Although 67 percent of American moms now have jobs outside the home and American dads are far more involved in their children’s lives than they were even a generation ago, you — and your children — will find little evidence of those cultural shifts in children’s picture books.
For, according to a recent study, traditional gender stereotyping continues to dominate literature aimed at young children.
Just as they were decades ago, moms are much more likely than dads to be depicted as nurturers and caregivers in picture books, and dads are much more likely than moms to be shown as providers who work outside the home.
The findings surprised the Shepherd University researchers who conducted the study. They had expected the parental roles portrayed in picture books to more closely reflect the changing role realities of the broader U.S. society.
A century of books
For the study, Shepherd University sociologist Amy DeWitt and her colleagues analyzed a random sample of 300 “easy children’s books” from the more than 1,400 listed in the 2001 Children’s Catalog, which is compiled by a committee of librarians and used to help school and community libraries select quality books for their collections.
The sample included 50 books from the years 1900 through 1959, 50 from each of the final four decades of the 20th century (’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s), and 50 from the year 2000. (Only 50 were chosen from the first 59 years of the 20th century because of the smaller number of children’s books published during that period and because the researchers predicted that traditional parent roles had remained somewhat stable during that time frame.)
For the analysis, DeWitt and her colleagues made notes on the actions taken by parents in the books. Those actions were broken down into five separate behavioral categories: nurturing (such as expressing affection for or praising the child), disciplining (such as scolding or spanking the child), caregiving (such as cooking for or bathing the child), companionship (such as playing with the child), and providing (working outside the home).
The researchers were not surprised to find that gender stereotyping of parental roles was common throughout the literature. But they were surprised to find that those stereotypes softened only slightly by the start of the 21st century.
“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behavior, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” write DeWitt and her colleagues.
Mothers were also three times more likely to be shown cooking, feeding, cleaning and dressing children.
The only exception occurred during the 1970s, when the selected books portrayed fathers as providing more nurturing and caregiving than mothers. But that change was not statistically significant, DeWitt and her colleagues note, and it disappeared in subsequent decades.
Moms and jobs
The study also found that mothers were much less likely than fathers to be portrayed outside their traditional domestic roles. In other words, the picture books — even those that were published in 2001 — were more likely to show a dad being a nurturer than a mother being a provider with a job outside the home.
In fact, fathers were almost five times more likely than mothers to be employed in the books.
“It must be noted,” write DeWitt and her colleagues, “that among ‘employed’ mothers a couple outlandish occupations (i.e., the Easter bunny-mother; an artist-mother who painted Easter eggs) were classified as fulfilling the provider role. Thus, if only realistic occupations had been noted, perhaps the discrepancy would be even more dramatic.”
“Books rarely depict the vast options available to women in both the public and private spheres,” they add.
The researchers were also taken aback by the “sheer absence of parents” in the books.
“Children’s picture books have the potential to be powerful and positive influences on identity acquisition, but with the limited representation of parents, that potential is neglected,” they write. “While children’s book publishing today is a business, and while publishers and authors may realize a giant, talking dog sells more than a strong father-son relationship, strong parental portrayals need to be woven into more plots.”
“These parental portrayals need to reflect active and quality parenting,” the researchers add. “When present in the texts, too many parental characters are mere props in illustration and are not actively involved in the child characters’ lives.”
Important for socialization
Why does the persistence of traditional gender roles in picture books matter? Because, argue DeWitt and her colleagues, other research has clearly shown that books play an important role in socializing children.
“Consistently seeing mothers in the nurturing and care-giving roles and fathers fulfilling the provider role may impress upon children what role performances are ultimately expected of them as men and women,” they conclude. “… If children, especially girls, continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted.”