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Moms talk differently to their sons, daughters

British researchers say that moms use more emotional language when they talk to their girls than to their boys, laying waste to notions that they treat all their children exactly the same way. Their findings are published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

The study raises some questions about gender roles, according to an article on the research in Time. Does it perpetuate gender stereotypes? Or does it help girls on their journey to accurately recognizing other people's emotions? That trait is something females are reportedly more adept at than males.

“We know … that children imitate same-gendered models (i.e. girls imitate moms and boys imitate dads) more than different-gendered models,” one of the researchers, Harriet Tenenbaum, associate professor of psychology at the University of Surrey, told Time. “So they are taught that emotions are more acceptable for women than for men.”

For the study, they filmed 65 Spanish moms and dads with their children, either ages 4 or 6, as they participated in storytelling. One parent was initially taped having a conversation with the child, then within a week the other parent was taped having a similar conversation. Emotion words were identified in the conversations.

The moms used more emotional words — think “happy,” “sad,” “angry” “indifference,” “concern” — with children of both ages, while the fathers used fewer. The women were especially likely to use them with the younger daughters.

According to the study, “During the play-related storytelling task, mothers of 4-year-old daughters mentioned a higher proportion of emotion words than did mothers of 4-year-old sons, whereas fathers of 4-year-old daughters directed a higher proportion of emotion words than did fathers of 4-year-old sons during the reminiscence task. No gender differences were found with parents of 6-year-old children. During the reminiscence task daughters mentioned more emotion words with their fathers than with their mothers. Finally, mothers' use of emotion talk was related to whether children used emotion talk in both tasks. Fathers' use of emotion talk was only related to children's emotion talk during the reminiscence task.”

Wrote Time's Kristina Dell, “Tenenbaum points out that learning emotional intelligence is incredibly important for children in terms of school success, getting along with teachers and having good peer relations. '(Past studies have shown that) children who are better able to show emotions in kindergarten did better in the 4th grade than kids who didn’t,' she says. Moreover, 'children who use more emotional words are more popular in nursery school. People would rather be around someone who can understand and interpret emotions.' And kids who understand emotions better tend to have higher performance in school even after controlling for intelligence, she notes.”

Tenenbaum told Science Daily that speaking in more emotional terms to girls than to boys “inevitably leads to girls growing up more attuned to their emotions than boys. Having this edge to be more expressive and cope well with emotions may matter more than ever in the workplace, as more companies are starting to recognize the advantages of high emotional intelligence when it comes to positions such as sales, teams and leadership.”

Tenenbaum and her co-author, Ana Aznar, wrote in the study that “caution is warranted in generalizing the findings because of our middle-class, urban sample. Overall, Spanish mothers and fathers may have a distinct influence on children's emotion socialization.”

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