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Moms Show Gender Bias Against Emotional Expression in Boys. But Why?

A new study shows moms react especially poorly to sadness and anger in boys. What's at the root of this hidden bias?

There’s a great long history of cultural expectations around emotions in boys. Namely, that they shouldn’t have them — at least the ones you wouldn’t find on a battlefield. The American Psychological Association describes the emotional expectations of masculine men as including “emotional stoicism” and “not showing vulnerability.” These norms date back centuries — some estimates say they originated in the Victorian era — and have been perpetuated generation after generation in boys who learn them at a young age, often from their parents.

There has been some cultural pressure for parents to break this chain, with moms and dads acknowledging their gendered expectations and gender-neutral parenting gaining popularity. Still, centuries-old habits die hard. For those who try not to impose these kinds of gendered expectations on their children, implicit biases — invisible beliefs people pick up just by living in a society — can sneak into the ways they talk to and behave around their kids.

These are the types of beliefs that Kristel Thomassin, a psychologist at the University of Guelph, studies. She tries to identify implicit biases in parenting and figure out how they affect children’s emotional development.

In a recent study involving 591 parents, Thomassin’s team wanted to compare these biases in moms and dads. Parents completed a questionnaire on their beliefs about children’s’ emotions and their parenting methods. They also took an Implicit Association Test — used to measure implicit biases involving race, religion, and other categories — in which test-takers quickly pair up words and pictures depicting children who looked sad or angry. “We felt like those were the two emotions that would be probably most gendered,” she said. The team then compared mothers’ and fathers’ answers and the results were, to say the least, surprising. Parents reported that both sadness and anger were more acceptable in girls than in boys, which challenges the common association of boys with anger. Even more unusual: fathers didn’t show any bias in their parenting methods — only mothers did. Thomassin explains what parents can take away from the study, and how to look inward at their own biases.

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What questions did you set out to answer with this study?

In a lot of parenting research, we tend to see differences between how mothers and fathers parent children. I was trying to understand the beliefs that are underlying the decisions that parents make about parenting, and specifically the differences between moms and dads.

What did we already know about the gender biases that moms and dads have?

Some of the research shows that mothers, in general, are more supportive of children being emotionally expressive versus dads who tend to be more inhibited or more controlled in terms of emotional expression… and then there’s cross-gender [differences]. You have to the gender of the parent, but you also have the gender of the child. And so mothers and fathers tend to support more emotional expression in daughters versus sons. But there’s other research where they don’t find any differences — which happens a lot in psychology.

Given what you just told me, your study’s findings are pretty surprising, right?

The fact that dads didn’t really show much of a bias was a little bit surprising. And then the part where daughter’s expressing anger was more acceptable than sons expression anger, well, we had hypothesized that parents would expect boys to show more anger than girls and we found the opposite for that.

Do you have any guesses as to why both anger and sadness were more acceptable in girls?

If you consider the stereotype of girls or women as more quote-unquote emotional, then that would fit a lot of different emotions — most emotions. So I think it probably fits into that larger [understanding that] girls or women expressing any emotions is more acceptable than men displaying those emotions.

What about the second finding, that fathers didn’t express any biases either way?

That’s a very tricky finding. We actually ran a separate study because we thought it was just the methodology or the sample we used. We always look for other reasons that could explain why it’s not a true finding. But we replicated the same result.

Implicit biases are the biases that happen outside of your awareness. It could be that if moms are more in tune with those stereotypes and society — the school system, for instance, and what teachers expect of boys and girls — they might be more salient to them.

Some readers might hear these results and think: does this mean that mothers are to blame for imposing their biases on kids? How would you respond to that?

Well, I would say that just because you have a belief doesn’t mean that you act according to that belief. The [study] could be measuring implicit knowledge that we’ve gained about society and gender roles ever since we were little. So it’s not necessarily that [moms] are saying, “I think boys shouldn’t cry. I think girls should be very ladylike and not be angry. I’m going to parent accordingly.”

So moms’ bias may not be as explicit. But are you saying moms have a lot more bias than dads?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that moms are super biased and dads are not because there’s still some research that shows that moms and dads parent differently. So I think what we’re really getting at is a knowledge that moms have of just how prevalent those stereotypes are. It’s almost like a reflection of what moms have accumulated from society. Those messages and stereotypes may be more clear to them and more salient to them as opposed to dads.

Is it also possible that dads are aware of and correcting for their biases more?

It’s possible. We didn’t assess for that, so we can’t say for sure… But I think if dads have awareness and the bias is more explicit, they may be more able to counteract it and say, “no, I don’t want to parent my child that way.” Whereas if it’s happening outside of your awareness, it’s much harder for you to say “this could be happening outside my awareness. I don’t want to do that. I will parent this way instead.”

What do we know about how these biases affect children?

If those types of messages are communicated consistently, then I think kids will internalize that. I think that it could influence children if parents act on these beliefs; not only do they have the bias and beliefs, but they want to parent accordingly. They don’t want a son, for instance, who cries on the playground, and they will punish a child if they cry on the playground. Some parents do that, and it obviously would teach the child that crying’s not okay and you’re a bad boy if you cry.

When they internalize those messages, how can it impact a kid in the long term?

The child basically learns rules from parents about: What am I allowed to experience? What am I allowed to express? If I experienced or express something that’s not considered acceptable, I may be punished. I may be considered a bad child.

You learn these [rules] implicitly. You learn the rule that sadness is not a safe emotion. It shows vulnerability, and you can’t be weak. You can’t be vulnerable. So you go through life applying that rule to other areas in your life, from romantic relationships to friendships and your day-to-day life.

It really prevents children from learning that all emotions are natural things and that there are skills that you can use to regulate your emotions — to get yourself feeling better if you’re feeling upset. It halts the development of children learning what emotions are and how to deal with them appropriately. If you don’t know how to deal with sadness, you suppress it and it gets worse and worse, then you get things like depression.

So what can parents do to manage their implicit biases and prevent these effects?

Develop an awareness of where your parenting choices are coming from. I’m not here to judge what parents’ values are about their parenting. But have the awareness of: “I value X, Y, and Z, and that’s why I parent in this way,” versus blindly going about it, in which case you may be replicating the values of a society that you may or may not agree with.