How Are We Treating Our Sons and Daughters Differently?

The following is an excerpt from my newest parenting book which educates parents, caregivers, teachers and counselors about how to raise girls in a non-sexist way while challenging sexism, stereotypes and sexualization.

Strategy 1: My Sweetie Pie. Are you treating your daughters and sons differently?

“They [parents] instruct girls and boys differently, they offer each different play materials and opportunities, but most important mothers and fathers model different behaviors, skills, attitudes and abilities.”

Selma Greenburg

Research shows that parents treat baby girls very differently than baby boys. Although we might notice it, we don’t see the full extent of the differential treatment, understand why we do it, or recognize the harm it causes.

In my first year of university I learned about the astounding “pink diaper research.” In this study, college researchers invited parents to come into a room and hold various babies, none of whom were their own children. Unbeknownst to the parents, babies were dressed in pink and blue diapers at random. Some baby boys were in pink diapers. Some baby girls were dressed in blue diapers. The researchers then observed the parents interacting with the babies.

The results were remarkable. Those babies dressed in pink were typically held more carefully and described by the parents as fragile, sweet and cute. The babies dressed in blue were held more firmly and described by parents as sturdy, healthy, strong and alert.

In another experiment, researchers asked male and female parents to play with toddlers. The parents did not know the gender of the child, yet when the child was labeled as a girl, “she” received more cuddling. When the child was labeled as a boy, “he” was encouraged to be more active and to play with typical boys toys. One study found that fathers not only played with their first-born sons more than their first-born daughters, their play was completely different. They were more physical with sons, tossing and lifting and more talkative with daughters reinforcing the fragility of girls.

This type of differential treatment begins long before a baby is born and shows up most obviously in the birthing wards of hospitals. Here are a few examples of words used by complete strangers:

Oh boy, this guy is strong willed
Oh sweetie pie, you seems so unhappy
He’s going to be a real lady killer
She’s so gentle
She’s going to be a real looker
That’s the squeeze of a quarterback

Parents also bring up their boys and girls in radically different environments. The places we create for girls are softer, duller and often less interesting than the spaces we provide for boys. Girls bedrooms are often smaller and neater. In one study, researchers took and inventory of bedrooms of children below the age of two and found that boys’ rooms were often filled with sports equipment, moving vehicles, building kits and tools. Girls’ rooms were filled with small furniture, dolls and kitchen utensils. The boy’s sheets were blue while the girls’ sheets were pink and yellow.

Although we do not know the full impact of this type of conditioning, we know that by treating girls in this manner we are instilling in them certain expectations and behaviors. Imagine this type of socialization going on every single minute of the day for every single child. It’s no surprise that our boys and girls develop so differently.

What to do:

  • Recognize that we often treat baby girls and baby boys differently
  • Notice how we hold, speak to and play with baby girls
  • Watch how we adorn baby girl’s bedrooms and other environments
  • Question why we treat babies differently on the basis of sex alone
  • Wonder how this behavior might be holding your daughter back

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