This has been shown to be true in a variety of contexts. Mothers speak about sadness and distress more with their daughters and about anger more with sons. And it shows. A study observing the talk of preschool-aged children found that girls were six times more likely to use the word love, twice as likely to use the word sad, but equally likely to use the word mad. We know that mothers who explain their emotional reactions to their preschool children and who do not react negatively to a child's vivid display of sadness, fear, or anger will have children who have a greater understanding of emotions. Research indicates that fathers tend to be even more rigid than mothers in steering their sons along traditional lines. Even older siblings, in an imitation of their parents, talk about feelings more frequently with their two-year-old sisters than with their two-year-old brothers.
Here's how this gender socialization can look in its mildest, most ordinary form: Brad is four years old and has a question about everything. His mother fields most of these questions because she's with him more often than his dad, and even when the whole family is together, she typically is the more verbally responsive of the two. She tries to give all questions equal attention, but what she doesn't fully realize is that she, like any parent, subtly shapes the kinds of questions her child asks.
"Mommy, why do I have to sit in a car seat if you don't?" he asks. She responds with a discussion of the safety advantages, and explains how it is against the law for children to ride in a car unless they ride in a car seat. Because of her thoughtful answer, Brad feels rewarded for asking about how things work and is thereby encouraged to do it again sometime.
But in the park, when Brad points to a small boy who is crying and asks his mother why, she gives a much shorter and less animated answer. "I don't know, Brad, he just is. Come on, let's go. It's not polite to stare."
The truth is, Brad's mother may not know why the little boy is crying, and she is teaching her son good manners when she tells him not to stare. But her short answer is less engaging, less informative, and less rewarding for her son. It subtly discourages him from thinking any further about why someone cries or what might have moved this particular child to tears. Her quick closure on the inquiry also may convey her own discomfort with the subject--a message that boys frequently "hear" when fathers give short shrift to questions or observations about emotions.
Studies of parent interactions with both boys and girls suggest that, when a girl asks a question about emotions, her mother will give longer explanations. She's more likely to speculate with her daughter about the reasons behind the emotion or to validate or amplify her daughter's observation: "Yes, honey, he does look very sad. Maybe he's got a little hurt or he's lost his toy.... What do you think?" The message the daughter gets is that it's okay to be concerned about another's feelings; her natural concern and empathy are reinforced.
Boys experience this kind of emotional steering constantly.
When six-year-old Jack and his family moved into their new house, one of the three children had to take the downstairs bedroom, separate from the others on the second floor. It was not his eight-year-old sister, Kate, who got the assignment, or his four-year-old sister, Amy. It was Jack. When Jack expressed a little uneasiness at sleeping alone on the first floor, his father said to him, "Oh, you're a big guy; you can handle it. Your sisters are scared to sleep alone."
When boys express ordinary levels of anger or aggression, or they turn surly and silent, their behavior is accepted as normal. If, however, they express normal levels of fear, anxiety, or sadness--emotions most often seen as feminine--the adults around them typically treat them in ways that suggest that such emotions aren't normal for a boy.
Excerpted from Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Copyright© 1999 by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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