Mother doing dishes while son looks on

Pre-schoolers are like little sponges in their ability to absorb an incredible amount of information about how the world around them works. A team of UC and Texas A&M researchers has found that in addition to foundational skills - like counting and ideas about fairness - developed during this critical period, children are also actively observing - and normalizing - social inequality. The source? An unequal and gendered division of household labor. 

“We found that as early as the preschool age, children already know moms do more housework and childcare than dads. And at this young age, they find that to be fair,” says coauthor Nadia Chernyak, UCI assistant professor of cognitive sciences. “The origins of how we come to normalize structural inequalities, especially gender inequalities may start in early childhood. If we have any hope of changing societal structures we find to be unfair, we need to start having conversations with children early on about what they’re observing and why.”

To understand this phenomenon, researchers interviewed 215 3- to 10-year-olds across the U.S. and China and at least one of their caregivers. Separately, child and adult participants reported who does more work across several categories of commonly studied household and childcare tasks. For each chore, children and adults could indicate that dads do more, moms do more, or they do about the same.

“We wanted to pinpoint the developmental onset of children’s understanding of their family’s gendered distribution of labor by asking children directly, and then comparing their answers to the parent report,” says Chernyak.

Both children and caregivers from the U.S. and China reported that mothers in the family do most of the family labor. And both groups normalized the inequality, stating they judged their family’s housework and childcare chore distribution to be fair, with U.S. adults most likely to rate the division of duties as fair when compared with adult counterparts in China. Findings, says Chernyak, could point to potential consequences including girls’ expectations of future inequality and lower involvement in STEM careers. Similarly, coauthor Allegra Midgette, Texas A&M University assistant professor in psychological and brain sciences, notes that the findings can also potentially explain boys' lower involvement in HEED (healthcare, early education, and domestic labor) given the gendering of such labor that children are exposed to early on.

“By the preschool age, across two distinct cultural contexts, children recognized the unequal distribution of labor in their household and deemed it to be fair,” says Chernyak. “While we do not want to use these findings to inform what ought to happen within any individual family, we do believe our work points to the critical value of discussing with young children the structural, family and personal causes of gendering labor and provides evidence of preschool age as an appropriate developmental time window during which to do so.”

Midgette suggests that the findings highlight the need for parents to think not only about how to make sure children are cared for, but also what lessons children may be learning from observing how parents take on such care.

“We often think of children as recipients of parental care (often increasing the chores needed to be done around the house), but don’t often think about what they are learning and observing when they see how parents approach caring for them,” she says.

Findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Additional coauthors on this work include Danyang Ma, graduate student in psychology, UC Riverside, and Lucy M. Stowe, graduate student in developmental psychology, UC Davis.

Partial funding for this study was provided by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant.

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences
-photo courtesy of zoranm/iStock

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