Mothers Encourage Emotional Expression in Girls But Not Boys, Disheartening Study Shows

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 06: A three-year-old girl indicates to her mother that no traffic is coming as they cross the street on the way to a playground on June 6, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. The Betreuungsgeld (child care subsidy), proposed to take effect in January 2013, would give parents that keep their children at home instead of sending them to a kindergarten €150 per child per month, causing concern amongst critics who feel that the state support would foster traditional family values as well as provide an incentive for low-income families to keep their children at home. The government has meanwhile planned to guarantee the right to placement in a Kindergarten from August 2013. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Source: Adam Berry/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Everyone's heard "boys don't cry," but it's only in the past few decades that researchers have thought to ask where it came from. The answer, unsurprisingly, is complex; to start with, it's tied to the association of emotions with femininity, which is in turn associated with weakness thanks to the demonization of feminine qualities in our culture. It's a disheartening cycle — and a new study has identified one of the many reasons behind its perpetuation: mothers encourage emotional expression in girls, but not boys.

The study, conducted at the University of Surrey, asked 65 parents to tell stories and talk about a past experience with their four or six year-old children. According to Science Daily, their conversations were recorded and analyzed for how often the parents used language or words associated with emotion. The fathers didn't do anything special, but researchers found that mothers use significantly more emotional language with their daughters than with sons. This unconsciously reinforces gender stereotypes by implying that it's OK for girls to talk about their emotions, but boys aren't part of that conversation. Lead author Dr. Harriet Tenebaum claims this leads to girls "inevitably... growing up more attuned to their emotions than boys."

There are obviously exceptions to the rule — I, for one, grew up in an environment that favored repressing any and all emotion except for feminist rage — but other research has supported this conclusion, or at least the conclusion that women are more likely to be emotionally expressive than men. (What's that life like? Sounds nice.)

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The way we treat our children's emotions when they're young affects the way they express them when they're older, even if they were too young to remember it at the time. So yeah, technically the kid might not remember you hiding behind the couch because American Horror Story got too scary and you thought he was asleep, but you can still take the time to explain that it's OK to show fear sometimes, but no he really, really can't watch this TV show with you, go back to bed before Twisty the Clown shows up again.

So to the moms out there: I know literally everyone is trying to tell you how to parent all the time, but if you have a son you might want to keep this study in mind. Emotional intelligence is pretty important! Rather than telling girls that they should be less emotional if they want to be strong, we should teach boys that it's okay to have feelings and to want to express them. The opposite is true for girls as well; constantly expecting girls to be ruled by their emotions has got to stop.

Speaking of which, all this talk about feelings is really messing with my reputation as an unemotional robot. Time to go be stoic in a corner.

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Images: Giphy

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