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Do parents treat their sons and daughters differently?

Do parents treat their sons and daughters differently?

3 min read
  • Parents & guardians

It is interesting to consider how parents treat their sons and daughters differently as well as how they think about them; are there subtle yet important variations in how people parent their sons compared to their daughters? Even if they are unaware that they are doing so, are there some thinking biases to how parents respond and react to their child based on their gender?

We explored the existing research to find out: do parents treat their sons and daughters differently? For more on the same subject, check out our blog Do We Teach Boys and Girls Differently?

Underestimating girls, overestimating boys

Recent research reveals that mothers of infants show a gender bias in favour of their sons. In one particular study, mothers were questioned on their young babies’ crawling ability before it was objectively measured. Mothers of daughters believed their baby could crawl up slopes of 14 degrees, whereas mothers of sons believed their baby could crawl up slopes of 20 degrees. It seems that from a young age, parents have lower expectations of their daughters than their sons.

Type of praise

Research has shown that, although overall boys and girls receive the same amount of praise from their parents, the type of praise they receive differs. Process praise (defined as praise for a child’s efforts and strategies) accounts for 24.4% of the praise boys receive, whereas for girls it only accounts for 10.3%. Being given more process praise from a young age (14-38 months) puts boys at an advantage, as it makes them significantly more likely to have developed a growth mindset by age 7-8. 

Therefore, girls are more likely to lack a growth mindset regarding intelligence, and hence attribute their failure to inability, causing a decrease in persistence and motivation, which has the potential to cause a decline in academic performance. This attribution was particularly pronounced for stereotypically male domains, such as maths and science.

Educational abilities

Parents have differing beliefs about the maths abilities of their sons and daughters, despite actual performance being similar. Parents believe that, to succeed in maths, daughters must try harder than sons and consider advanced maths to be more important for sons, as it enables them to enhance their ‘natural’ talent. 

Furthermore, the stereotypical beliefs held by parents influence their child’s beliefs about their own abilities more so than their past achievements. This suggests that parental stereotypes may be limiting their daughter’s scope for academic achievement, an effect that may have long term implications in terms of aspirations and career choices.

Maximise your students’ learning and achievement by getting parents & guardians involved in their mindset development.

Interest in school achievements

Evidence suggests that parents are more likely to be involved with the school, such as attending school meetings and contact teachers, when they have a son. The same research also more worryingly showed that parents are likely to have saved more money to further their son’s education. Not having the same financial support from their parents may stop daughters from maximising their full academic potential.

Time invested

It appears that fathers are prepared to invest more time in a son than a daughter, an effect which is thought to occur because fathers and sons have common ground and can share masculine activities. However, this effect is unfortunately not counterbalanced by mothers spending more time with their daughters (instead, mothers share their time more equally). Other research has shown that parents are more likely to engage with their son’s play rather than their daughter’s. Together, these findings suggest that parents interact more with sons than daughters, which has an impact on their social skills in later life.

Final thought

Whilst parents may not intend to treat their sons and daughters differently, research shows that they do. Sons appear to get preferential treatment in that they receive more helpful praise, more time is invested in them, and their abilities are often thought of in higher regard. Schools can play a key role in helping to educate parents on their sub-conscious thinking biases; this would help improve parental self-awareness, reducing the negative impacts that this may have.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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