Parents are more likely to separate during their children’s teenage years if their first child is a girl. This effect peaks when children turn 15, when couples are 10 per cent more likely to divorce, and drops off by the time they are 19. It occurs most often in families with strong traditional attitudes to gender roles, and where the father grew up with sisters the effect disappears. These are the findings of extensive study by researchers at Melbourne University.
The study looked at data on over two million marriages in the Netherlands and considered other large scale studies of family life in that region. They found strong evidence of fathers reporting strained relationships with their partners and teenage daughters that did not exist when the first child was male.
Anyone who’s raised teenagers knows it’s a difficult time. Teens are like toddlers who can go out alone at night and make adult mistakes. Deciding how much to trust them and how far we should let them go is frightening, for parents and teenagers alike. And we face these issues for the first time with the oldest child. By the time the second, third or even fourth child hits the teenage years, parents are more experienced and the younger siblings have watched it all happen. The first kid is the trailblazer and everyone is on a steep learning curve.
The study dismissed the idea that men’s emotional bonds with their sons is the reason for the higher divorce rate for families with firstborn daughters, citing the gendered results that only occurred during teenage years and were not present in divorced couples with younger children.
But the results indicate stress is at its worst when fathers have no experience with teenage girls and when traditional gender roles are strongly held in the family. Jan Kabatek, one of the authors of the study, says “we find that father’s outcomes are heavily influenced by having a sibling of the opposite gender, whereas for mothers we find no such link”.
So we can guess that some of the pressure comes from disagreements about acceptable rules and behaviour for teenage girls. What are they allowed to wear? Where are they allowed to go? What are they allowed to do? Who are they allowed to spend time with? If the answers to those questions are gendered, teenage girls could easily feel unfairly constrained and fathers could equally feel threatened or ignored.
It’s not easy to remove unconscious bias from parenting. I’ve spent years analysing statistics and crime data and I know that my son is in more danger out in public than my daughter. Men are 12 times more likely than women to be killed and three times more likely to be assaulted by a stranger. Overwhelmingly, their attackers are likely to be other men and young women are in far more danger in private houses than on public streets.
Despite what I know to be true, I couldn’t always translate that into feelings. I felt my son was safer out in public than my daughter, which caused a lot tension in our house. “You don’t make him check in every couple of hours, why do I have to?” My daughter was right about how unfair it was and I had to change the rules so they applied equally to both kids. But I couldn’t change how I felt about it.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, that we make decisions based on facts and knowledge rather than feelings. Sadly, we’re almost always wrong.
Research at Dartmouth in 2010 is one of many studies that have shown facts have no bearing on what people believe to be true. Not only did proven facts frequently fail to reduce misconceptions, they often had a backfire effect, where corrections increased how strongly people held onto their mistaken beliefs.
This effect is particularly strong in the highly-charged arena of parenting. Choosing to have children is not just a decision about lifestyle or future, it is viewed as a moral imperative and moral outrage is the inevitable outcome of perceived failures.
Most fathers probably know they should treat their sons and daughters equally but when feelings collide with knowledge, feelings will always win. Fathers who believe in traditional roles for women will probably expect their daughters should do more housework than their sons. They are more likely to feel threatened and disapproving of their daughters expressing sexuality, ambition or defiance than if their sons were to do the same.
So what can be done to change this conditioning? Jan Kabatek says the first step is being aware of it.
“Our findings do suggest that father’s adoption of more egalitarian attitudes to gender roles can improve the relationships within the family, however proving that this is indeed the case (and finding an effective way to change the attitudes) will require much more research. In any case, a good way to start is to simply raise awareness of these issues among parents,” he says.
“Struggles with children will still happen, but better preparation and knowledge of the wants and needs of their teenagers may well reduce the strain between partners.”