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May 11, 1998

Gender often does matter in communications between parents and children

Campbell Leaper

But UCSC researchers find that differences in communication styles are not uniform--and that the differences may be related to the conversation topics men and women select

By Liz Sandoval-Lewis

Psychologists have for some time observed differences in the ways that fathers and mothers communicate with sons and daughters. But a recently completed "meta-analysis" of the body of research on the subject concludes that the activity being discussed by parents and children and the setting for their dialogue are two critical factors that greatly influence the extent of differences.

"The important story here is that whether or not mothers and fathers talk differently to their daughters and sons depends on the situation," said Campbell Leaper, a developmental psychologist at UCSC. "Recognizing that context is so important in these communication differences gets us away from thinking that males and females are one way or another--that there is an inherent difference in the way the genders communicate."

Leaper and his research partners--UCSC graduate students Kristin Anderson and Paul Sanders--employed meta-analysis in their study of the role that gender plays in communication between parents and children. A relatively new methodology, meta-analysis provides a quantitative summary of findings across different studies. It also identifies and assesses "moderating factors" that give context and weight to research findings.

Most of the studies comparing how mothers and fathers communicate with their children suggest that moms talk more than dads, and that mothers are more engaged in regulating or guiding activities. Fathers, on the other hand, appear to be more concerned with getting down to business.

The studies also seemed to indicate that mothers talk more with their daughters than with their sons during the toddler years, and that moms use more controlling types of communication with their daughters than with their sons. (There aren't enough studies of how fathers speak with their children to perform a meta-analysis, Leaper said.)

Leaper's team did conclude that these differences in communication styles were more pronounced in studies in which subjects were observed in real-life home settings (compared to laboratory settings).

"Just as in the real estate business, our meta-analysis did indicate that location is key," Leaper said. "Differences observed in parents' communication styles, including the amount of talking, directive language, supportive or negative language, informing language and questions, were more noticeable in the home than in the lab."

But the amount of structure in a given situation also emerged as a significant moderating factor. In studies in which parents were given a specific task to perform with their child, there were fewer gender differences observed. For example, a focused discussion aimed at solving a problem or completing an assigned task may lead mothers and fathers to talk in similar ways.

In situations in which it was possible to choose a discussion topic or activity, however, mothers often opted for a less task-oriented topic or activity--allowing for more conversation.

One implication of Leaper's research is that gender-related variations in parents' interactions with their children may largely depend on the type of situation that is selected. In other words, mothers and fathers may differ in communication styles primarily because of the conversation topics or activities they choose.

Masculine-stereotyped topics or activities, such as sports or construction-oriented toys, are apt to emphasize directive, task-oriented communication, Leaper noted, while feminine-stereotyped activities, such as playing house, are more likely to emphasize collaborative communication.

Leaper recommends that parents encourage their daughters and sons to engage in a range of activities in order to help them practice both types of communication. Directive speech will help prepare children for the world of work, whereas talking and supportive speech will help prepare children for a world of close relationships.

The findings of Leaper's team were reported in the article "Moderators of Gender Effects on Parents' Talk to Their Children: A Meta-Analysis," which appeared in the January 1998 issue of Developmental Psychology.

Associate Professor Leaper's areas of study and research include gender and social-emotional development across the life span, images of gender in the media, parent-child communication, and language and conversation.

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