Parents more uncomfortable with gender-nonconforming behaviors in boys, study finds

A new study on how parents respond to their gender-nonconforming children reveals more approval of daughters not adhering to societal norms than sons.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, reports parents are more comfortable with girls partaking in gender-nonconforming behavior than boys and attempt to change their sons’ behaviors more frequently.

Researchers sought to find the relationship between different characteristics of parents and children and how parents respond to their gender-nonconforming child. In an effort to encourage parents to support youths who do not conform to their assigned gender, researchers hope to educate parents on the benefits of affirming the behaviors.

Past studies have shown that children who do not conform to the boy/girl societal norms often face negative feedback from friends and family. Thus, their psychological health may be adversely affected as they are at a greater risk for symptoms of depression, psychosocial distress, and adult-suicide than their gender-conforming peers.

In the current study, researchers expected to find that fathers, more so than mothers, would be less accepting of sons who are gender-nonconforming than daughters and that gender-nonconformity in general would correspond with parent discomfort. Additionally, those parents who believe their parenting style to be more feminist or socially equal would express more comfortability with a gender-nonconforming child.  As such, researchers aimed to identify characteristics that compel parents to make efforts to change their child’s behavior. Again, the prediction was that parents would be more likely to change boys’ behavior than girls’.

An online survey completed by 151 mothers and 85 fathers living in Salt Lake City, Utah reported on 156 children age 3 to 13. The survey included questions relating to parenting style, parent gender atypical traits, attitude toward gender roles, and the prevalence of their own children’s gender-nonconforming behaviors.

As expected, parents report girls engage in gender-nonconforming behavior more than boys. In accordance with past research, results of the current study reveal parents are more uncomfortable with boys engaging in gender-nonconforming behavior than girls and make attempts to change the behavior more often. Contrary to other research however, this study shows mothers and fathers are equally likely to try and change their sons’ behaviors. Nevertheless, they are okay with their sons having girls as playmates and with daughters playing “boy” games.

Although initially researchers presumed parents’ warmth toward their children would be an indicator of acceptance of gender-nonconforming behavior, the study shows otherwise. Parents who report greater warmth also say they make more attempts to change their child’s behavior if it does not align with societal expectations.

Researchers attribute this result to parents’ belief that intervening in such behavior is a good thing, not a negative reaction. As previous studies have shown, parents are concerned with how the public may view such behavior and believe they are doing more good than harm by attempting to redirect their child to social norms.

A surprising discovery is that parents are more accepting of and comfortable with gender-nonconforming behaviors when their child participates in them more frequently. These parents were found to hold egalitarian principles and adhere to social equality. They also show less psychological control over their children (i.e. if a daughter wants to play football or a son wants a Barbie doll, more power to them!)

It is important to consider that in an effort to increase generalizability, questions on the survey included hypotheticals. The problem is people tend to “over-estimate their likelihood of engaging in a specific behavioral response to the situation” as opposed to reporting normal reactions that occur in real-life.

Another limitation of the study is the sample of participants is representative only of the population in Salt Lake City which is predominantly Mormon, and may adhere to more traditional values. Additionally, it is a considerably small sample obtained through a pediatric office and would require a much larger and racially diverse sample to better represent the country as a whole. Researchers also realize the limited perspective of the study, relying solely on parents’ reports. Future studies may want to consider reports from the children as well.

Still, parents of children who engage in gender-nonconforming behavior may gain insight and awareness from the current study. Parents who are hoping to change their child’s behavior might want to consider the possible implications of psychosocial distress being placed on their child.

Furthermore, parents can take into consideration the greater amount of societal pressure for ‘boys to be boys’ than for ‘girls to be girls’ and that mothers and fathers alike hold boys to a higher standard in this area. Although some parents may see changing the behavior as positive intervention, is it really fair that it is more socially acceptable for girls to behave as boys than vice versa? Acceptance can be the beginning to change. As our world is ever-changing, perhaps future studies will show progression toward social equality.

The study, “Parent responses to childhood gender nonconformity: Effects of parent and child characteristics“, was authored by Leigh A. Spivey, David M. Huebner, and Lisa M. Diamond.