In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Social Construction of Parental Gender Preferences

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Nature versus Nurture
  • Preferences for Sons and Daughters
  • Pre-Birth Actions and Perceptions
  • Variations in Parental Gender Preferences
  • Gay and Lesbian Parents

Childhood Studies The Social Construction of Parental Gender Preferences
Emily W. Kane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0115


Parents play a critical role in shaping gender-related outcomes for their children, from the moment of birth or adoption and often even before. Parental beliefs, preferences, assumptions, and actions have been analyzed by social scientists and practitioners in a variety of disciplines, especially psychology, sociology, education, and communications, as well as interdisciplinary fields like gender and sexuality studies, childhood studies, and family studies. This multidisciplinary literature documents tendencies toward gender differentiated parenting from infancy through adolescence, with a wide range of specific topics such as vocalization to infants, the selection of toys and activities, the assignment of chores, the way emotional expression is managed, and the kinds of educational fields encouraged. The literature documents how parental preferences and actions in these arenas and many more can contribute to the social construction of gendered outcomes during childhood, encouraging boys and girls to develop different skills, interests, and capacities, with particularly limiting expectations sometimes evident for boys. Scholars and practitioners have also addressed the implications of parental gendering for children’s adult lives in terms of gender differentiation and gender inequalities. Within this broader general tendency toward parents preferring and crafting gender differentiated outcomes, the literature also reveals change over time in some aspects of parental preferences and actions, including recently increased attention to parental responses to transgender children, as well as variation across subgroups of parents and children. Particularly important subgroup variations are between mothers and fathers, and across groups defined by intersecting inequalities of race, class, sexuality, and nation. In addition, researchers have documented various factors that shape parental preferences, ranging from public policy and expert advice to everyday accountability to friends, relatives, and strangers. Even within the literature focused on the role of parents, attention is focused on the importance of many other sources of influence on gendered outcomes among children, ranging from biology to teachers, peers, siblings, media, government policies, and the active agency of children themselves. An intersecting but less centrally reviewed set of literatures within economics and demography also documents differential preference for and investment in sons and daughters; though not the central focus of this article, some sources that offer an overview of key patterns in those literatures are included throughout.

General Overviews

Most literature on the role of parents in the social construction of gender considers some specific outcome, developmental stage, or other relatively narrow focus, as the entries elsewhere in this article document. The literature is thus partial and cumulative rather than anchored in some classic set of overview texts. However, several broader overviews related to gender, family, and childhood include discussions of the topic. Three relevant classics are Chodorow 1978, a psychoanalytic treatment of how mothers interact with sons and daughters; Risman 1998, an exploration of how gendered constraints can be loosened within egalitarian families; and Maccoby 1998, a definitive overview of gender in childhood. More recent overviews include Coltrane and Adams 2008, a textbook treatment of the wide range of literature relevant to gender and family and Kane 2013, a textbook treatment of gender and childhood. All of these general texts make excellent starting points for readers interested in a summary or wider consideration. In addition, Kane 2012 offers one of the few book-length research studies exploring the role of parents in gendered childhoods. This article focuses primarily on research within sociology, psychology, childhood studies, and gender studies, but the review article Lundberg 2005 on parental behavior toward sons and daughters from an economic perspective provides a wide-ranging introduction to that related but distinct literature.

  • Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

    This classic text argues that psychodynamic factors shape mother-child separation differentially for sons and daughters, with critical consequences for those children’s eventual orientation toward parenting. Like many influential early texts in any given field, Chodorow’s work has been both praised and criticized.

  • Coltrane, Scott, and Michele Adams. Gender and Families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

    This text includes chapters on each of a variety of topics related to gender and family; chapter 6 (pp. 167–200) is titled “Engendering Children” and provides a well-sourced and thoughtful overview of the literature on parents, children, and gender.

  • Kane, Emily W. The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

    This study investigates how forty-two parents of preschool children in the United States, from a range of racial, class, and sexual orientation backgrounds, think about gender in childhood. Though parents sometimes actively resisted gender-typing and varied in important ways, some of which are considered elsewhere in this article, overall a significant degree of parental gendering of preschool-aged children was documented, particularly in relation to sons.

  • Kane, Emily W. Rethinking Gender and Sexuality in Childhood. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    This text reviews the literature on multiple sources of childhood gendering, in the context of recent trends in both childhood studies and gender studies internationally. Chapter 4 (pp. 47–67) focuses specifically on the role of families, with particular attention to parents in various regions of the world and addressing the implications of childhood gendering practices for shaping adult gender inequalities.

  • Lundberg, Shelly. “Sons, Daughters and Parental Behavior.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 21.3 (2005): 340–356.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxrep/gri020

    This review article summarizes decades of work on differential treatment of sons and daughters within sociology and psychology and synthesizes it with recent trends in the related but generally non-overlapping literature on the same topic within economics. The author offers an overview of economic analyses that address how family structure, parental involvement, labor market behavior, and other parental investments vary by sex composition of children within a household or family.

  • Maccoby, Eleanor E. The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    This widely cited overview text by a leading psychologist of gender draws together theories and empirical studies from across the social sciences and natural sciences to trace what is known about children’s gender from infancy to adolescence. The book includes consideration of how parents view children’s gender, and their tendency to craft different outcomes for sons and daughters.

  • Risman, Barbara. Gender Vertigo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

    This US research study conducted in the 1980s is frequently cited throughout the literature on gender and family. It primarily addresses how men and women in heterosexual couples navigate gendered dynamics in terms of housework and child care, but also includes data on how children’s gender expectations are shaped by their parents’ attitudes and actions.

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