Sex Roles

, Volume 62, Issue 3–4, pp 278–291

Gender Differences in the ABC’s of the Birds and the Bees: What Mothers Teach Young Children About Sexuality and Reproduction

Original Article


Sexuality education is heavily gendered at adolescence. This study uses data from a national web survey of 631 U.S. mothers of 3 to 6 year old children to test whether similar gender differences exist in what mothers teach their young children about sexuality and reproduction. We test (a) whether mothers will report talking more with daughters or sons about sexuality related issues, and (b) whether mothers will report greater comfort talking about such issues with daughters or sons. We find (a) that mothers talk more to daughters than sons about romantic relationships, reproductive bodies, and morality, but not about sexual abuse or intercourse/pleasure. We find (b) mixed results regarding mothers’ comfort in talking with daughters or sons about sexuality.


Sexual socialization Parent-child communication about sexuality Gender differences Young children Sexuality and reproduction 


  1. Bem, S. L. (1989). Genital knowledge and gender constancy in preschool children. Child Development, 60, 649–662.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Best, R. (1983). We’ve all got scars: What boys and girls learn in elementary school. Bloomington: Indiana University.Google Scholar
  3. Burgess, V., Dziegielewski, S., & Green, C. E. (2005). Improving comfort about sex communication between parents and their adolescents: Practice-based research within a teen sexuality group. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention., 5, P379–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Butler, J. P. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Ceballo, R., Chao, R., Hill, N., Le, H., Murry, V., & Pinderhughes, E. (2008). Excavating culture: Summary of results. Applied Developmental Science., 12, 220–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Couper, M. P., Traugott, M. W., & Lamias, M. J. (2001). Web survey design and administration. The Public Opinion Quarterly., 65, 230–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. De Gaston, J. F., Weed, S., & Jensen, L. (1996). Understanding gender differences in adolescent sexuality. Adolescence, 31, 217–231.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. DiIorio, C., Kelley, M., & Hockenberry-Eaton, M. (1999). Communication about sexual issues: Mothers, fathers, and friends. Journal of Adolescent Health, 24, 181–189.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R., & Robinson, J.P. (2001). Social implications of the internet. 27, 307–336.Google Scholar
  10. Eccles, J. S., Jacobs, J. E., & Harold, R. D. (1990). Gender role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents' socialization of gender differences. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 183–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Feldman, S. S., & Rosenthal, D. A. (2000). The effect of communication characteristics on family members' perceptions of parents as sex educators. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 119–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 29–53.Google Scholar
  13. Fine, M., & McClelland, S. (2006). Sexuality education and desire: Still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review, 76, 297–338.Google Scholar
  14. Frankham, J. (2006). Sexual antimonies and parent/child sex education: learning from foreclosure. Sexualities, 9, 236–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Geasler, M. J., Dannison, L. L., & Edlund, C. J. (1995). Sexuality education of young children: Parental concerns. Family Relations, 44, 184–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Guilamo-Ramos, V., Jaccard, J., Dittus, P., & Collins, S. (2008). Parent-adolescent communication about sexual intercourse: An analysis of maternal reluctance to communicate. Health Psychology, 27, 760–769.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Higonnet, A. (1998). Pictures of innocence: The history and crisis of ideal childhood. New York: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar
  18. Hill, N., & Tyson, D. (2008). Excavating culture: Ethnicity and context as preditors of parenting behavior. Applied Developmental Science, 12(4), 188–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hilton, G. L. S. (2001). Sex education—the issues when working with boys. Sex Education, 1, 31–41.Google Scholar
  20. Ingraham, C. (1994). The heterosexual imaginary: Feminist sociology and theories of gender. Sociological Theory, 12, 203–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Irvine, J. (2002). Talk about sex: The battles over sex education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California.Google Scholar
  22. Jaccard, J., & Dittus, P. (1991). Parent-teen communication: Toward the prevention of unintended pregnancies. New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  23. Jackson, S. (1982). Childhood and sexuality- understanding everyday experience. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  24. Kane, E. W. (2006). 'No way my boys are going to be like that!': Parents’ responses to children's gender nonconformity. Gender & Society, 20, 149–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kim, J. L., Sorsoll, C. L., Collins, K., & Zylbergold, B. A. (2007). From sex to sexuality: Exposing the heterosexual script on primetime network television. The Journal of Sex Research, 44, 145.Google Scholar
  26. Kohlberg, L. (1966). Moral education in the schools: A developmental view. School Review, 74, 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the united states. Chicago: University of Chicago.Google Scholar
  28. Martin, K. A. (1996). Puberty, sexuality, and the self: Boys and girls at adolescence. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Martin, K. A. (1998). Becoming a gendered body: Practices of preschools. American Sociological Review, 25, 123–222.Google Scholar
  30. Martin, K. A. (2005). William wants a doll. can he have one?: Feminists, child care advisors, and gender-neutral child rearing. Gender & Society, 19, 456–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Martin, K. A. (2009). Normalizing heterosexuality: mothers’ assumptions, talk, and strategies with young children. American Sociological Review, 74, 190–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children's search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 67–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Martin, K. A., & Kazyak, E. (2009). Hetero-romantic love and heterosexiness in children’s g-rated films. Gender & Society, 23, 315–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McGuffey, C. S. (2005). Engendering trauma: Race, class, and gender reaffirmation after child sexual abuse. Gender & Society, 19, 621–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McLoyd, V., Cauce, A., Takeuchi, D., & Wilson, L. (2000). Marital processes and parental socialization in families of color: A decade review of research. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1070–1093.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Measor, L. (2004). Young people’s views of sex education: Gender, information and knowledge. Sex Education, 4, 153–166.Google Scholar
  37. Miller, K., Kotchick, B., Dorsey, S., Forehand, R., & Ham, A. (1998). Family communication about sex: What are parents saying and are their adolescents listening? Family Planning Perspectives. 30.Google Scholar
  38. Moore, L. (2003). ‘Billy the sad sperm with no tail’: Representations of sperm in children’s books. Sexualities., 6, 277–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nolin, M. J., & Petersen, K. K. (1992). Gender differences in parent-child communication about sexuality: An exploratory study. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7, 59–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Omar, H., McElderry, D., & Zakharia, R. (2003). Educating adolescents about puberty: What are we missing? International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 15, 79–83.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Raffaelli, M., & Green, S. (2003). Parent-adolescent communication about sex; retrospective reports by latino college students. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 474–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Raffaelli, M., Bogenschneider, K., & Flood, M. F. (1998). Parent-teen communication about sexual topics. Journal of Family Issues, 19, 315–333.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Raffaelli, M., Smart, L. A., Horn, S. C. V., Hohbein, A. D., & Al, E. (1999). Do mothers and teens disagree about sexual communication? A methodological reappraisal. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28, 395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Regnerus, M. D. (2005). Talking about sex: Religion and patterns of parent-child communication about sex and contraception. The Sociological Quarterly, 46, 79–105.Google Scholar
  45. Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs, 5, 631–660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Robinson, K. (2005). Childhood and sexuality: Adults constuctions and silenced children. In J. Mason & T. Fattore (Eds.), Children taken seriously: In theory, policy and practice (pp. 66–76). London: Kingsley.Google Scholar
  47. Rosenthal, D. A., & Feldman, S. S. (1999). The importance of importance: Adolescents’ perceptions of parental communication about sexuality. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 835–851.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Schalet, A. (2000). Raging hormones, regulated love: Adolescent sexuality and the constitution of the modern individual in the United States and the Netherlands. Body & Society, 6, 75–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schalet, A. (2004). Must we fear adolescent sexuality? Medscape, 6, 44.Google Scholar
  50. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). (2004). Guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education: Kindergarten-12th grade, (3 rd ed.). Retrieved from
  51. Simon, R., Eder, D., & Evans, K. (1992). The development of feeling norms underlying romantic love among adolescent females. Social Psychology Quarterly, 55, 29–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Somers, C. L., & Surmann, A. T. (2004). Adolescents' preferences for source of sex education. Child Study Journal, 34, 47–59.Google Scholar
  53. Sprecher, S., Harris, G., & Meyers, A. (2008). Perceptions of sources of sex education and targets of sex communication: Sociodemographic and cohort effects. Journal of Sex Research., 54, 17–26.Google Scholar
  54. Tolman, D. (2002). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University.Google Scholar
  55. van der Valk, I., Spruijt, E., de Goede, M., Larsen, H., & Meeus, W. (2008). Family traditionalism and family structure: Attitudes and intergeneracional transmission of parents and adolescents. European Psychologist., 13, 83–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ward, L. M. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of american youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review, 23, 347–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Ward, L. M., & Wyatt, G. (1994). The effects of childhood sexual messages on African American and white women's adolescent sexual behavior. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 183–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Weaver, A. D., Byers, E. S., Sears, H. A., Cohen, J. N., & Randall, H. E. S. (2002). Sexual health education at school and at home: Attitudes and experiences of New Brunswick parents. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 11, 19–31.Google Scholar
  59. Witt, S. D. (2000). The influence of television on children's gender role socialization. Childhood Education, 76, 322.Google Scholar
  60. Wright, D., & Young, R. (1998). The effects of family structure and maternal employment on the development of gender-related attitudes among men and women. Journal of Family Issues, 19, 300–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

Personalised recommendations