Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Children’s Picture Books Retain Stubborn Stereotypes

• July 16, 2013 • 4:00 AM


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

Follow us

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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