Picture the scene. I’m in a park with my kids. Helen, my eight-year-old, is sitting in a roundabout-style device with a couple of other children.
“Are you ready?” said a mum who was about to spin it, “I’m going to spin it fast.”
So far, so good. She then blew it by turning to the nearby parents and saying: “Can you tell I have a son?”
I kept my disapproving thoughts to myself. I had to, I regularly see this woman in a social context so to lecture her about gender stereotypes would have been awkward.
My personal experience of raising two young daughters proves such comments are very misguided. I’ve seen my girls play just as roughly as boys on many occasions.
As I’ve said, this individual happened to be a mum. Question is, do us dads also have preconceived ideas about how young girls and young boys should be treated?
Researchers from Emroy University in Georgia in the United States have conducted a fascinating study in an attempt to answer that question. Looking at fathers of toddler girls, the team concluded that dads:
- Pay more attention to their daughters
- Play more gently with them
- Use different language when speaking to their daughters
- Talk to them more about their bodies
- Are more likely to respond to their daughters if they are distressed compared to their sons.
Two things stand out from this research. Firstly and most importantly, the fact the study took place is noteworthy. The team specifically looked at interaction between dads and young daughters because so little research has been carried out in this area.
Secondly, the methodology was fascinating. Instead of relying on interviews or questionnaires, the men all wore video recording equipment for one week day and a day during the course of a weekend. It was turned on in 50 second bursts to capture whatever was happening at that time.
They also underwent MRI scans while being shown images of boys and girls with sad, happy and neutral facial expressions. The fathers of daughters responded much more to images of girls with happy facial expressions.
While I’m fascinated in the research and its findings, the conclusions did not surprise me. They reminded me a great deal of a brilliant book I read last year called Man Up.
Written by former BBC producer and mum of both a son and a daughter Rebecca Asher, the book posed some challenging questions about the way boys are raised. Asher’s status as a mother of a boy and a girl is relevant.
Part of the inspiration for writing Man Up was noticing how her son and daughter were treated differently. In Man Up, Asher states that, unconsciously, mums and dads talk about their boys as being energetic, boisterous and how they play up (my italics).
When girls play-up, they get an emotional and understanding response from parents, perhaps wanting to know what the problem is. When boys do it, the parents come down on them like a tonne of bricks because, you know, boys cause trouble, don’t they?
Boys learn this is a way to get a response from mum and dad and so they play-up more. Starved of an emotional response, this becomes a pattern of behavior and boys begin to live up to the stereotype that their behavior is worse than girls.
I couldn’t help thinking the Emroy University researchers had proved the conclusions in Asher’s book. Essentially, girls get more emotional attention and are better off for it. Starved of emotional discourse as young boys, does this also explain why depression is so common among men?
That said, these things are never black and white. The Emroy University team noted dads would use words like “belly”, “fat”, “cheek” and “face” when talking to their daughters.
Could this greater focus on the human body go some way to explaining why more girls experience body confidence issues? This was one suggestion made by the research team.
My household, with me as the kids’ main carer and my wife as the breadwinner, is very gender aware. I honestly don’t think I would play any more roughly with a son and I’m always wary of the language I use when talking to my daughters.
In some ways I think the Emroy University study raises more questions than it answers. Why do fathers talk to daughters a certain way? Why do they focus more on the body? Why don’t sons get as much emotional support from their fathers? What do mothers do differently? What can the genders learn from each other?
Even so, I think this is a very valuable study. At the very least it shows more research should be carried out into how fathers interact with their children.
By the way, should you ever find yourself in a park, ready to push a bunch of girls around a roundabout, don’t think: “Oh I’d better go easy with this, not sure the girls would like it.”
Just go for it. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you. It’s the boys you’ll need to worry about as they’ll probably keep quiet about how they’re feeling.
Do you have sons and daughters? Do you treat them differently? Maybe you think sons and daughters should be treated differently? Please do leave a comment below with your thoughts.