Parenting and Emotional Language
If you ask most mothers, they would probably tell you that they speak to their daughters and sons the same way, but research is now suggesting that that isn’t true.
A new study published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology featured the research of Ana Aznar and Harriet Tenenbaum. Through their study, they concluded 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.
As described in a recent Time Magazine article, “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.”
The results? 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. However mothers were particularly expressive with their 4-year old daughters. In addition, although fathers didn’t use as much emotional language, they used more with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.
Why do mothers use more emotional language than fathers? One 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.
Time Reports, “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.
Are parents perpetuating stereotypes? “Most parents say they want boys to be more expressive, but don’t know [they] are speaking differently to them,” Tenenbaum 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.”