For our sons but not for our daughters

A recent UK internet survey (sample size: 2,500 but non-random) found mothers are more critical of their daughters than their sons. The results sound utterly depressing:

More than half said they had formed a stronger bond with their sons and mothers were more likely to describe their little girls as “stroppy” and “serious”, and their sons as “cheeky” and “loving”.

I am very wary of falling into the trap of treating my daughter differently to my son, although I also find it difficult to evaluate my own results given the significant age gap between the two children. Lauca is five years old and Cormac is a year old. I think things like am I letting you get away with murder because you’re a toddler or is it because you’re a boy? And will I remember to ask him to take this same level of responsibility when he gets to five years old, too, and if I don’t will my failings be on account of thinking he is ‘my baby’ or because I won’t expect as much from a boy?

The Guardian asked a couple of women writers to un-pack these survey results and I liked Anne Karpf’s take on it best:

We feminist mothers were going to change the world. We’d be our daughters’ support group, their all-round encouragers. With us, they would always feel good about themselves. Sorry, girls (and I have two), but it didn’t quite work out that way. For a start we didn’t factor in the lasting consequences of our own experiences of being daughters. I made my peace with my late mother a few years before she died, thank God: if I hadn’t, I’d have been left with the loving but highly critical mother I’d struggled with most of my life. It’s hard to become an uncritical mother if you’ve never had one yourself.

We also failed to recognise how much daughters present you with particular challenges around separation. Boys are obviously “other”, but with girls there’s a boundary problem: what’s me and what’s her? I desperately wanted my first child to be “not me” and she isn’t, but when I see some of my less desirable parts in her I probably overreact. In criticising her I’m really criticising myself. On the other hand a daughter who rejects most of what you represent (and as teenagers they almost all do) can feel like a reproach – a re-run of your own mother.

This survey reminds me of this other post I wrote back at the beginning of the year where I explored some of the stereotype that ‘boys love their mothers differently’ which apparently should really be described as ‘some mothers love their sons differently’.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

(Thanks Kim for the link).

Categories: gender & feminism, parenting

Tags: ,

16 replies

  1. I read the headline of this post and just had to share something slightly related (feel free to delete if derailing).
    I was driving to work the other day (in Wellington, NZ) and saw a large billboard for ANZ bank sporting the words: In an ideal world, your son would grow up & your daughter wouldn’t.
    Suffice to say I no longer have an ANZ account, or rather, I will no longer have one when they finally get the paper work sorted!
    p.s. long time lurker and lover of your posts, blue milk!

  2. I was thinking about posting about this myself, but I didn’t in the end, because when I thought about it, I honestly don’t think that this happened in my family. While there are a few respects in which I think my brother got off a little easier, I think that is more because he was the youngest, and to counter that, I think that there were respects in which I got off easier too on account of me being the oldest one living at home.
    Having said that, I do recall that both my younger sister and I learned to cook and started cooking for the whole family once a week or so long before our brother did, but I think that was a matter of socialisation both from outside the family and observing that our mother did most of the cooking, than it was a matter of there being more pressure on us to learn to cook. On the contrary, I recall our mother being very reluctant to teach us to cook, because she likes everything to be done just so, and it’s difficult to make that happen when you are teaching children who haven’t cooked before. For the same reason, I barely did a single load of washing when I lived at home — I was willing, but my mother insisted on doing it all. (I did learn how to do my washing though, simply through observation — which is also how I learned to cook many meals!)
    It’s interesting reading the comments on that article, a lot of people suggest that mothers tend to apply this “I’m not going to teach them because they’ll screw it up” un-logic to boys, but not to girls. In my house though, it was applied to all of us. 🙂
    (Also, I want to make it clear that my mother is an excellent parent who encouraged us to be independent in many ways. I’m not saying this to disparage her in any way.)

  3. I know I’m likely to be perpetuating a thousand gender roles and myths without realising it, but I can’t imagine thinking that I would bond better with my sons than with my daughter. But then I’m lucky that I have 2 sons who are a world apart and a daughter who’s in the middle, personality-wise, so it make no sense to assign gender as a cause of their differences. I don’t need to second guess myself on this. (Although my mother still assigns my daughter all sorts of superiority on the basis of her femaleness!)
    Having said that, I think on average we have expected less of our sons than our daughters in general, and it bears repeating that it still happens, and then we complain when they grow up to be men who feel very little is expected of them. I just don’t know if I’m breaking that chain or not, but I know I’m trying damn hard to!

  4. What a deeply depressing survey result.
    To me it illustrates the deeper issue of many not being able to meet with any person, young or old, without FIRST asigning a gender before anything else. If you do that in daily life, then there is no reason why you wouldn’t do that with babies or children, your own or others, or indeed yourself.
    I’ve come to realize I’ve been so very, very lucky with my parents and consequently I’ve not had any gender issues with my 3 children.
    My question to the parents, who happen to be female, who worry about how they are parenting their little persons: do you think of yourself as a FEMALE first or just as a parent? Do you think of your partner as a MALE (if he actually is) first or just as the other parent? Because I really cannot see how you can avoid saddling your children with specific gender roles and expectations if you haven’t sorted that out for yourself first.

  5. Monday – thank you for de-lurking and saying something so nice! The advertising slogan you refer to – talk about infantalising women, sheesh.

  6. Hi Monday, want to start the Wellington chapter of the Hoydens? Anyone else around here? (Sorry for the derail)

    This is one of those odd pieces of news that no one seems inclined to doubt or disagree with. Rather, the division falls between (just glancing down the comments on the original) those who just accept it as a given, and those who see it as a problem that needs to be addressed.

  7. I am always surprised by the number of mums who seem to think that girls are just naturally bitchy, that they are Daddy’s girl, that they are somehow less able than boys to have true, deep relationships. I am trying hard to be a feminist mum but feel that I am swimming against the tide. True that my relationship with my sons is different, but I refuse to accept that I won’t have a wonderful close relationship with my daughter.

  8. I have seen this play out with some of my friends, and they have described it in terms of seeing their sons as the male avatars of themselves – the ‘them’ they would have been if they were unencumbered with being women.

  9. In case any other USians were bewildered, according to, “stroppy” means:
    Easily offended or annoyed; ill-tempered or belligerent.

    • In case any other USians were bewildered, according to, “stroppy” means:
      Easily offended or annoyed; ill-tempered or belligerent.

      There’s an undercurrent in Oz-speak that stroppy can also be righteously assertive/aggressive, such as being “difficult” to make a valid point. There are definitely times in Oz when being stroppy is considered an admirable thing (from up least some angles).

  10. mothers were more likely to describe their little girls as “stroppy” and “serious”

    That sounds about right. I heard those words a lot growing up, along with stubborn and antisocial.
    N.B. Hearing their mother use those words does nothing to make a child more compliant, cheery or friendly.

  11. It’s amazing how a simple reframing can make such a big difference. “Stroppy”, along with it’s faux-formal form “Obstropolos” were used a lot is our house when I was growing up, but it was a mood you were in, not a thing that you were. I believe it also applied to the parents as appropriate.
    In fact, the main use of obstropolos was for humour, to help break the mood and it could have a random number of “opol”s in it. As in “Ariane, you’re a bit obstropolopolopolos this morning.” It worked ok I think.
    But if you tell a kid they are a stroppy kid, that’s what they’re most likely to be.

  12. It’s so strange for me to read this because my Mum loved us kids all equally – all seven of us. It’s really out of my experience to think that some Mums have problems bonding with their daughters. Maybe it’s because I so look forward to having my own children one day, and that I imagine I’d love them either way. Or maybe it’s because my big sister had a son with severe cerebral palsy, so the lesson of loving your children deeply, however they come to you and whatever condition, was absorbed in my mind as a child. I don’t know.

  13. I am the mother of one child – a WONDERFUL daughter in whom I could not be more pleased if I tried. Yes, I was hard on her. I taught her that the world can be a wonderful place but it can also be a very hard place especially for a female. I taught her that she would have to be twice as good to be considered half as good and that was not ok but she was made of tougher stuff than the boys anyway. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. She lived up to my expectations and has excelled past my expectations. I would have treated a boy no differently. Currently my daughter is in the U.S. Army where despite the absolute sexism, she is excelling. She takes the sexism in stride and hammers on. She is a true model for young girls to look up to. I was raised in an extremely sexist household by both mother and father but even then, I knew my worth as a HUMAN BEING not just a female and taught it to my daughter. It doesn’t have to be this way ladies – remember how you felt when you were treated the same way and STOP DOING IT!

  14. I relate to this a lot myself, and I fear that I will reconstruct the same dynamics with my children that my parents constructed with my brother and me. My brother’s onset of puberty was never much of an issue, whereas the development of my body was supposed to symbolize my development into some sort of slut that needed vicious and contradictory repression and control. Breaking curfew — even in adult-supervised school activities — was met with screaming matches about calling the police and taking away the keys to the car I paid for, that I used to get to work and the gifted high school I transferred out-of-district for. My brother’s breaking curfew was routine and met with half-hearted eye rolls. I was raised to anticipate my parent’s needs and moods, and contribute as much — if not more — as a full adult would to the running of the household. My brother, even as an adult cohabiting with my mother, cannot be expected to take out the trash in a timely manner, let alone do anything like the dishes or his own laundry. My brother hasn’t held a steady job a day in his life. I’ve had one literally since the day I turned 16. My mother is working class, and she supports my brother. I support myself, and to an extent, her. He got a free car at 18, I bought my own with my savings and salary at 21.
    My parents — to this day — tell me it’s because we’re different people. That I’m more driven, more ambitious, dependable, and responsible. That they expect more of me because I’m capable of more.
    I don’t believe them.
    And I dread ever having children that don’t believe me if I tell them the same one day.

  15. Elsewhere, Echidne has a great breakdown of the survey questions and reporting, starting here.

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