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Moms Speak Differently to Daughters, Study Says

Study says moms talk differently to daughters than sons, using more "emotional language"
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Think you talk to your daughter pretty much the same way you talk to your son? Not so, says science. A new study has found that moms not only evoke more "emotional language" when interacting with their daughters, but they also play a bigger role in perpetuating gender stereotypes in the process.

But it's not all bad news. On the bright side, the researchers behind the study say they feel this may be what leads women to develop higher levels of emotional intelligence. Of course, it's also what often leads men to ... well, have not-so-great levels of emotional intelligence.

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

Does this mean we can blame our sometimes emotionally out-of-touch husband/boyfriend/significant other on the way his mom talked to him in kindergarten?

Just kidding—let's not blame Mom (and ourselves) for everything, here. But the research, which was led by Tenenbaum and fellow study author Ana Aznar, does highlight the importance of emotional intelligence when it comes to fostering positive relationships and being successful both in school and at work.

“Children who are better able to show emotions in kindergarten did better in the 4th grade than kids who didn’t,” Tenenbaum said of similar past studies. And even more interesting is this fact: “Children who use more emotional words are more popular in nursery school," added Tenenbaum. "People would rather be around someone who can understand and interpret emotions.”

During their study, Tenenbaum, Aznar and their fellow researchers videotaped 65 Spanish moms and dads, all from middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhoods, and watched as they interacted with their 4-year-old and 6-year-old children. As the cameras rolled, parents were given a storytelling task and then told to start a conversation with their child about a past experience. To begin, researchers first called either the mother or father to come visit with their child, and filmed them while chatting. Less than a week later, the other parent would return with the child in tow, to chat about similar subjects. Researchers later transcribed the videos word-for-word, noting all the instances where emotional words (like "happy," "sad," "love," "fear") were mentioned.

All in all, moms used far more emotional keywords than dads did, regardless of their child's age, though both parents used more of this "emotional language" with their girls in general. But it was Mom's particularly expressive convos with her daughter that piqued the interest of Anzar and Tenenbaum.

“Most parents say they want boys to be more expressive, but don’t know [they] are speaking differently to them,” says Tenenbaum.

The research theory? Mothers may actually just be more comfortable talking about their emotions than dads. As a result, kids may subconsciously assume that it's just more acceptable for girls to talk about their thoughts and feelings than boys, thus continuing a never-ending cycle.

You can read more about the study's findings in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, where it was recently published.

Do you think you talk differently to your daughter than your son?

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