Menus Subscribe Search
leave-it-to-beaver

Leave It to Beaver. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF MCA TELEVISION)

Children’s Picture Books Retain Stubborn Stereotypes

• July 16, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Leave It to Beaver. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF MCA TELEVISION)

A new survey of children’s picture books finds gender stereotypes—nurturing mothers, breadwinning fathers—remain stubbornly persistent.

It is a fictional portrait of a world in which traditional family roles prevail. Mothers do the caring and nurturing, while fathers are the providers who work outside the home.

The amusingly anachronistic Leave It to Beaver? Sure. But the description also fits some of today’s most acclaimed picture books for children.

That’s the conclusion of a recently published study, which finds sex roles in these illustrated stories have been surprising stagnant over the decades.

“Children’s picture books embrace tradition,” reports a research team led by Shepherd University sociologist Amy DeWitt. “Mothers are much more likely to be portrayed nurturing and caring for children, and men are more likely to work outside of the home. “These depictions have not significantly changed over time, so that these storybook characters often inhabit a bygone, male breadwinner-female homemaker era.”

“If children continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted.”

DeWitt and her colleagues analyzed a random sample of 300 “easy children’s books” from the more than 1,400 listed in the Children’s Catalog. That directory features volumes “selected by an advisory committee of distinguished librarians” and is “used to aid school and community libraries in selecting quality books,” the researchers write in the journal Sex Roles.

They divided the books by their date of publication, starting with a group of 50 published between 1900 and 1959. Additional groups of 50 were chosen from each of the final four decades of the 20th century. A final 50 were chosen from books published in the year 2000.

The researchers looked for specific parental actions and noted whether they were taken by a mother or father. They were broken down into nurturing behaviors (such as expressing affection for or comforting the child), care-giving behaviors (such as preparing meals or cleaning the child), disciplining behaviors (such as spanking or scolding), companionship (such as playing with the child or taking him or her on a recreational outing), and working outside the home.

Not surprisingly, they found a large amount of gender stereotyping. But contrary to their expectations, this tendency did not wane significantly over time.

“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behavior, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” the researchers write. Similarly, mothers outperformed fathers on every care-giving behavior.

Fathers, on the other hand, were “much more likely than mothers to participate in both physical and non-physical play.” And they were much more likely to be portrayed as breadwinners: 26.6 percent of fathers worked outside the home, compared to 5.6 percent of mothers.

The researchers report these stereotypes have softened over the decades, but only slightly and sporadically.

“Fathers in books published in 2000 exhibited increased care-giving and nurturing from previous time periods, and mothers exhibited increased work outside of the home,” DeWitt and her colleagues write. “But the latest trends lack statistical significance, because similar performance peaks occurred in the 1970s depictions, only to drop in subsequent periods.”

Specifically, in the ‘70s—the era when gender roles began to seriously be questioned by large chunks of society—fathers in these picture books were more likely to be portrayed as caring and nurturing. However, this trend “leveled off in later decades,” they report.

The researchers argue that the stubbornness of gender stereotypes matters because young children aren’t simply being entertained by such books—they’re being socialized.

“Consistently seeing mothers in the nurturing and care-giving roles and fathers fulfilling the provider role may impress upon children what role performances are ultimately expected of them as men and women,” they write.

“If children, especially girls, continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted.”

See Jane. See Jane read her first book.

See Jane’s ambitions recede.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.