Do parents nurture emotional intelligence in daughters more than in sons?
Research by psychologists Dr Ana Aznar and Dr Harriet Tenenbaum suggests that gender may influence the emotional content of parent/child conversations, perhaps contributing to the production of stereotyped gender roles.
Emotional intelligence is increasingly recognised as a highly desirable characteristic. Children who are better able to recognise, describe and cope with emotions (both their own and those of people around them) tend to be better adjusted, to be more popular, and to outperform classmates with similar levels of academic intelligence who are less emotionally aware.
But what if parents are nurturing emotional intelligence in daughters more than in sons? What if mothers are more likely than fathers to speak in emotional terms to their children? New research from the University of Surrey's School of Psychology suggests that this is indeed the case, with implications for the mechanisms by which gender stereotypes are passed from one generation to the next.
Emotionally intelligent children tend to be better adjusted and to outperform classmates.
Research on the emotional content of parent/child conversations has been carried out in English-speaking families, but different languages make different amounts and proportions of 'emotion words' (such as 'happy', 'sad', 'concern', 'embarrassed' and 'love') available to their speakers. In order to examine whether gendered interaction differed in a non-anglophone context, Dr Ana Aznar and Dr Harriet Tenenbaum thus decided to carry out their research project in Madrid, Spain.
They asked mothers with 4-year-old daughters and mothers with 4-year-old sons to use toys to tell a story about a child who falls and hurts himself while his parents are away. They also repeated this play-related storytelling with mothers with 6-year-old daughters and mothers with 6-year-old sons. The mothers and their daughters/sons were also asked to reminisce about occasions such as going to the zoo, or a time when the child fell and hurt him or herself. The two exercises were also completed with fathers instead of mothers for both child genders and age groups.
The researchers videotaped the interactions and transcribed them later so that they could analyse the use of emotion words. They found that:
- Mothers were more likely to use emotion words than fathers when talking to 4-year-old offspring
- Both mothers and fathers were more likely to use emotion words with daughters than with sons
- Mothers of pre-school daughters mentioned a higher proportion of emotion words than did mothers of sons while playing
- Fathers of pre-school daughters mentioned a higher proportion of emotion words than fathers of sons during reminiscence
- Mothers' emotion talk was related to children's emotion talk across both tasks, whereas fathers' emotion talk was related to children's emotion talk while reminiscing
Interestingly, no significant gender differences were detected in conversations with the 6-year-olds. "Parents may have responded differently to children [according to age] because of the greater proclivity that 3- to 4-year-old girls show compared to boys in understanding display rules that affect emotional reactions," note the authors.
What if parents are nurturing emotional intelligence in daughters more than in sons?
This paper provides fertile ground for further research into how gender-related differences in emotional intelligence propagate across generations. For example, the authors note that culture may also play an important role, citing a study in Spanish-speaking Peru that suggested more use of emotion words by mothers with sons than by mothers with daughters.
The findings of Dr Aznar and Dr Tenenbaum have implications for children's socialisation of emotions. As the authors note in the paper: "If girls and boys learn that mothers talk more about emotions than fathers and... parents mention emotions more with girls than boys, [then] pre-school girls might learn more about emotions than boys. Moreover, children may learn it is more appropriate for females to discuss emotions."
The research, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, has already attracted attention from the media, including publications such as Time.
“Our study suggests that parent-child conversations are gendered, with mothers talking more expressively to their daughters than their sons,” said Dr Tenenbaum.
“This inevitably leads to girls growing up more attuned to their emotions then boys. Having this edge to be more expressive and cope well with emotions may matter more than ever in the workplace, as more companies are starting to recognise the advantages of high emotional intelligence when it comes to positions such as sales, teams and leadership.”
"Emotional intelligence may matter more than ever in the workplace, as more companies are starting to recognise the advantages of high emotional intelligence when it comes to leadership."- Dr Harriet Tenenbaum, School of Psychology, University of Surrey
'Gender and age differences in parent–child emotion talk'
Dr Ana Aznar and Dr Harriet R. Tenenbaum (both School of Psychology, University of Surrey)
British Journal of Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12069