Observed Gender Differences in African American Mother-Child Relationships and Child Behavior

Article excerpt

African American mother-child dyads (N = 99) were observed interacting on a collaborative puzzle exercise. Raters blind to the purpose of the study rated the dyads on several mother and child behaviors. Mothers of daughters were rated as more empathetic, encouraging, warm, and accepting and less negative than mothers of sons. Male children were more challenging and less happy, relaxed, and engaged. Mediation analyses found that the differences in mother-child relationships explained the gender differences in child behavior. These patterns were consistent across different child age groups and after controlling for family socioeconomic status. It was concluded that many of the gender disparities may be reduced with empirically informed and culturally sensitive parent training interventions that teach parents the necessity of being warm and loving as well as encouraging both male and female children to excel.

Boys are much more likely than girls to have behavioral problems at school and engage in delinquent and other risky behaviors (Chun & Mobley, 2010; Miller, Malone, & Dodge, 2010). Boys are also less academically motivated and are much more likely to be suspended than girls (Sirin & Rogers-Sirin, 2005; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). Several studies even found that mothers and teachers rate boys as less well behaved than girls (Winsler & Wallace, 2002). Although these gender differences in behavior persist for all major ethnic groups, they appear to be especially large for African Americans (Williams et al., 2007). Thus, African American males are lagging behind African American females across a wide range of social and behavioral domains, and the differences are larger than they are among other ethnic groups.

Several researchers have recently begun to explore the possibility that boys in general, and African American boys in particular, are more likely to misbehave because girls are simply parented better overall (Mandara, Varner, & Richman, 2010). Very few studies, however, have examined this possibility among African Americans. Of the few that have been done so, most are small qualitative studies (Hill, 2002; Hill & Zimmerman, 1995), based primarily on self-report surveys (Mandara et al., 2010), or focused on primarily poor mothers of very young children (Tamis-Lernonda, Briggs, McClowry, & Snow, 2009). The purpose of the current study was to add to this literature by examining the degree to which observers rate the mother-child relationship and child behavior differently for African American boys and girls. A further purpose was to assess the degree to which differences in the mother-child relationship accounts for observed gender differences in child behavior.


The idea that parents have different relationships with each of their children has been fairly well documented (Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992; Shanahan, McHaIe, Crouter, & Osgood, 2008). The underlying premise of the early studies was that because shared genetic and environmental experiences could not explain the often large sibling differences in behavior and mental health, siblings must have many unique environmental experiences that influence their development (Dünn, Stocker, & Plomin, 1990). Several studies confirmed these ideas and found that mothers tend to have warmer and closer relationships with their daughters than they have with their sons (Shanahan, McHaIe, Crouter, & Osgood, 2007; Tucker, McHaIe, & Crouter, 2003). Girls are also monitored more and given many more household chores than boys (McHaIe, Updergraff, Jackson-Newsom, Tucker, & Crouter, 2000; Pettit, Laird, Dodge, Bates, & Criss, 2001), but boys tend to receive more and harsher punishments (Lytton & Romney, 1991; McKee et al., 2007). Nevertheless, these studies have been almost exclusively done with European American families, and there are several reasons why these results may not be the same among African American families. …