Most mothers would tell you they speak to all their children the same way. A new study suggests they might be deceived. In a study published yesterday in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, authors Ana Aznar and Harriet Tenenbaum found that mothers are more likely to use emotional words and emotional content when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.
What’s more, since mothers tend to use more emotion-laden language than fathers do, they are often unknowingly perpetuating gender stereotypes in their children. On the plus side, though, it may be why women tend to have a higher emotional intelligence than men.
“We know…that children imitate same-gendered models [i.e. girls imitate moms and boys imitate dads] more than different-gendered models,” says Tenenbaum, associate professor of psychology at the University of Surrey, in an interview with TIME. “So they are taught that emotions are more acceptable for women than for men.” (Insert emotionally-unavailable husband/father/boyfriend joke here.)
Tenenbaum points out that learning emotional intelligence is incredibly important for children in terms of school success, getting along with teachers and having good peer relations. “[Past studies have shown that] children who are better able to show emotions in kindergarten did better in the 4th grade than kids who didn’t,” she says. Moreover, “children who use more emotional words are more popular in nursery school. People would rather be around someone who can understand and interpret emotions.” And kids who understand emotions better tend to have higher performance in school even after controlling for intelligence, she notes.
In this new study, researchers videotaped 65 Spanish mothers and fathers along with their 4-year-old and 6-year-old children during a storytelling task and then during a conversation about a past experience. The subjects lived in middle-to-upper-class neighborhoods. On the first visit, the mother or the father and the child were taped in conversation. Within a week, the other parent and the child came in and talked about a similar subject. The videotaped conversations were transcribed and emotion words like “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” “love,” “concern,” and “fear,” were singled out.
Mothers used a higher proportion of emotional words than fathers did with both 4 and 6-year olds, which is consistent with studies performed in the U.S. But they were particularly expressive with their 4-year old daughters. “American mothers and fathers do similar things in enforcing emotions,” says Tenenbaum. The theory is that mothers may be more comfortable talking about their emotions than fathers. Children might therefore think it is more appropriate for girls to talk about feelings. In fact, daughters were more likely than sons to speak about their emotions with their fathers when talking about past experiences. And during these reminiscing conversations, fathers used more emotion-laden words with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.
Aznar and Tenenbaum did a few things in this study that made it different from previous ones. They added fathers to the equation, when most studies looking at emotions have focused only on mothers, and they examined Spanish families, which hadn’t been looked at before, because they wanted to see how patterns played out across different cultures.
And most importantly, the authors tested the children to determine their baseline emotional comprehension. They quizzed them on what people in various situations might be feeling and found that emotional understanding was the same for 4-year-old boys and girls. Thus, emotional intelligence is not an innate quality of females. Since the pretest didn’t show that 4-year-old girls understand emotions any better than boys, the fact that parents talk in more emotional terms to daughters over sons can’t be explained away by saying parents do this because they believe girls understand emotions better. “We didn’t find any difference in the children’s understanding of emotions in the pretest,” says Tenenbaum.
Tenenbaum was surprised that mothers and fathers continue to perpetuate the stereotypes. “Most parents say they want boys to be more expressive, but don’t know [they] are speaking differently to them,” she says.
Parents should try to teach boys about emotion as much as possible, says Tenenbaum, and use emotion-laden language with both sons and daughters. “We are beyond the point in society where boys are taught never to express emotions,” she says. “We need to model for them how to appropriately express emotions. These are learned stereotypes and we are reinforcing them as a society.”