Battle of the Sexes

American Parents Say They Prefer Sons, Act Like They Prefer Daughters

If you ask Americans whether they want sons or daughters, they'll say sons. Data suggests this isn't true.

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Two brothers playing with their sister's long hair while sitting on a bed.
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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 American parents’ preference for sons over daughters has remained relatively consistent for nearly a century now, with men showing a slightly stronger preference for sons 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 do parents actually prefer sons over daughters? It’s clear that different people want different things — but also that there are some broader trends.

Americans Think They Prefer Boys…

Gallup has been polling Americans about their baby gender preferences since 1941, and the results are consistent — there’s always a slight preference for sons over daughters. About 40% of parents, across the decades, have told researchers that if they could only have one child, they would want a boy. Only a consistent 20% to 30% has chosen a girl or no preference. At least when it comes to what we think we want, the data is clear. American parents 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 were 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.

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