Stereotypical gendered parenting differences remain entrenched in American households. In some cases (like when you’re shopping for last-minute gifts) parents may simply be unaware that they are parenting daughters in ways that are different from sons. In other cases, gendered parenting may be linked to cultural norms or religious beliefs.
As with so many aspects of parenting, going beyond prescriptive advice to examine our own beliefs and motivations tends to unlock insights that help us become better parents. Lucky examining gender differences in parenting can help parents find balance and make meaningful changes.
Boys Hear More Spatial Language Than Girls
The way parents talk about objects changes depending on the gender of the child they are talking to according to a study published in a 2017 issue of Psychological Science by Dr. Shannon Pruden and Dr. Susan Levine. After observing a diverse sample of 58 families in their homes, the researchers found that parents use more dimensional adjectives, shape terms, and words describing spatial features and properties with boys than with girls. So, for example, parents are more likely to describe a ball as “a little circle with curved edges” to sons than they are to girls.
The analysis showed that this kind of talk mattered, developmentally. Gender differences in toddlers’ spatial talk was tied to their parents’ earlier spatial-language use when they were 14 to 26 months old.
“Although the sex difference in the number of unique ‘what’ spatial words that children hear and produce is small, it is potentially meaningful,” the authors note. ‘Those children who talked more about the spatial world had better spatial skills—skills linked to achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.”
Parents Are More Likely to Roughhouse With Boys
In 2017, a group of researchers led by Dr. Jennifer Mascaro published their findings of paternal behavior related to brain responses to male and female children. As part of a more extensive study on paternal caregiving, 69 heterosexual, biological, cohabitating fathers (one-third of were non-white) were observed playing with children age 1 or 2. The research published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that parents are more likely to engage in roughhousing or rough and tumble play (RTP) with their sons more than their daughters.
Surprisingly, the researchers think that the underlying reason parents roughhouse with their boys is more about helping them build emotional intelligence than training them for brute physical domination. “RTP involves dynamic and forceful behaviors, such as tickling, poking, and tumbling, which would be hostile in many circumstances and which can only be interpreted as play given the particular social context,” the researchers conclude. “For this reason, it is thought to both require and entrain emotion regulation and empathy.”
And it’s worth noting that not only do boys tend to get rougher and tumble play from their parents, but that physical play also typically comes from fathers in comparison to mothers. And it appears that this type of play helps kids develop emotional flexibility and skills to regulate their emotions.
The Toys in Boys’ Bedrooms Conform to Gender Norms
How parents play differs between sons and daughters, but so do the toys parents give their kids to play with. In 2018, Dr. David MacPhee cataloged toys available in 75 U.S. preschoolers’ rooms. His research, published in the June 2019 edition of the journal Sex Roles, found significant gender differences in what toys parents made available to boys and girls. The results were consistent with the gender-typing found in a prominent 1975 study from Rheingold and Cook.
McFee found that boys’ rooms had 15 times more action figures than girls’ rooms, as well as significantly more outer-space toys and props for dramatic play that involved guns, tools, and machines. Over the nearly five decades between studies, sports equipment was one of the few toy categories where the gap between what was present in kids’ bedrooms narrowed significantly.
Looking at reasons so little change has occurred, McFee posited that as kids get older, they make requests for gender-typed toys informed by experiences outside of the home. And he also pointed out that family income could play a role as well. “We speculate that low-income parents may ultimately be more concerned about whether their children have toys to play with and less focused on whether their children’s playthings conform to gender stereotypes,” he writes.
It’s difficult to break cycles that are as entrenched as gendered parenting. In addition to awareness, it also requires energy and oftentimes resources to provide countercultural environments. And even then, parents and kids are likely to be drawn back to the norm by groups and companies that benefit from current stereotypes.
It’s asking a lot of parents to evaluate their own paradigms and how those play out, while at the same time taking into account how kids are influenced in school and other social settings, as well as by the media. But a growing library of research describing how boys and girls are parenting differently should in turn bring with it more tools for parents to apply what they are learning.