly but model and implicitly reinforce behaviors along gendered lines,” writes Morawska in her findings, suggesting what parents do is sometimes not what they say. To put a fine point on it, she adds, “The impact of explicit teaching is mitigated if other modes of communication convey a different message.”
But what are those messages, when it comes to girls?
Parents Talk to Girls About Social Issues Not Science
In her review Dr. Morawska notes a key difference in how parents talk to daughters in comparison to sons. “Parents tended to discuss more learning-related topics with boys and social topics with girls, potentially sending the message that learning is important for boys, and socializing is more important for girls,” she writes.
This conclusion is drawn in part from a 2003 British study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, that looked into parent-child conversations about science. Observing over 50 parent-child combinations researchers found that parents generally treated science as if it were boring when speaking to girls, while using more intensive scientific language with boys.
Morawska also examined an earlier study, by researchers from the University of Texas and North Carolina State University, which looked at the way mothers spoke with Kindergartners about their school days. The research, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, found that mothers focused on topics about learning with boys while they focused on topics related to friends and social relationships with girls.
“Those messages can be confining and sometimes undermining,” explains Dr. Richard Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer on Education and Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology masters program at Harvard University. He suggests that parents take time to listen to themselves and the world an recognize when they might be unintentionally limiting their perspective of what’s possible for daughters
“There are opportunities to identify times where girls are characterized as being great in science and when boys are characterized as being great caretakers and to note those instances,” Weissbourd explains. “One thing that’s really important here is that there are productive conversations that parents can have with their kids about the ways in which gender is understood and framed in our country.”
Parents Assume Daughters are Sad and Sons are Angry
In 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a study that observed how parents in 217 families used gender labels when talking about emotions with sons and daughters. The study, Fathers’ and Mothers’ Emotion Talk With Their Girls and Boys From Toddlerhood to Preschool Age, discovered a distinct difference in the way emotions are attributed to girls and boys.
Researchers from Leiden University asked parents to read a book to their children containing drawings of gender-neutral children displaying anger, fear, sadness, and happiness. It was up to parents to label the gender neutral characters as boys or girls.
“Both parents used the label boy more often than the label girl for the angry child in the book,” the authors noted. “And they used the label girl more often than the label boy when discussing sadness.”
It’s not as if the associations were intentional. In fact, parents likely assumed emotions to certain genders based on how they themselves had been socialized. In other words, those biases become implicit, built from their own experiences and those of the culture they live in.
It can be difficult for parents to recognize their subconscious gender biases. So it’s important for parents to be thoughtful and engage in productive gender conversations with their kids, explains Weissbourd.
“Many families are bombarded in their daily lives with different gender images and they’re watching TV on the internet when they’re listening to songs in the car together,” he says “All those inputs and instances are opportunities to talk about gender bias, and to talk about the ways messages in the culture are different for girls and boys.”
Parents Express More Emotional Language With Girls
The study from the American Psychological Association also highlighted how the stereotype of women being more emotionally present than men may be tied to the language parents use with their daughters regarding sadness. It found that parents used more sadness language when talking with girls and that they were more accepting of girls’ sadness and anxiety.
The ways that emotions are reflected and expressed to kids provide fundamental building blocks for their own emotional development. And the review from the American Psychological Association found that fathers aren’t just participants in using sadness language, but that they also begin to do so when their daughters are younger. So the tools to encourage emotional presence are there, it’s simply that they are being utilized far more with daughters than with sons.
“It’s really important to talk with girls and boys about sadness and to create an environment of openness where they have an acceptance that they’re sad and hurt,” says Weissbourd. “Kids should feel, and kids should feel invited. There is openness encouragement to share those feelings. And then, you know when they’ve shared these feelings, I think we as parents need to help kids understand them, empathize with them and affirm them.”
It all adds up to a challenging task for parents. Even those who have the best of intentions. With generational gender stereotypes entrenched into subconscious communication habits, we at least continue to gain insights from research that can help parents realize the implicit messages we pass on to our children.