Parents' Interests Influence Girls' Activities
Wed Sep 29, 2004
By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - New research shows that kids really do tend to follow in their parents' footsteps, at least in terms of how they choose to spend their free time.

Investigators found that girls tend to engage in the activities that their parents also enjoy or participate in. Mothers' choices of activities appeared to particularly influence girls during mid-childhood, between 8 and 10 years old, while fathers' interests tended to hold sway over girls through adolescence.

"Mothers are kind of getting things going, but the fathers are very important," study author Dr. Susan M. McHale of Penn State University in University Park in Pennsylvania told Reuters Health.

"What keeps girls staying involved is fathers' interest," she added.

McHale noted that girls appeared to particularly notice when their parents enjoyed activities typically associated with another gender. For instance, if their mothers were very interested in sports, girls were more likely to like sports than if their fathers enjoyed the activity. "It stands out, and girls notice it," she said.

McHale noted that she hopes parents learn from these findings how important it is to share their interests with their children.

"Your daughter needs to know what you're like," she said.

To investigate why girls decide to spend time on different activities throughout childhood and adolescence, McHale and her colleagues followed nearly 300 white working- and middle-class girls between the ages of 8 and 15 for 2 years. Once a year, the researchers re-contacted the girls and asked them how they spend their time.

Reporting in the journal Child Development, McHale and her team found that girls' interest in activities typically more common in boys, such as sports, tended to increase until they reached age 13, then decreased through age 17.

In contrast, girls' interest in more feminine activities, including playing with dolls and dancing, appeared to peak at age 9, and decrease at an earlier age.

In an interview, McHale explained that this pattern may reflect the fact that society generally values masculine activities more than feminine pursuits. As they get older, girls may pick up on this, and decide to abandon their dolls before their "Legos," she said.

McHale and her team also found that sex hormones appeared to influence girls' activities only during middle childhood, between 8 and 10 years of age. Specifically, girls at that age with low testosterone tended to pursue more feminine activities, while girls with higher levels of the male sex hormone spent less time at feminine activities.

The researcher suggested that girls may be more influenced by their hormones during middle childhood because that is typically a period of extreme upheaval, when their bodies are changing, friends are changing, and many girls start a new school. Once their lives settle down, however, girls may become more influenced by social norms and other factors when choosing how to spend their time, McHale said.

SOURCE: Child Development, September 2004.