The age-old bias that suggests “boys don’t cry” is unconsciously perpetuated by mothers more than fathers, according to new research from the University of Guelph.
The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, found that moms tend to favour girls expressing emotions of sadness and anger over boys. Fathers, on the other hand, lacked a bias towards emotions of anger and sadness in their children.
“Angry girls are still more pleasant than boys, as per this test,” Kristel Thomassin, study author and psychology professor at the University of Guelph, told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
“That suggests it’s more acceptable for girls to be ‘emotional’ than boys.”
Nearly 600 Canadian and American parents were shown images of children between the ages of eight and 12 conveying sadness, anger, or neutral expressions as part of the study. Participants were then told to sort each image into a “pleasant” or “unpleasant” category.
“If you were quicker to report the crying boy as ‘unpleasant,’ the idea is you have an implicit bias towards boys showing that emotion,” explained Thomassin.
However, mothers likely aren’t even aware they have these gender biases and may not necessarily enforce those biases in their parenting, the study author notes.
“What we’re measuring is this self-conscious knowledge of our stereotypes within society. It doesn’t mean that you as an individuals have those personal values,” Thomassin said.
“This isn’t meant to say that moms are ruining everything. It would be really interesting to see those biases, their beliefs, and how that reflects in their actual parenting styles.”
In an ironic twist, researchers went into the study with their own gender biases, assuming that dads would be more biased towards boys showing emotions and encourage them to “toughen up” during moments of sadness.
To be sure of the results, Thomassin’s team ran the study with a different sample, but ended up with the same results.
Unconscious bias may still present parenting risk
In her previous research, Thomassin says parents often report that although they don’t believe to have these types of gender biases, they are aware that they exist in society.
“Parents are then conflicted,” she said. “Do they teach their sons that crying is OK, or do they tell them that they risk being bullied at school if they show emotion?”
Caron Irwin, child development expert and founder of Roo Parenting, warns that labelling any sort of emotion based on gender can have a negative impact on child development.
“Whether it’s ‘boys don’t cry,’ or saying something like ‘my child is shy,’ when we label them we are prescribing them how they need to be,” Irwin told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
Instead of labelling those emotions, Irwin suggests that parents qualify those feelings for their children so that they can use words to describe how they are feeling.
“Eventually, instead of crying they will use words like ‘I feel mad because…,” she explained. “It normalizes these feelings and behaviours.”
Irwin also suggests that parents make their kids aware of all the different emotions people experience and how they can be communicated by different people, regardless of gender. A good way to do that, she says, is to read storybooks describing emotions.
“I also think parents should have a variety of different books showcasing a variety of genders engaging in a variety of different activities,” she said.
“This also helps provide kids with a diverse perspective on gender roles and break down the stereotypical gender roles.”