Gender Preferences in Adoption: Snips & Snails v. Sugar & Spice
The old nursery rhyme presents the choice quite succinctly: you can have snips, snails, and puppy dog tails (presumably along with tailless dogs) or you can have sugar, spice and all things nice. Most adoptive parents prefer sugar and spice. Gender preference in adoption is very real.
Adoption agencies, both domestic and international, tell me that if given a choice, 75-80% of adoptive parents prefer to adopt girls. It’s a sad irony that there are more boys available for adoption than girls. Interestingly, numerous researcher have found that parents expecting a child by birth prefer a boy, at least for their first child. Issues like this intrigue me, so I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit thinking about why adoptive parents prefer to adopt girls.
Woman Want to Adopt Girls
Women are usually the drivers in the adoption process and many women prefer to parent girls. As with most issues of the heart, the reasons aren’t entirely clear. They may want to enjoy the same gender specific activities and toys of their childhood, or they think they will have a better handle on how to raise girls, having been one themselves. Single woman often prefer girls because they believe it will be easier to raise a daughter without a father. But I think the reason may be deeper. I believe that many women are afraid of raising boys, assuming that boys are more active, disruptive, loud, and dirty; and that teenage boys will engage in more risky or challenging behavior.
What the Research Says
There isn’t a lot of research on parental gender preference, but the limited research that is available shows that many women think that their husbands are also more comfortable raising a girl. Dr. Kristine Freeark, a clinical psychologist specializing in adoption and a professor at the University of Michigan, notes that the perception of what the husband wants is a very influential factor in preferring a girl. She points out that her research does not address whether this perception is accurate.
The matriarchal nature of our society may also play a role. It is more often the daughters that are the keepers of the family traditions, planners of the family reunions, and schedulers of the grandparent visits. Parents may subconsciously be trying to position themselves on the inside track with their adult child’s family.
Daughters are also more likely to be the caregivers for aging parents. As my husband, Peter, so inelegantly tells our kids, “In a couple of years I’m going to need someone to wipe the drool off my chin, and one of you will be the lucky one.” (He says this to both our sons and daughters who are equally disgusted at the thought.) We all know exceptions to this generalization, and we expect that our son will be one of these exceptions; but, perhaps on a subconscious level, parents may think daughters are a surer bet for being old-age drool wipers.
The Dress Up Factor
There is also what I call the “China doll” effect. Girls, especially Asian and Latino girls, are sometimes perceived as pretty little dolls to be dressed up and looked at. They often receive attention for their looks and parents may enjoy the reflected glory. Regardless of race or ethnicity, many mothers look forward to buying clothes for their baby girl and putting their hair up in cute little pigtails or topnots.
Don’t misunderstand me: life is undoubtedly easier for the attractive and enjoying your child’s beauty and the compliments they receive is fine. I think, however, it helps to acknowledge if this is part of the motivation for wanting a girl since not all girls gracefully fit this stereotype. You may get one of the rough and tumble, nose-picking variety. Even if your daughter fits the bill, you will have the added challenge of helping her understand that she is more than her looks; she is also smart, strong, and capable.
Scary Boy Factor
The reverse of the China doll syndrome is the “scary minority adolescent male” syndrome. I think male teens have a negative image in our society, and this is especially the case with minority males. Parents may have this stereotype in mind when thinking about parenting a black, Hispanic or Asian boy. Plus, President Obama not withstanding, there are not as many positive male role models in the media for Latinos, Asians, and African Americans. It is hard for many parents to imagine parenting Jackie Chan.
And then there is the cuddle factor. Most parents begin the adoption journey after spending years dealing with infertility. These years of pent up desire for a child to hold and nurture can feed the desire to adopt a girl since girls are perceived as being more affectionate and responsive to cuddling. Further, our society discourages doting on boys. One woman I talked to summed it up well, “It is more socially acceptable to spoil a girl, and quite frankly, I want to do some spoiling.”
The family name has traditionally been passed through the males of a family and some families are less willing to have a male outside their blood line carry the name into future generations. Most liberated modern folks don’t consciously subscribe to this belief, but on an unconscious level they may be vulnerable or may think that grandparents will be more accepting of an adopted daughter since she would have less impact on the family name.
My View from the Trenches
Before starting my family I definitely sided with the sugar and spice side in the battle of the sexes. Now, two sons and two daughters later, I have a different view. While I would never deny that there are differences between boys and girls, my experience and research shows that there are more differences within a gender than there are between the genders. Also, the “easiest” has more to do with the personality of the child and the parent than on the gender. The child that we find easiest to raise is usually the child that fits the best with our personality.
While the loudest of my children is a boy, one daughter is a close second. The calmest of my children is a boy. The most talkative of my kids is a boy, but the one who talks most freely about emotions is a girl. I should also add that the one least likely to share her emotions is the other girl. By far the sweetest of all my kids is a boy (at least that was the case until he turned 13, but I’ve concluded that all 13 year olds are developmentally incapable of being sweet, and I still have hope that he’ll revert to his sweet self when he is older). All four of mine are slobs and pack rats. All four hated showers, brushing teeth, changing underwear, and all other forms of personal hygiene until the appeal of the opposite sex beckoned.
I haven’t seen much difference in parental anxiety in the teen years based on the gender of the child. I worry about them all, and the one I worry about the most changes daily. If forced to pick, I’d have to say that the “hardest” is one son, but the “easiest” is the other son—so far at least. But I still have one daughter left to go, so all bets are off.
Undeniably, girls are more fun to dress until they develop a fashion sense of their own (and I use the word “fashion” quite loosely), which usually hits around the age of five. From that point on they are harder and more expensive to dress. As they age, you find yourself forced to ask questions such as “Who in their right mind would pay that much for a pair of jeans?” and “Where, outside of a red light district, would you wear that?”
I now feel blessed to have children of both genders and of all different personality types. The “easiest” varies depending on developmental stage (mine and theirs) and personality (mine and theirs). For me, a little snail and tail mixed with my sugar and spice is the best of all worlds.
Did you have a preference of gender when you adopted? If so, why?Originally published in 2009. Updated in 2015 Image credit: jcbonbon (note cards available)