Kids Learn Gender Stereotypes at Home

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When playing with their toddlers, fathers are more assertive while mothers are more compliant, a new study found. These differences could help ingrain gender stereotypes in children early on, the researchers said.

Psychologists observed 80 sets of parents interacting with their young children in two situations: a 15-minute play session with toys in the lab, and a 10-minute snack break where parents fed kids cheese, crackers and raisins. All sessions were videotaped, and scientists later coded the interactions to calculate how often certain types of behaviors occurred.

The researchers found that both fathers and mothers acted very similarly during snack time, which the scientists dubbed "caregiving sessions." However, when parents played with books and toys with their kids, the researchers noted a marked difference between the way that fathers interacted with children and how mothers interacted with kids.

"Fathers model higher levels of instrumental and assertive behavior, whereas mothers model higher levels of facilitative or cooperative behavior," wrote the researchers, led by Eric W. Lindsey of Penn State Berks University in Pennsylvania, in a paper published June 2 in the journal Sex Roles.

For example, fathers issued more imperatives (such as "Put the toy in the bag") and polite commands ("Why don’t you try pushing that") than mothers, while mothers gave more play leads, such as "Wanna look at the book?" or "Let’s see what’s in this bag."

"In their responses to children’s initiations mothers were more likely to comply than fathers, whereas fathers were more likely to reject or ignore children than mothers," the researchers wrote.

The children in the study were all between 15 and 18 months old. Interestingly, in both situations the researchers noted no differences in the ways the children acted based on their gender.

The scientists suspect the parent gender differences occurred only during play time, and not in the caregiving sessions, because all parents were more assertive during snack time.

"Children were more involved in determining the direction of interaction during the play context, whereas parents were more 'in charge' during the caregiving context," the psychologists wrote. "Thus, it appears that even at a very young age both girls and boys are sensitive to contextual differences in interactional settings and adjust their behavior according to [the] nature of the situation."

Ultimately, these subtle gender differences between how mothers and fathers act could be imparting important lessons to children about what it means to be male and female. The kids might pick up on the fact that daddies are more assertive and mommies are more passive and incorporate that into their own behavior over time.

"Such differences may teach children indirect lessons about gender roles and reinforced gender typed patterns of behavior that they then carry into contexts outside of the family," the researchers wrote.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.