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How We Talk to Kids: Adults Prefer Different Forms of Language for Children Based on Gender Expression

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Previous research has demonstrated that parents use language differently toward children based on a child’s gender. The current research examines whether adults’ preferences for using two important language forms – mental state language and elaborated language – varies as a function of a child’s gender expression. In two studies, non-parent adults (n = 238) and parents of 3- to 6-year-old children (n = 217) completed the Mental State Input Inventory (MSII). The MSII describes twelve everyday scenarios involving an adult and a child protagonist. The adult participant is asked to nominate their preferred language for interacting with the child in each scenario. In a novel manipulation, the child protagonist’s gender expression was depicted as masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral. Results indicated that both non-parents and parents preferred mental state language significantly more for feminine and gender-neutral children, compared to masculine children. Adult participants also preferred significantly less elaborated language for gender-neutral children compared to masculine and feminine children. These findings suggest that children's gender expression influences how adults prefer to communicate with them. Further, these findings contribute to the existing literature by highlighting the preferences or potential biases in adults’ language use as a function of a child’s gender expression. Understanding these preferences or biases may aid in promoting inclusive and linguistically rich developmental environments for all children, irrespective of their gender expression.

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Correspondence to Callyn Farrell.

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Farrell, C., Slaughter, V., Thai, M. et al. How We Talk to Kids: Adults Prefer Different Forms of Language for Children Based on Gender Expression. Sex Roles 89, 119–134 (2023).

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