In your work with parents, do you address the ways in which dads and moms interact with their sons and daughters differently?
Known as gendered parenting, research shows that dads and moms interact with their daughters and sons differently. Parents, for example:
- Use more spatial words with boys than girls. These words involve dimensions, shapes, and features and properties of space.
- Are less likely to roughhouse with girls than boys.
- Give their children different types of toys. They’re more likely to give boys toys for dramatic play, such as action figures, outer-space toys, and machines.
That gendered parenting is so entrenched is certainly affected by cultural norms around raising boys and girls. Norms tell parents what’s appropriate in interacting with their daughters and sons. Moreover, as children age and become more affected by norms communicated by the society at large they may start to direct their parents in ways that result in different interactions. Boys, for example, may start to request more toys for dramatic play while girls may request play that emphasizes social interaction and cooperation.
But there is also a biological factor at play. A recent study that examined dads’ play with their children and its effect on dads’ brains found that the different types of play dads engaged in with daughters and sons stimulated the part of dads’ brains involved in reward and emotional regulation. This finding suggests that dads’ play and brain function interact based on their child’s gender to reinforce gendered parenting.
What to Do?
Consider the value in raising parents’ awareness of the ways in which they interact with their children—not only through play but in other ways, such as how they talk with them, the choices of activities they do with them, and the choices they make for entertainment.
For a period of one month, conduct the following three-part exercise with parents. You can conduct this exercise with a group of parents or couples or with individual parents or couples (i.e. one-on-one).
- Part 1: Ask parents to record daily in a journal, with as much detail as possible, how they interact with their children. (Couples should keep separate journals on their own interactions with their children.) Tell them to record anything related to those interactions, such as how they talk with and the types of activities they do with their children (e.g. play and entertainment). At the end of each week, tell parents to review, reflect on, and record their thoughts and feelings about how they interacted with their children, especially from a gender-based perspective. Tell parents who have sons and daughters to note any differences in how they interacted differently or the same with them. Tell parents who have only sons or only daughters to also reflect on how they might have interacted differently with a child of the opposite gender.
- Tell couples when reflecting that they should not only reflect on their own but reflect together and share their thoughts and feelings with each other and without judgement. (This kind of sharing could, incidentally, open a line of communication that could enrich their relationship and the parenting of their children.)
- Tell single parents when reflecting to share their thoughts and feelings with an adult friend or family member who won’t judge those thoughts and feelings.
You should be available to answer questions parents may have, especially during the first week, and be willing to review their first few daily recordings.
- Part 2: At the end of the first week, conduct a check-in with parents in-person or by phone. Ask them to share two or three days of recordings and for their weekly reflections. The objective of this check-in is to ensure parents record their interactions daily and with sufficient detail for reflection. Don’t provide feedback on their interactions or get drawn into a discussion about what parents think or how they feel about those interactions. Avoid making suggestions for how they should interact with their children. Above all, avoid judging those interactions. Use active and reflective listening to avoid judging those interactions and to make parents feel comfortable sharing with you.
- Part 3: At the end of each subsequent week, meet with parents to discuss their reflections. Ask them for their thoughts and feelings about those interactions. Continue to use active and reflective listening. Ask them whether they think they should change anything about their interactions to be a better parent and, if so, why they should change those things. If you’re working with a group of parents, tell parents that they should simply listen to what other parents share without comment.
This exercise requires disciplined effort. Parents must record their interactions daily and take adequate time weekly to reflect on their interactions. The effort is worth it because it will give them the time they need to take true measure of those interactions, determine how much gendered parenting they do, and determine for themselves whether they want to make changes that affect how they parent their daughters and sons.
This exercise also requires a disciplined effort on your part. You must keep parents’ minds focused on awareness raising rather than judgement. It can be tempting, especially for dads, to move immediately into problem-solving mode if they discover a need to change an aspect of their parenting. Tell parents to remain patient and that the time for change will come, if it’s necessary at all. You must take the time to ensure parents follow through on their recordings and reflections and that you avoid influencing how this exercise affects their parenting. If you don’t have that time, parents can certainly do this exercise on their own as long as you give them clear instructions.
Do you address gendered parenting with the parents you serve?
If so, how effectively do you address gendered parenting? Could this exercise help?