Parenting and Gender Expectations

Parents often make decisions for their children based on their child’s gender. For example, parents often use gender to make decisions about how to dress their child, what color to paint their room or deciding what activities to enroll them in. These types of decisions may seem inconsequential, but many developmental psychologists have investigated whether parents treat boys and girls differently in more consequential ways.

Dr. Mesmen and Dr. Groeneveld from Leiden University refer to this line of research as gendered parenting — the ways parents convey how boys and girls should and shouldn’t behave. Parents rarely admit that they explicitly treat their sons and daughters differently, but a number of studies suggest that parents may unintentionally treat their children differently by conveying gender stereotypes to them.

In one classic study, an infant was dressed in either female-typical (pink) or male-typical (blue) clothing, and adult males and females were asked to interact naturally with the infant. The researchers found that adults spoke more to the female-looking infant, but made more eye contact with the male-looking infant. There were also some differences between male and female adults. For instance, male adults were more likely to smile at the male-looking infant, and females were more likely to use feminine toys when interacting with the female-looking infant. When later interviewed, parents were largely unaware of their gendered behaviors.

Parents also convey gender expectations to their older children in subtle ways. For instance, one study asked mothers and fathers to read a book with their 2- to 4-year-old child that depicted male and female characters doing a variety of activities. During reading, mothers commented more positively about drawings of children doing gender stereotypical activities (e.g., “Playing with dolls is fun!”), and fathers commented more often to confirm gender stereotypes (e.g., “He plays hockey but his sister doesn’t”). Other research shows that mothers respond more positively to their son’s disruptive behaviors compared to their daughter’s disruptive behaviors, but are less encouraging of their son’s prosocial behavior, like sharing and helping.

Parents’ unintentional gendered behaviors, like smiling more, responding negatively or positively to children’s behavior, or playing with certain toys may affect children’s development. Given that children are adept at modeling their parents’ behaviors, parents who endorse gender equality can try to be more conscious of the gender expectations they’re conveying to their children. Indeed, research shows that children who grow up in families with traditional family roles (like fathers working and mothers caring for children) also have more stereotypical gender expectations. Parents can also be more conscientious about exposing their daughters and sons to similar activities, especially if they’re beneficial for learning. For example, research shows that playing with blocks can improve children’s spatial skills, but parents may be less inclined to encourage their daughters to play with blocks because they’re stereotypically viewed as a male toy.

For parents who endorse gender equality, making the additional effort to reflect on the gender expectations that you’re conveying to your child can make a difference. By exposing children to a wide array of activities they enjoy, regardless of their gender, parents can increase their child’s learning opportunities while also broadening their child’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

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Why Kindergarten-Aged Girls Think They’re Less ‘Brilliant’ Than Boys

We often tell children they can be anything they want when they grow up. Unfortunately, societal pressures often dissuade young girls and women from pursuing certain activities and career paths. For example, there has long been an underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, despite the fact that women earn more bachelor degrees than men.

Research suggests this may in part be because “brilliance,” or gifted-ness, is implicitly thought of as a male quality, and women are therefore reluctant to join or persist in academic disciplines that are conveyed as requiring a high degree of brilliance. Researchers from four universities across the country asked a large number of academics in a variety of field about the degree to which they thought brilliance was important for success in their field. Fields that reported that brilliance was important for success, like philosophy, computer science and physics, were more likely underrepresent women compared to fields that thought brilliance was less important, like biology and sociology.

Most important, new research led by the same team of researchers shows that young girls may be attuned to the stereotype of “male = brilliance” by the time they’re six years old. The researchers read five- to seven-year-olds stories and had them play games that involved adults who were “really, really smart.” When asked whether the adults in the stories were male or female, five-year-old boys and girls were both more likely to say the protagonist was their own gender. For six- and seven-year olds, boys were more likely to say the protagonist was their gender, but the girls in this age group were now also more likely to say the protagonist was male. When children were told about two games, one for “children who are really, really smart” and one for “children who try really, really hard,” girls were less interested in the game for smart children compared to boys.

By the time they’re six years old, girls are beginning to develop ideas about who is brilliant, and those ideas influence their interest in and pursuit of certain activities. Although we know that gender inequalities exist, this research is the first to suggest that the underlying notion of brilliance that dissuades some girls from pursuing certain activities, studies or jobs develops at a very young age.

It’s always important to remind ourselves as educators, parents and researchers that a lot of what children learn is implicit — learned through social experiences rather than from being explicitly taught. Nevertheless, it may be necessary for parents to explicitly talk to their children about what makes someone smart, capable or brilliant — especially because learning such stereotypes can shape children’s decisions, narrowing their interests and potential career options from a young age.