Parenting Boys, Parenting Girls

by Miriam Ronzoni on March 16, 2023

There are many reasons why I regularly worry about whether I might be devoting less individualised attention to my daughter than to my son. Some of these reasons are due to genuine, important differences between them, which are reasonable things for a parent to take into account and ponder about, although they do not obviously justify treating them differently. However, even the most uncontroversial “good” reasons (say, one child being ill,) interact with “bad” reasons (gender, first-born privilege, etc.) in ways that generate important complications and conundrums for parents, and thus present interesting questions. Still, I am not going to focus on those here. I had originally written a fairly detailed paragraph about my own “good” reasons, but then decided that my children are entitled to some privacy. So let me just stick to two of the most infamous “bad” reasons, even if that entails giving a partial view of our family life: the fact that one is a boy and the other is a girl, and the fact that the boy is also the eldest child.

Both being the eldest child and being male are correlated to receiving more individualised attention from parents – no surprises here. Why that happens with gender is fairly obvious. When it comes to first-born children, things probably have less to do with societal norms and valuing practices, and more with the sheer demandingness of parenting, which really forces one to come to terms with one’s own finitude. First-born children not only have their parents entirely for themselves for a few years, and thus their parents’ undivided attention through that time; they also receive a different kind of attention. Everything is happening for the first time for parents as well as for children – the sense of wonder, curiosity, and awe is unprecedented, and difficult to repeat. True, I couldn’t sleep the night after my daughter was born because I was so giddy, buzzed, and besotted – but, having gone through very severe pre-eclampsia and a C-section at 31 weeks with my first pregnancy, there was a sense in which I was experiencing certain things for the very first time. Holding my baby straight after birth; her sleeping next to me from the get go; being able to pick her up, change her, and let her latch on immediately – all of these things were a first, not the repetition of something I had already gone through. In other respects, however, I did start wondering quite soon whether I could manage to gather the same sense of amazement and wonder at every little milestone that had just happened naturally the first time around. The other obvious elephant in the room is that parents are going to reach a whole new level of exhaustion with every subsequent child. Finally – and this is somehow connected to the first point about the amazement of “first times,” but it’s not quite the same thing -, the fresh energy of first-time parenthood leads many parents to have a somewhat easier time focusing on the uniqueness of one’s child the first time around: what are they like? Who are they, actually? What is their personality? What are they into? The temptation to go on auto-pilot the second time around (“this worked last time, it’ll work this time, too”) is very difficult to escape all the time. A friend of mine once told me, “I have the feeling that my first born has a sense of their own ego – not necessarily more solid, but more salient – that my younger son doesn’t” – and whilst I am sure there is a lot of projecting stuff onto our children in claims like this, it really resonated with me.

Let me be clear: this is just natural stuff, stuff that even very good parents do – we all just need to cut ourselves, and each other, some slack. My point is just to take a moment to think about it here, not to find the magic strategy that will allow us all not to commit these kinds of “mistakes” (if they even are mistakes) ever again.

Still, I worry – that’s what parents do. And predictably, I worry even more because first-born privilege and gender privilege go in the same direction in my case, hence I sometimes agonise about whether I might be letting down my daughter twice. Yet, today I’d like to point out something else – something that has very much to do with gender and first-born children, but in a less obvious way (at least to me).

What I regularly experience is that, even when I make a deliberate choice to devote energy and time to my daughter; to carve out time alone with her; to follow her lead and do something she is passionate about…I still find it difficult to figure out what her special interests are, and what it might be fun to really dive into with her. Just to be clear, I am not saying that I have to force myself to spend time alone with her – far from it. I absolutely love it, and we always indulge in huge cuddle-fests when it’s just the two of us. But I find it difficult to get lost in an activity with her. We cuddle a lot (like, really a lot), we do a little bit of this and that, but we don’t plunge into one thing and get lost in it – I don’t get out of it thinking “ah, that’s what makes you tick, sweetie, now I know.” With my son, there is a clear sense of stuff that we both love and can do together: for instance, creating with Lego (although he is now much better than me and does most of that on his own) and taking complicated Youtube drawing tutorials together. Ditto with his dad, with other stuff. My daughter ostensibly loves a lot of stuff, but I find it difficult to focus with her on something for a prolonged period of time. We do a drawing; then move on to doing a “hairstyle;” then to something else. She doesn’t seem unhappy, and maybe that’s exactly what she wants. Still, I can’t help wondering whether somehow, in some way, we have inculcated into our son a sense of focusing on his special interests with passion and uniqueness in a way that we have not with her. Of course, this could be all bullshit. They could simply be very different children (and indeed they are). My daughter’s special passions might not have come to the surface yet. Or maybe they have more to do with social interaction (and thus also “pretend play”) than with mastering a craft of some kind (although, again, isn’t that stuff gendered?). Yes, I might very well be overthinking this – and I wouldn’t be the first one. But it’s difficult to find the right balance in these kind of matters: most of the time, as a generation, we realise that we should think about certain things more because someone bothers overthinking about them to begin with. And with gender, this is a classic dynamic: yes, being a “perfect feminist mother” is a recipe for disaster and leads to utterly unspontaneous parenting – yet, spending some time wondering about stuff even when it strikes most people as “natural” and “unproblematic” is a big component of how we have made progress. Indeed, I wonder whether so many gendered differences (not the most blatant ones) come about precisely in this extremely subtle way. Maybe my daughter would like to spend hours doing different hairstyles with me; yet she notices that I find it more boring than trying out a complicated drawing, and she thus moves on to something else. And yes, one of these activities is more heavily gendered than the other; yet, if this is her true passion, transmitting the idea that is a less valuable passion to have because it is traditionally marked as “feminine” is not helpful, either – far from it. I am not sure where I am going with this. Maybe nowhere. Maybe I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that parenting is a b!tch, and gender is a b!tch – and at the same time that both are magnificent (yes, even gender, in its own way). In both cases, there is no answer to the question of what is nature and what is nurture. And in both cases, there is a constant danger both in overthinking and in underthinking things – so our predicament simply is to err a bit too much on one side or another, all the time.





Sumana Harihareswara 03.16.23 at 6:38 pm

I’m a younger child and I appreciated getting to read this. Thanks.


MisterMr 03.16.23 at 6:38 pm

What! I must now defend the honor of firstborn kids!

As a firstborn, I think that while I had all the attentions of my parents for my first 3 years, my younger brother “stole” this attention from me, and could be the small kid of the family for 5 years, and then my younger sister came, and in some ways she still is the “little one” even if she is approaching her 40s.

I was very jealous of my younger brother as a kid (now we have a great relationship and a very strong bond). I don’t think that being born first I got more from my parents than my brother and sister did.
I think you might be overthinking things honestly (heh the great wisdom of someone who’s nerver been a parent, sorry).


John Q 03.16.23 at 6:51 pm

I’m the first-born of three sons, and my parenting experience has also been all male, as father, stepfather and now taking care of a grandson. On my limited experience, it’s “all children are different” that dominates any effects of birth order.


engels 03.16.23 at 6:51 pm

I know this well-trodden ground but I don’t think “privilege” is good way to think about gender (and the real oppression women and other groups suffer), let alone birth order as it equvocates between statistical differences in outcome and categorical differences in treatment in an unhelpful way.

Surplus individualised attention from parents is not necessarily an unequivocal benefit, it seems to me.


Ebenezer Scrooge 03.16.23 at 8:55 pm

I’m an old guy (something I suspect is common for commenters.) I’m old enough to remember when parents tried hard to raise gender-free children in the 1970’s, and kept being surprised by their kids’ embrace of gender roles. (#Notallkids, of course.) I can’t say how much is brain wiring on the bell curve, and how much is cultural pressure beyond a parent’s control. But the Li’l Monsters are going to be whoever they are.


Ray Vinmad 03.16.23 at 8:58 pm

I devote so much time to my children. I laugh when I read the NYT or these parenting articles about how the modern parent does not NEED to spend so much time with their children because the reason I devote so much time to my children is that they insist that I devote so much time to them.

Parental guilt and anxiety drives us a lot. We should not worry so much, it’s true. The children need our love and care. And it is impossible not to feel guilty. But I think simply responding in some way to that other person and their stated need is sufficient. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Our children have zero hesitation to use their emotional intelligence to see that we feel guilty against us. It’s often amusing, if exhausting. Never in my life has my sheer presence and attention—even the presence of my body for them to sit on and grab—been so essential to other people. I thought my grandparents were into me. I thought my siblings were into me. My spouse was into me. (My parents were not that into me. I had a lot of brothers and sisters who were into me so this was fine.) But I did not know what it was like having someone be truly INTO ME until I had kids.

Personally, I think more damaging than lack of attention for children is the demand for perfection or the idea that some ways of being a person are OK and other ways are not OK and causing your children to doubt they are OK—often with an eye to ‘how they will turn out.’ Upper middle-class parents do this to children sometimes. I suspect because they are anxious about class precarity or this is something they learned from their own parents.

The problem in both cases might be the parents attitudes about the child that the child picks up upon. The child is not being fully accepted. Fiercely accepting your child and delighting in whomever they happen to be at the moment is probably better than any amount of attention or specific forms of enrichment. The benefit is that it can make your child self-accepting and independent. The risk is that your child might not be all that successful or perfect in the way you want. The odds are still better that they will be happier, I think? I think you get better odds that they will be more authentically themselves, and also they should have a deeper bond with you which should help them see how other relationships should go in the future. Maybe with a girl who likes girly things when you do not girly things, the challenge would be to try to value them because she values them, and understand they might mean something to her that could turn out to be surprising and not as simple as you suppose and be open to that. Maybe understanding your own children is something like adapting to another culture. You are changing along with your child, slowly appreciating the things they appreciate. My children are outspoken and when I would fret about toys I found sketchy they would yell at me and tell me I didn’t understand. I think this is the best thing for adults to know about children—we do not think like them. We don’t understand. They think differently than we do. In some ways were are smarter than they are but not about them or about what it’s like to be a child. We can be pretty stupid about that and should accept that they are the experts there.


SamChevre 03.16.23 at 10:10 pm

The “two very different children” is hard to avoid as a confounder.

Our two oldest–also boy/girl–are similar in that it’s much easier to do sustained activity with the older/boy. But that seems to me to be most likely “they’re different children”–the girl was exceedingly distractable even as a tiny baby. (My wife found her frustrating to nurse because she stopped every few sucks to look around, just because.)


Miriam Ronzoni 03.16.23 at 10:28 pm

Thanks Sumana!


Miriam Ronzoni 03.16.23 at 10:33 pm

MisterMr: point taken about the first thing you say. I read some research showing that, on average, the unique attention of those first few years is a gift that keeps on giving throughout life for first born children, but also that the trauma of no longer being the only one when younger sibling are born is something they never quite recover from. I tried to dig it up again but couldn’t.
On me overthinking -maybe, but just a bit I think. Then again, I gave you a partial picture because there’s more stuff at play (the “good” reasons I decided to leave out).


Phil 03.16.23 at 11:02 pm

Once, half-drunk, I gave a friend the slightly Zen parenting advice “Don’t freak out. You will freak out, but don’t freak out.” Early-years parenting is tough – you just need to get through it, one day at a time (and nobody ever knows whether they’ve done it right or not). Also, of its nature it’s a (long, gradual) process of separation; you know you’ve succeeded when they walk out of the door without looking back (although you wish they would!).


J-D 03.17.23 at 12:48 am

Insofar as there are birth-order effects (and there must be birth-order effects), they must vary enormously with the age difference. The effect on an older sibling of having a younger sibling born is not going to be the same when the older sibling is (at that point) fifteen as it would be if the older sibling were twelve months old, and the effect on the younger sibling of growing up with a sibling fifteen years older is not going to be the same as growing up with a sibling twelve months older. Siblings twelve months apart and siblings fifteen years apart may compete for their parents’ attention in both cases, but the experience is going to be different both for the parents and for the children.


William S. Berry 03.17.23 at 3:25 am

@John Q (this is John Quiggin, right?!):

On my limited experience, it’s “all children are different” that dominates any effects of birth order.

I was astounded by this comment— but I know that JQ is a very smart fellow who I think I agree with probably 95% of the time so I am going to assume that his idiom has (as idioms do) a distinct context in which it is perfectly rational, and that I just don’t know that context.

When I think of “first-born” I think of white male first-born, and that reminds me that, throughout all of known history, and across all known cultures (of influence), the first-born male has possessed privilege that is light years beyond what any of his siblings, male or female, could ever expect. Not uncommonly, the first-born male heir of an estate of any substance would, upon the death of his father, find himself the lord of his own mother.

Make the fellow a White Westerner and you’ve jumped another light year or so.

On reflection, I might have been ungenerous in my first paragraph. The context might be that of rich (relatively speaking, obviously) nations, where we imagine that real progress has been made wrt the ideas of sexual (and of racial, social, and economic) equality and justice.

And that’s great. Kind of.

But it’s more aspirational than real. If the idea of equality has been alive in human world culture for centuries and all we have to show for it is the present state of affairs (which, compromised and precarious as it is, is now itself in existential crisis, reeling under a nihilistic assault that seriously threatens to prevail)?

Then it looks like we’ve got a hella’ ways to go.

(Really interesting post, Maria. My kids were relatively far apart in years, which makes a big difference, I think, wrt the favoritism question.)


Chris Bertram 03.17.23 at 7:12 am

First-born parent of two boys here. I think later children actually benefit from the fact that their parents are more experienced and less neurotic than they were the first time around. First-borns are both over-parented and are the test bed where parents make mistakes and learn through experience. They also tend to be the repository of parental hopes and ambitions to a greater degree, particularly if male in a sexist culture, which can be hard to bear. I think my (quite young) mother really found me quite difficult to cope with (partly inexperience, partly my native personality). My little brother (3rd child) has a much more relaxed attitude to life than I have ever been able to manage.


Miriam Ronzoni 03.17.23 at 9:13 am

Yes absolutely, there’s that dimension, too. Younger children are often freer. And first born children are too often seen as a “project” (like relationships in the Callard/Manne debate in the New Yorker recently). Indeed, part of what I wrote probably has to do with the fact that parents often can’t help seeing first born children as projects. A Facebook friend commented on this post on Facebook by saying how their first born child grips their attention in a unique way, in a way that is not reciprocal, and how it bothers them but they find it difficult to change that.


Moz in Oz 03.17.23 at 9:47 am

I very much agree with Chris Bertram – by the fifth kid most parents have worked the bugs out of the process and can parent with a degree of assurance that the earlier kids didn’t get. Later kids also benefit from a degree of “that’s odd, we should talk to an expert about it” that earlier kids don’t get.

As a firstborn I got the full effect of parents with high expectations both of me and themselves, making me decidedly twitchy even decades later. My youngest sister is also the much-wanted post-miscarriage child so had both an age gap and a “we got you, and your mother survived!” halo. She’s much more relaxed and got a lot more support growing up.

Firstborn is the experiment, second takes confidence that parenting is something you can do, after that you’re just boasting of your prowess (or your inability/unwillingness to use contraception)


engels 03.17.23 at 11:48 am

If you take the Philip Larkin view of parenting then presumably the less attention, the better. (I could not possibly comment.)

Being a firstborn seems overrated unless you get titles and land and was a liability in ancient Egyptian pandemics.


Ray Vinmad 03.18.23 at 5:55 am

Chris Bertram, you are right. I used to know this amazing woman at the drop in daycare at the YMCA who had 18 children. 18! And I would ask her endless questions about parenting. She was so understanding about how one little child could be so hard after she had raised 18 kids. How would I account for my failures. I loved that she said to tell my child “just tell her you are mama’s first pancake!” She was kidding because of course you should never tell your child that. Even so, it was true. I am sure I am making the same mistakes but I don’t notice the mistakes as much as I did with my first. This is probably good overall.

Parents getting mellow with age wasn’t the way it worked out in my largish family because the last child was the only boy. This was extremely significant to my parents. So there was laser focus upon him but even so—he is so much more laid back than the rest of us.


Cara Nine 03.18.23 at 8:51 am

Parent of an only child– I love your post. I can confirm that these are issues not faced (or at least not faced in the same way) by a parent of a single child.

But, as somebody without first-hand experience from the parent-side, I wonder if you are putting too much of the burden on the parents?

I also see a lot of difference for both older and younger children, regardless of gender, in how they relate to each other. Younger children can be confidants, playmates, and little recipients of older-sibling attention and affection. I’ve seen beautiful, loving relationships between siblings that shape the younger child by instilling confidence, boosting their knowledge base, and making them feel loved and wanted. This also benefits the older child by teaching them patience and by making them feel like they are getting a ‘gift’ of a little sibling instead of a competitor for parental attention. I’ve heard a children say exactly that – their younger sibling was meant for them. In your example, say, this could be the older child taking the time to play intensely with the younger child doing an activity that the younger child wants to do (instead of you doing this with your child).
And, on the other hand, I’ve seen relationships where the younger child is treated by the older as an annoyance, a thief of parental time, love and attention, and generally something about which the only thing desired is their absence. The older child develops a sense of entitlement and neglect, and the younger can absorb what is projected onto them.
In these cases, I have never been able to point to anything that I would say (as a total layperson) made the relationship go one way or the other– it seems to be determined mostly by the native personality of the older sibling/s. But I’d guess parents who have kids who have developed loving friendships with each other probably can breathe a bit easier about their kid/s emotional well-being….


Miriam Ronzoni 03.19.23 at 7:38 pm

Hi Cara! Thanks, and yes I am absolutely sure I am putting too much burden on the parent! Indeed, part of the point of the post was also to acknowledge that it is easy to overthink this.


AndrewMcK 03.20.23 at 4:23 am

Chris Bertram@ 13. My #2 daughter sometimes refers to her elder sister as ‘the beta model’. As well as being funny, I think this raises the possibility of adaptive strategies being as important as initial conditions in determining outcomes.


Trader Joe 03.20.23 at 1:33 pm

In my family I am the oldest of 5 children. 3 of us (all boys) were born close together and when my parents were quite young (they were 26 when the third of us was born). My other two sibs, 1 boy 1 girl, are 10 and 12 years younger than I am. I sometimes joke the later two were born to different parents entirely.

When the first 3 of us were young both parents worked at comparatively low wage jobs.
They didn’t have a lot of free time and spent a lot of that covering household chores. Probably near median household income, but their time was scarce and since it was the inflationary 70s resources always seemed pretty thin. We shopped at discount retail, had ‘stay-cations’ and while I can’t say we wanted for much there wasn’t much extra either.

By contrast by the time my 2 youngest sibs were born both parents had been promoted to more managerial roles, the economy of the 80s was booming and my parents had far more resource – both time and money (outsourcing some household chores), as well as much greater experience as parents and the sort of patience that comes with experience and not being a frazzled 20-something with 3 kids trying to make ends meet.

While I can see clearly that many of my parent’s basic philosophies about how to parent, discipline, support, comfort etc. were reasonably constant across all of us, those environmental factors had an influence – to a great extent we were raised in different environments despite constant parenting.

As people the five of us have many differences – exactly how much is our own personality and how much was sculpted by the environment is not easily knowable. Myself and my 4th brother (the older of the latter two) are the most alike and my sister, who is also youngest is the most differentiated not just by gender but in life outlook and disposition – is this birth order, gender, parenting, wealth effect? How could we ever know.

I think its a very interesting topic – but also one that is hard to get too empirical about.


J-D 03.21.23 at 2:15 am

My point is just to take a moment to think about it here, not to find the magic strategy that will allow us all not to commit these kinds of “mistakes” (if they even are mistakes) ever again.

It would be a good thing if adults generally spent more time thinking about how they treat children generally (not just their own). The inequality between adults and children is the most fundamental inequality in every human society, and always will be. A lot of children may have a lot more capacity to look after themselves than a lot of adults give them credit for, but every society is always going to have to be structured around adults looking after children to some extent.


TM 03.21.23 at 9:04 am

Youngest of five here. The question that comes to my mind is: how much time do the children spend with each other, or other children, without adults around?


engels 03.21.23 at 3:38 pm

The question that comes to my mind is: how much time do the children spend with each other, or other children, without adults around?

Influential take on the class infections of this (and “parenting” in general) that got a lot of discussion on CT back in the day:


TM 03.22.23 at 10:14 am

engels 24: I haven’t read the book and won’t read it any time soon. What is your message?


engels 03.22.23 at 10:28 pm

What is your message?

That you might find Lareau interesting on that point, I guess.


Michael B 03.23.23 at 5:08 pm

I may be misinterpreting your worry here, but I found myself focused more on the concern that your daughter is not cultivating deep interest in specific hobbies, passions, etc rather than a worry about the exact distribution of your labor/energy as a parent (or at least, the former concern seemed to be the implied cause of this latter concern relating to quality time). And the worry extends to your ability to connect with her because you value being able to explore and cultivate the passions of your children. [Of course, correct me if I’m wrong]

I wonder if there is a mechanism whereby culture makes it easier for young men to find , develop, or express these types of passions. I don’t have any actual evidence for this, but I have an instinct that young women face more social pressure to fit a tighter mold of acceptable interests than young men do. Or, maybe more accurately, that the socially acceptable mold for boys/men permits a wider range of “nerdy” (obsessive and particular) interests than the mold for girls/women.


EB 03.24.23 at 4:22 pm

Two thoughts (from the mother of 3 — boy, girl, girl, all born w/in 5 years.

Being first born and male did not make it easier for me (or his father) to join our son in his passions. He was introverted, somewhat glum, and resistant to much parental intrusion into his world. His passion turned out to be computers, which is a world I would not know how to really enter. But we did not shape or participate in our daughters’ passions, either (animals, the arts). Their personalities and abilities had much more to do with giving them entree into their interests. We could be encouraging but not actively participate.
Could it be that your son’s premature lbirth had something to do with your intentness on nurturing his interests — as a follow up to your probably high interest in his well-being and development from the get-go?

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