Parents Talk Differently to Boys and Girls After Accidents

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Photo: Megan Maloy/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

For the first two years of children’s lives, they are (usually) under intense supervision from their parents or other caretakers. But at around 2 years old, note the authors of a recent paper in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, that supervision lets up just a little bit — kids start to get a bit more independent, and while they still require careful supervision for a while longer, parents can start to shift out of the ultra-vigilant mode that marks the first couple of years of a child’s life. 

This transition brings with it an important process: Parents need to start teaching kids how to keep themselves safe. The authors of the study, Elizabeth O’Neal and Jodie Plumert of the University of Iowa and Carole Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland, decided to look into the conversations parents have with kids after they sustain injuries to better understand how this socialization process works. 

To do so, they dispatched a research assistant to an emergency room in Newfoundland to approach the parents of kids who were there with non-life-threatening injuries, asking if they’d be willing to answer some questions later on. Eighty-seven parent-child pairs agreed, and the researchers interviewed them in their homes two to three weeks later (on average). Adopting a structured interview style — meaning the researchers went in trained to ask a specific set of questions — the researchers then talked to the parent in question about what sort of conversation they had with their child about the injury afterward.

Here are the basic results: Seventy percent of parents (61 of 87) reported talking with the child about how he/she might prevent the injury from happening in the future. Among those parents who discussed prevention, providing the child with an alternative strategy (54%) was the most common prevention strategy, followed by telling children to be more careful (38%), urging them not to engage in the behavior again (38%), and explaining why the behavior was dangerous (33%). It should be noted that some parents reported using more than one of the above-mentioned strategies when discussing prevention with their child.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the fact that the parents reported being about four times likelier to tell girls to be careful in the future compared to boys. The researchers think this might offer some hints about important gender dynamics, particularly in light of the fact that studies "consistently" show, as the researchers put it, that boys injure themselves at significantly higher rates than girls:

Parents also differed in their suggestions for children to be more careful in the future, with parents being nearly four times more likely to convey this suggestion to daughters than to sons. The current findings on gender differences parallel those seen in the injury prevention literature. In particular, parents often expect and encourage boys to take more risks than girls (Morrongiello & Dawber, 1999). Frequently encouraging girls to be careful in the future may contribute to lesser injury risk in females. Conversely, the absence of this cautionary advice may contribute to increased injury risk in boys. The downside is that girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills (Plumert, 1995). [links added]

As always, it’s hard to untangle the nature-nurture dynamics here, but it seems safe to say that they likely interact in really complicated ways.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that this study is from a small, mostly white sample drawn from one place that, like any place, has its particular set of cultural norms regarding parenting, which aren’t universal. So we can only extrapolate so far. Also, the vast majority of the parents with whom the researchers spoke were moms — 78 of the 87 interviews were with moms, and two were with a mom and a dad at the same time — meaning there weren’t enough dads interviewed here to ask whether dads conduct these conversations differently than moms do.

It would definitely be interesting to see this research replicated with a larger, more diverse sample, and it could, in the long run, help researchers develop better suggestions for parents hoping to instill safety-consciousness in their kids.