Parental Response to Gender Bias: Socialization Strategies in Mother-child Conversations and Children's Gender Attitudes

Open Access
Hilliard, Lacey Jennifer
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 13, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Lynn Susan Liben, Dissertation Advisor
  • Kristin Buss, Committee Member
  • Janet Swim, Committee Member
  • Eva Sharon Lefkowitz, Committee Member
  • child development; gender attitudes; parent socialization
Children are faced with pervasive messages about what constitutes normative (and non-normative) behaviors and activities for men and women. Parents are important socializing agents who can help shape children's gender attitudes, their understanding of biases, and their access to strategies for handling discrimination. The primary goal of the current study was to examine mothers‘ approaches to gender- and fairness-related issues with their children, with a particular focus on exploring the ways in which mothers use conversations to influence their children‘s gender-related attitudes and actions. I created an observational setting in which mother-child dyads were exposed to gender stereotypes and discrimination, and observed the discussions of 62 mothers and their 6- to 8-year old children (divided evenly between daughters and sons). Of interest were mother-child communication patterns and maternal strategies. More specifically, mother-child dyads were shown materials depicting hypothetical situations in which characters were treated on the basis of gender stereotypes. The dyads were then prompted to discuss issues of fair treatment and gender bias. A week prior to the laboratory visit, mothers completed measures related to their gender attitudes, feminist beliefs, and parenting goals. Immediately following the conversation task, I assessed children‘s gender attitudes, responses to hypothetical sexist peers, and gender-based assignments of novel characters to activities. Findings showed that mothers with more flexible gender attitudes and higher feminist endorsement were more likely to a) report that they discussed gender issues with their children and b) directly refute stereotypes in conversations with their children. Further, children with more flexible gender attitudes and more challenging responses to sexist peers were more likely to have mothers who personalized content in the conversation task (i.e., who related the conversation material to their own or their child‘s life). Results from this study suggest that mothers‘ strategies in response to bias can help children‘s processing of and responses to gendered information.