April 17, 2024

Children’s gender expression influences how adults talk to them, study finds

New research provide insights into how adults adapt their language use in interactions with children based on the children’s gender expressions, shedding light on the role of language in shaping and reflecting societal gender norms. The study was recently published in the scientific journal Sex Roles.

The study focused on two different types of language approaches, each with its own significant impact on child development.

Mental state language, which includes references to thoughts, emotions, and desires, plays a vital role in a child’s development of theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to a child’s ability to understand that others have their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, which may differ from their own.

When parents engage in conversations about mental states with their children, they provide them with valuable insights into the inner workings of the human mind. This, in turn, helps children develop empathy, perspective-taking abilities, and a deeper understanding of social interactions.

Elaborated language, which involves explicitly labeling and explaining concepts, is crucial for helping children learn to regulate their emotions. When parents use rich and descriptive language to discuss emotions, children gain a better understanding of their feelings and how to express them in a socially acceptable manner. This can lead to more effective emotional regulation, improved emotional intelligence, and healthier interpersonal relationships.

For this study, the researchers sought to gain a deeper understanding of how adults use mental state language and elaborated language with children, with a particular focus on how a child’s gender expression might influence language use.

“My interest in this topic was motivated by two main factors,” explained study author Callyn Farrell, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. “Firstly, the mixed findings in the field, some studies reported that parents talked with their daughters about mental states more than with their sons. Others found the opposite.”

“Secondly, although the developmental importance of talking about mental states and elaborated language is well accepted, no research had considered how adults use these language categories towards gender-diverse children. Diversity is something that should be celebrated and in the context of development, scientifically understood.”

The researchers conducted two studies to investigate the preferences of non-parents and parents regarding their use of mental state language and elaborated language when interacting with child protagonists representing diverse gender expressions (masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral). The studies aimed to control for extraneous variables that might naturally influence how adults speak to real children by using experimentally manipulated child protagonists.

The first study included 238 undergraduate students who were not parents. The researchers used vignettes depicting everyday social situations involving child protagonists, each representing a distinct gender expression (feminine, masculine, or gender-neutral). The child protagonists’ gender expression was manipulated experimentally through descriptions, pronouns, play preferences, clothing, and visuals. Participants ranked their likelihood of using different language approaches in response to these vignettes.

For example, if a vignette described a child asking a question or expressing an emotion, participants would evaluate their inclination to respond using language that delves into the child’s thoughts or feelings (mental state language) and provide a detailed and comprehensive explanation (elaborated language).

The second study involved 217 parents recruited through The Early Cognitive Development Centre at The University of Queensland. Similar to Study 1, it used vignettes with experimentally controlled child protagonists to examine the preferences of parents regarding mental state language and elaborated language. The researchers preregistered this study to investigate if parents’ language preferences differed based on the gender expression of child protagonists.

In both studies, participants were less likely to use mental state language with masculine child protagonists compared to feminine or gender-neutral ones. Participants were also less likely to use elaborated language with gender-neutral child protagonists compared to masculine or feminine ones. These findings were consistent across participant gender and parental status.

“While my findings are captured in experimental settings, these language patterns exist in children’s everyday lives, influencing their thoughts, emotions, and the construction of their futures,” Farrell told PsyPost. “To give children the opportunity to learn, grow, and flourish, irrespective of their gender, this research suggests that we may need to first consider the choices we ourselves make when we chat with children.”

The results suggest that adults tailor their language use, particularly mental state language, based on the perceived gender expression of child protagonists. These preferences may be influenced by societal gender roles and stereotypes.

“The standout finding is that in our studies, adults used less elaborated language when communicating with the gender-neutral child,” Farrell said. “This indicates the importance of considering diverse expressions of gender when studying aspects of child development. Suppose we want all children to develop in rich environments. In that case, we must understand how all children experience the social world, regardless of gender.”

“What was most surprising is that adults who were parents and those who were not didn’t differ in their mental state language use towards the boy and their elaborated language use toward the gender-neutral child. This indicates that the experience of being a parent may not be associated with our likelihood as adults to use these categories of language when speaking with children.”

The study sheds light on how children’s gender expression is related to how adults prefer to communicate with them. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. The use of vignettes to elicit language preferences may not fully represent how adults use mental state language and elaborated language in naturalistic contexts when interacting with real children. Additionally, self-report measures can be influenced by social desirability bias, where participants may provide responses they believe are socially acceptable or expected.

“I think the most important future direction for this work is to understand how we use child-relevant language about mental states and elaborated language to gender-diverse children at home and within schools,” Farrell said. “By doing so, we may increase awareness regarding the importance of these language categories and inspire adults to use them regardless of a child’s gender.”

The study, “How We Talk to Kids: Adults Prefer Different Forms of Language for Children Based on Gender Expression“, was authored by Callyn Farrell, Virginia Slaughter, Michael Thai, and Aisling Mulvihill.

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