'Just wait until your mother gets home’

Fathers and mothers bring children up differently. Mothers are more likely to correct children for bad behaviour, for example. This is one of the findings of PhD research by Liesbeth Hallers-Haalboom. PhD defence 7 October.

Mothers have 'more optimal’ style of upbringing

Sensitivity (recognising and responding adequately to signals from your child), respect for autonomy (giving your child the space to show his or her own initiative) and ‘behaviour modifying strategies’ (correcting bad behaviour). These are three general aspects of the upbringing of young children. In all three aspects mothers prove to bring up their children ‘more optimally’ than fathers.

Large-scale study

Hallers (along with three fellow PhD candidates) tracked 390 families for four years. Each family had two young children; at the start of the study the children were aged one and three years. The researchers visited the families every year and carried out a number of experiments with them. ‘Our study is one of the few more extensive and longer-term studies in this area. Another important point is that the families I studies have two children, whereas earlier studies often focused on families with just one son and one daughter. Our method allowed us to compare the upbringing of boys and girls by the same parents.’

Mothers more likely to correct children

There is a difference between fathers and mothers in terms of correcting disobedience. In one experiment, Hallers placed a bag with interesting toys in the room, but the children were not allowed to touch the toys. If they disobeyed, the mothers tended to correct them earlier and more often than the fathers. ‘Fathers are more likely to tolerate their children’s disobedience, and are less consistent.’ What used to be the standard threat by mothers of ‘Just wait until your father gets home’ is apparently long gone. According to Hallers, the lack of corrective action could even be considered a ‘point of attention’ for modern fathers.

Fathers give children less opportunity for initiative

Apparently, when playing with their children, fathers give them less opportunity for taking the initiative. Fathers are more likely to decide themselves how the game should be played, and expect the children to go along with it, rather than the other way round. The differences between fathers and mothers in their general upbringing style persist as the children grow older (in this study up to the age of five). However, Hallers stresses that her findings should in no way be seen as an indication that fathers bring up their children badly: ‘In general they do well. It’s just that mothers do even better.’

Less time

Fathers in the Netherlands spend less time with their children than mothers, which, according to Hallers, is probably an important cause of the differences in styles of upbringing. Biological factors can also play a role. The research showed that fathers whose testosterone levels fluctuate in the course of a day generally do better with their children.

Same treatment for sons and daughters

A further interesting conclusion from the research is that in their style of upbringing Dutch parents generally make no distinction between sons and daughters. Hallers had expected to find some differences in the general treatment of boys and girls. Previous PhD research (by Joyce Endendijk) based on this same Leiden study showed that parents show their children what behaviour is acceptable for boys and girls, for example by the way that they talk to their children about gender issues). 

PhD defence Liesbeth Hallers
Summary of dissertation (in Dutch)

(1 October 2015)

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Last Modified: 02-10-2015