Mothers show greater neural responses to boys violating gender expectations

Mothers show heightened neural activity in response to boys playing with feminine toys compared to girls playing with masculine toys, according to new research published in Biological Psychology.

“Parents have different expectations about the characteristics, interests, future roles, and behaviors of boys and girls, starting from the moment they are born,” said study author Joyce J. Endendijk of Utrecht University.

“For example, parents expect boys to be more athletic and interested in sports than girls. They also expect girls to do less well in mathematics than boys. Further, they expect boys to be interested in masculine-typed toys and activities such as cars, tools, and football, and girls to be interested in feminine-typed toys and activities such as dolls, toy kitchens, and playing hopscotch.”

“As a consequence of these expectations people respond negatively to boys and girls violating these expectations. We set up this study to better understand why parents respond negatively to child behavior that violates gendered expectations.”

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of 23 mothers as they viewed pictures of children that violate gender expectations. The participants viewed photographs of children’s faces, which were randomly paired with stereotypically masculine and feminine toys.

The participants also completed a separate computerized task to assess their gender stereotypes about children’s toys.

The researchers observed increased neural activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex when the images of children were paired with toys that violated gender expectations. They also found increased activation in the left temporoparietal junction specifically in response to pictures of boys who violated gender expectations.

Mothers with more egalitarian views about boys’ and girls’ toy preferences, however, tended to show less neural activity in response to gender norm violations.

“Our findings point to several unconscious processes that might underlie parents’ negative responses to children’s behavior that violates gender expectations. These processes were most pronounced when mothers viewed pictures of boys who behaved in a way that violated mothers’ gender expectations,” Endendijk told PsyPost.

The findings are in line with another study, which found that parents are more comfortable with girls partaking in gender-nonconforming behavior than boys.

“The first explanation for mothers’ negative responses to children that violate gender expectations is that mothers might view boys as members of a generic social category instead of unique individuals,” Endendijk explained.

“Second, mothers experience conflict when a child’s behavior does not match parents’ social expectations about boys and girls behavior. Yet, they also try to unconsciously inhibit gender-stereotyped responses to children violating gender expectations.”

“Third, mothers might have more difficulty with forming an impression of a child’s goals and intentions when a child violates gender expectations.”

But like all research, the study is not without some limitations.

“We examined mothers with children in a wide age range, which may have affected our results because children move through several stages of gender development between the ages of 2 and 6 years. Also, because of our modest sample size we were not able to examine differences between mothers with sons, mothers with daughters, and mothers with both sons and daughters,” Endendijk said.

“Future research could examine whether mothers’ neural responses to boys and girls that violate gender expectations depend on the gender of their own children or the gendered behavior of their own children.

“Furthermore, we only examined mothers even though we know from previous research that mothers and fathers differ in their parenting and behavior toward boys and girls. Future studies could make direct comparisons between mothers’ and fathers’ neural responses to gendered child stimuli,” Endendijk added.

“Another important direction for future research is to examine whether parents’ neural responses to gendered child stimuli translate to how parents respond, behave, and parent their own sons and daughters.”

The study, “Boys’ toys, girls’ toys: An fMRI study of mothers’ neural responses to children violating gender expectations“, was authored by Joyce J.Endendijka, Anne K. Smit, Anneloes L. van Baar, and Peter A. Bos.