May is the month parents freak out about children's academic progress. It could be their eight-year-old's below grade-level reading; or their middle-schooler's weak standardized test scores; or their high-school student's failure to keep up with the Jones' whiz kid who somehow aces three AP classes while playing two varsity sports and a musical instrument. Parental anxiety boosts demand for information about how to give kids a head start early in life, in the hope of avoiding academic trouble later.
How well and how much children read, in particular, is a hot topic at playgrounds swarming with toddlers, whose parents often intensely invest in their intellectual and social development, education, and well-being. In a new study, Michael Baker at the University of Toronto and Kevin Milligan at the University of British Columbia examine how such parents interact with their pre-school children. Baker and Milligan analyze surveys done in the United States, Canada, and Britain to delineate how parents spend that coveted one-on-one time, for example, in play, sports, reading, talking, singing, or arts and crafts.
The researchers found a gender difference in what they call "teaching activities" that build cognitive skills in children as young as nine months old. Girls, not boys, in all three countries received more time from parents on three activities: reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers. Baker and Milligan scrutinized data for first-born children, to control for differences arising when parents slack off after baby number two or three arrives. They also examined parents' time spent with boy-girl twins and again found boys receiving less time than girls on the three teaching activities.
An explanation for the gender difference eluded the researchers. They state that it is more likely related to time pressure parents feel than to "something intrinsic to male children." In an interview on NPR, host David Greene discusses with Milligan why parents may spend more time on literary activities with girls:
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 and Mulligan also parse the gender disparity by mothers' characteristics. Do moms engage in teaching activities with daughters more than with sons because they prefer to, or is the difference explained by a mother's age, education, employment, marital status, and even the maternity leave she took? The authors admit that the boy-girl differential in time spent by mothers in reading activities does not "blend easily into a single coherent profile [of the mother]." Instead, they surmise again that some unobserved characteristics of boys might engender relatively lower levels of reading investment by their mothers.
When researchers are stumped, they often call for more studies to shed light on unanswered questions. So here's a bit of data from a "natural experiment" done in the field: my home. As a mother of three boys and one girl, including boy-girl twins, I question whether little boys with the "wigglies" explains a gender difference in parental investment of time on teaching activities such as reading. One of my sons loves "story time," so we read together almost every night. Another experienced difficulty learning to read fluently, so we prioritized reading and practiced regularly for two years, despite his high energy, activity, and frequent resistance. Now here's where it gets interesting. With the twins, my daughter didn't show great interest in reading, but like the parents of boy-girl twins in Baker and Mulligan's study, I conscientiously tried to spend equal time reading with her and her brother. But my son liked reading non-fiction books such as The Magic School Bus series, and I too found them educational and entertaining. If I'd kept a time log, I'm sure it would show a gender difference--but one favoring the boys, in each case for a different reason.
For two of the boys, the "cost" of reading with them was low and, indeed, the "investment" yielded payoffs in knowledge acquisition and cuddles. For my third son, the urgency of making an investment to improve his reading skills obscured the cost: He needed more practice so he got the largest chuck of time. With my daughter, however, absent any particular urgency, payoff, or special subject-matter interest to motivate us, we read when we both felt like it. In the end, the children's individual differences mattered. Their gender did not.
Baker recommends parents pay attention to whether sons show less interest than daughters in reading and then tailor reading time to counter this natural inclination. In addition to gender, parents would be wise to weigh other individual differences too, such as the child's personality, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Parents may indeed invest more when the cost is low, and a better understanding of this proclivity can help them help their children.