As Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, prepare to christen their youngest, Prince Louis, on Monday, they may be reflecting on their mix of male and female children and how to parent each gender. Most research suggests they will likely treat their boys differently than Charlotte.
For instance, if Louis or George have an ill-timed temper tantrum, will the parents react with admonishment or a consoling hug behind the scenes? Would they react differently if it were Charlotte?
It’s no secret that parenting research is often frustratingly inconsistent. Yet there seems to be plenty of evidence supporting the idea that many parents do still treat their children differently based on their sex, even if it is unconsciously done.
Despite this, Ann Douglas, Canadian parenting expert and author of Parenting Through the Storm, says she is optimistic after reading through some recent meta analysis that things are beginning to change. She says that before 1990, parents used significantly different approaches to parenting boys versus girls.
“A few generations ago, parents would have been more inclined to say to their daughters, ‘Don’t go up on the monkey bars, honey, because you might fall and hurt yourself or get your dress dirty,’” she says. But now?
“Nowadays it’s more likely you’ll be encouraging your daughter to become confident and competent and nurturing corresponding skills in your son, as well,” says Ms. Douglas. “This gives me hope for humanity.”
Here is what else research and experts have to say about how sex and gender have an impact on how people, even royalty, parent their children.
It’s about the money
Do you try to control your son with an iron fist and give your daughter more freedom? Your parenting style might be partially influenced by your socioeconomic status. According to a 2016 meta-analysis that looked at gender-differentiated parenting, there is ample evidence that parents with a higher salary and more education have less traditional views on gender roles, and sons and daughters are treated similarly.
It’s about where you live
Do you live in a society where there are big gender gaps? (Think differences in health, life expectancy, education, salaries and job types.) Data suggest that parents will treat sons and daughters differently in order to prepare them for becoming an adult in such a culture.
But Scandinavian and Western European nations tend to have the smallest gaps in the world, so perhaps it is not so surprising that countries such as Iceland also have some of the highest levels of gender parity in politics. Girls are expected to step up.
It’s small acts that add up
Not convinced? Just read Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. In it she challenges the belief that girls’ and boys’ brains are different from birth. Instead, she posits that even tiny disparities in the way we parent help create gender differences later on and magnify them so they snowball into traits and talents.
She discusses one study in which infant girls were presented to strangers who were told they were boys. The duped adults perceived them as angry or distressed. But when the tables were turned and people thought the boys were girls, suddenly those babies were “happy and socially engaged.”
In another study, mothers underestimated how steep a slope their 11-month-old infant daughters could crawl down. But baby boys? They were correct to within one degree.
It’s not just you
Even if you make choices, or even mistakes, it’s important to remember that the buck doesn’t fully stop with you when it comes to how your children see their place in the world. There are all kinds of other social pressures around gender to contend with, from those coming from friends at school to popular YouTube stars.
“Kids are sponges for cultural messages,” explains Andrea LaMarre, a PhD candidate in the department of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who studies gender in young people. She points out that many parents have a mistaken assumption that they have total control over how their children turn out.
“But that’s such a disservice to parents because if anything goes wrong, it’s the parent’s fault,” she says. “That’s so not the case.”
We’re becoming more gender fluid anyway
That’s what Sara Dimerman, a psychologist and parenting expert in Thornhill, Ont., has observed recently. With more than 30 years of experience in the field, she maintains that in the past six years, there has been a sizable shift in how parents have started thinking about gender and their children. Many are following the lead of their children, who are taking exception to being perceived as either gender.
“You have families that are much more vigilant and sensitive to raising children without imposing any kind of gender stereotypes on them,” she says. “Yellow used to be a gender-neutral colour. But now it’s, ‘hey, you had a daughter before and she wore pink sleepers – there’s nothing wrong with putting your little boy in those now.’”
Ultimately, it comes down to remembering that all children are individuals and need to be loved and cherished – and parented – for who they are, not their gender, Ms. Douglas says.
“I’m happy to be parenting in a time when you can just go with the kid you have,” she says, “as opposed to what society says your child is supposed to be like.”