Parents and Their Preschoolers

A working paper (abstract; PDF) from economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan advances another possible explanation for the lagging academic performance of boys — preschool boys, at least.  Here’s the abstract:

We study differences in the time parents spend with boys and girls at preschool ages in Canada, the UK and the US. We refine previous evidence that fathers commit more time to boys, showing this greater commitment emerges with age and is not present for very young children. We next examine differences in specific parental teaching activities such as reading and the use of number and letters. We find the parents commit more of this time to girls, starting at ages as young as 9 months. We explore possible explanations of this greater commitment to girls including explicit parental preference and boy-girl differences in costs of these time inputs. Finally, we offer evidence that these differences in time inputs are important: in each country the boy-girl difference in inputs can account for a non-trivial proportion of the boy-girl difference in preschool reading and math scores.

The authors’ results also indicate that the time differences are not due to parents’ gender preferences, but may be related to the opportunity cost of the mother’s time.  “Given that time spent reading with children (primarily boys) increases after the introduction of a new child care subsidy, the parental time inputs we study may not be easily substituted by non-parental care,” they write. “Instead, this finding is consistent with a story in which boys are less rewarding to teach, and parents are more willing to persevere with boys once they are not responsible for their care throughout the day.”


Are you saying that nine month old boys are too busy throwing things to be able to sit still and read? Because it sounds more like parents treat their boys and girls differently and then use those differences as self-fulfilling prophecies.


At 9 months, I was reading to my daughter. At 9 months, my son's reaction to a book was to play tug-of-war. I got plenty of earnest advice on the importance of starting reading early, whenever I confessed to not reading to my son. None of these doom-sayers (by not reading, I was condemning my son to being a high school drop-out) ever appreciated the point that no reading went on when we sat together with a book. When he was old enough, I read to him. He's an advanced reader now.

Both parents and children, even very small children, respond to each other. It's impossible to say who influences whom and to what degree.

Enter your name...

I think that the importance of reading at that age has been overplayed.

A child in my house is going to read. We have some 1500 books and all adults read regularly. Even kids who come to visit end up with a book in hand. In my friend's house, I'm not sure that the adults own even five books. They never read anything longer than a magazine. Is it any wonder that their kids don't think that reading is a normal, everyday thing? (Then they come visit me. ;-)


"Finally, we offer evidence that these differences in time inputs are important: in each country the boy-girl difference in inputs can account for a non-trivial proportion of the boy-girl difference in preschool reading and math scores."

Is someone suggesting that preschool boys might not have the attention span to sit still and learn to read or push a pencil around? I'm amazed that anyone even bothers to test preschoolers on their math and reading scores. It seems like a rather useless test score for predicting future success. As the father of 4 kids (3 boys and 1 girl), I'd much rather see preschoolers outside playing in the dirt and developing their gross motor and sensory skills.


Boys may have more trouble sitting still and paying attention, unlike girls at nine months, because boys naturally have more energy and tend to be more "wild" or "rowdy", i don't think it has anything to do with boys being dumber or even less disciplined it's just that the task of sitting down and learning to read and write may be more difficult for a boy, just like it may be harder to throw a baseball for a girl than a boy can. Boys can definitely overcome the idea of sitting still and paying attention, obviously, which explains a lot of intelligent men in our history (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc.) Certain tasks are easier for one gender than the other and it has been and probably will be like that for a very long time. It is the idea of discipline and training a 9 month old boy to sit down and learn that is the overall challenge, not IF they can do it but WILL they.

Enter your name...

I think you'll find it's more complicated than that.

Sure, if you tested 100 girls and 100 boys as infants, you might find a small natural difference. Boy #50 might be very slightly more wiggly than Girl #50—but probably not more wiggly than Girl #55.

If you test them again as preschoolers, you will find a bigger difference. But you will also find an enormous difference in how their parents treat them.

Boy #50 and Girl #55 were equally wiggly as babies, but Girl #55 got a lot more praise, attention, and rewards than Boy #50 for sitting quietly, looking at the book, and being sweet. Girl #55 also got more opportunities than Boy #50 to practice this behavior, because both of their parents "just knew" that girls could sit still more successfully than boys. The parents expressed slight surprise and disapproval when she didn't sit still, but did not do this when the boy did exactly the same thing.

By contrast, Girl #55 got a lot less praise and a lot less tolerance for being physically active, running around, and making noise. Guess who did less of it?

Is it any wonder that these kids, who started off with the same amount of energy and wiggliness, have developed in ways that favor certain skills or traits?

This is actually easier to understand if you know anything about historical practices. Most of our great-grandparents picked vegetables and fed the chickens when they were preschool age. Half of them were fully toilet trained by the age of 18 months. All their parents "just knew" that of course children could do all these things. But we don't "know" this any more, so we think it's normal for a three year old to still be wearing diapers. So that's what "we know": we "just know" they're not capable of doing what was absolutely normal a century ago. Maybe it would be good to remember that what we "just know" about children's abilities isn't necessarily so.


Ellie F.

I disagree with the argument that this treatment is not based on the parents' gender preferences. Just by personal experiences, i assume that fathers spend more time with their son and mothers spend ore time with their daughters.

I might be jumping to conclusions, but even if the mother or father spends more time helping the child of opposite sex I think it is the effect of the mother or father being more boyish or girlish than normal in their years of growing up or even adulthood.