Parents May Devote More Teaching Time to Girls Than to Boys

| May 6, 2013 | 8 Comments
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By Shankar Vedantam

For some years now, teachers and parents have noted something about boys and girls. Starting in elementary school, young girls often score better on reading and math tests than young boys do.

The differences are uneven on different tests and do not describe the experience of every child, but empirical studies do document a difference.

Now, two economists are proposing a partial explanation for the disparity that might give some parents heartburn.

Michael Baker at the University of Toronto and Kevin Milligan at the University of British Columbia recently analyzed survey data of parents in three countries — the United States, Canada and Britain. They were especially interested to see how parents say they spend time with their children — and they turned up an intriguing gender difference in what they called “teaching activities.”

Survey data suggests that young girls are more likely to be taken to libraries than are boys, are more likely to own books than are boys, and are more likely to be read to for longer periods of time than boys.

“So, this would be, ‘How often do you read with your child?’ or ‘Do you teach them the alphabet or numbers?’ ” Baker says. “Systematically parents spent more time doing these activities with girls.”

The finding surprised them because, at least in popular lore, parents supposedly spend more time with boys than girls. And Baker says that perception does tend to hold true for older children — fathers tend to spend more time with boys once they are older than age 4 or 5. When children are smaller, Baker says, parents spend about the same total time with boys as they do with girls.

But the striking difference comes in the sorts of activities the parents said they engage the kids in. The survey data suggests that young girls are more likely to be taken to libraries than are boys, are more likely to own books than are boys, and are more likely to be read to for longer periods of time than boys.

The economists focused their analysis, recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, on first-born children in order to get at the disparity in parental investment. It would have muddied the waters to compare parents caring for an only child with parents caring for their second or third child, Baker says. But they did find that the disparity also shows up clearly among fraternal twins. Here again, the parents surveyed seemed to devote more time to girls when it came to cognitive activities.

Since parents say they spend the same amount of time overall with boys and girls, Baker’s analysis suggests that if parents are spending more time with girls on cognitive activities, they must be spending more time with boys on other kinds of activities. While it’s possible to speculate that those activities involve more active play, Baker says the surveys could not provide a definite answer.

The big question, of course, is why these disparities in parental investment come about at all. After all, as Baker notes, many parents are familiar with research showing that elementary school boys trail girls in test of vocabulary and math. And they’ve also likely heard about studies suggesting that early interventions might have a big impact on the lives of children.

Milligan says the short answer is that no one knows why parents spend more time with girls on cognitive activities. One theory holds that girls might have a greater inclination toward such activities. (Theories suggesting innate differences between boys and girls and between men and women are hotly debated.) Another theory is that parents may be following cultural scripts and unconscious biases that suggest they should read with their daughters, and have active play with sons.

It is also possible, Baker says, that the costs of investing in cognitive activities is different when it comes to boys and girls. As an economist, he isn’t referring to cost in the sense of cash; he means cost in the sense of effort.

“It is just more costly to provide a unit of reading to a boy than to a girl because the boy doesn’t sit still, you know, doesn’t pay attention,” he says, “these sorts of things.”

Baker says that as the parent of a boy and girl, he noticed that his own daughter appeared to have a greater inclination toward cognitive activities than his son. Rather than theorize about what the difference might be about, he says, he and his wife systematically directed their boy toward more cognitive activities.

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  • Unschool Cafe

    Girls and boys on the whole develop different. I have found that the people who doubt this generally either don’t have any children or are the parents of girls. Why is the current trend to try to make boys into girls and if they don’t acquiesce, then drug them? The differences should be celebrated, not judged.

    The phrase, “It takes all kinds” has no meaning in a standardized world and neither do the concepts of exploration, risk-taking, & creativity, among others. Children naturally learn. Why do adults always feel the need to get in their way?! It’s less a question of what boys aren’t learning, but what they ARE learning, as well as the validity of the testing.

  • gericar

    I think this kind of thing is way more subtle that these investigations credit.

    Just as a guess… how much time out of the day do you think a teacher in say a third grade classroom spends on class management issues? redirecting kids to the task at hand, getting everyone’s attention, settling everyone into projects, getting the wanderers focused, etc. and of that time, how much is spent on managing the behavior of boys and how much of girls. I know it is only an opinion and a generalization, but girls appear to be able to manage an environment in which there is a requirement that they do what other people want them to do, to adjust their behavior to the requirements. They don’t appear to spend so much time testing the edges of what is acceptable (which in some environments is crucial) and any parent or teacher can tell you that is at least sometimes, a relief. Do girls get attention by complying and boys by not complying? If this is true it makes sense that in some environments the achievements girls can make are going to outstrip boys but of course the opposite is also true. The more interesting and crucial question is…. what happens to slow or in many cases, stop this achievement level or reverse it. Does it become more difficult to see our girls as achievers when they are older and what do we think of boys who don’t achieve in high school and beyond?

  • melissa

    While it’s likely (generally) true, I’m not sure that it matters that girls and boys learn differently. What does matter is that no matter what gender (race, creed or sexual orientation for that matter) that we really SEE our kids, and give them whatever tools they need to be successful. Every single kid is different and will respond to instruction, reading, building, etc. in different ways. Some will be gardeners, and some will be doctors. Some will need more direction, others less. We have to learn what makes them tick, then give it to them in a big way.

  • maryam

    This success is due in girls than boys! Parents to their children due to their size. Gifted children are different. Sometimes a boy and sometimes smarter than a daughter. Parents are no different., I’m sure!Please refer to this site for sure:

    کرکره برقی

  • maryam

    Children are like clay that gave special attention they need to thrive. Train them in the wrong place would not be a good future.

    درب گردان

  • lidia

    Childhood education is very important … We need to take care of their children’s education. Minds of children are different! Some people learn better!

    درب ضد سرقت

  • vahid

    I do not accept this theory. Has anyone agree with me?
    پارتیشن