Sons and daughters each have their charms and challenges, but what gender to parents actually prefer? It’s a trickier question to answer than you might think. On one hand, historical survey data suggests that America’s preference for boys over girls has remained relatively consistent for nearly a century now, with men showing a slightly stronger preference than women. Fertility figures, on the other hand, tell a different story—parents, no matter their stated preferences, stop trying to conceive after a daughter is born, implying that they’re satisfied.
So what do American parents actually want, sons or daughters? It’s clear that not different people want different things — but also that there are some broader trends. Here’s the data behind these conclusions.
Americans Think They Prefer Boys…
Gallup has been polling Americans about their gender preferences since 1941, and the results are consistent—there’s always a slight preference for sons over daughters. About 40 percent of parents, across the decades, have told researchers that if they could only have one child they would want a boy, while a consistent 20-30 percent has chosen a girl, or no preference. At least when it comes to what we think we want, the data is clear. America wants sons.
…But American Don’t Act Like They Prefer Boys
And yet, American parents seldom put their money where their mouth is. A strong preference for male children would imply that, if a daughter was born first, we would see an increase in fertility rates—families continuing to try, until they arrived at a son. But a recent study of both native-born and immigrant families found that having a firstborn daughter predicted a steep decline in fertility and that this decline only increased after having more female children. America may prefer sons on paper, but parents seem perfectly content with daughters.
The Real Difference is Probably a Matter Of Gender Bias
How do we reconcile these two data points? One approach, illustrated in a recent study in Scientific Reports, is that men prefer sons and women prefer daughters, but both feel more protective of girls than boys. Researchers found that, while both men and women say that they would prefer to adopt or donate to charities benefiting girls, men continue to show implicit bias toward boys, and report that they would prefer a male-dominated sex ratio in their own families. Women, on the other hand, show implicit bias toward girls and prefer a female-dominated sex ratio. In simpler terms, men tend to want sons and women tend to want daughters—but once a child is born both are content and, if anything, they’re more inclined to protect their girls.