Having a daughter makes you more risk-averse

Recently, we had friends pop round for some dinner with their one year old daughter. It was an eye-opening experience – we had a lovely evening but I found myself spending a lot of time hovering around, trying to ensure that our friends’ toddler didn’t injure themselves on our non-baby-proofed flat. It turns out we’ve been obliviously living in the set for Indiana Jones and the Deadly Coffee Table for over four years.

This nervousness came to mind when I read about a recent study, that found expectant parents are less likely to take risks when they know they are having a girl, compared to when they’re having a boy.

The researchers from Universities of Warwick and Harvard asked a total of 600 expectant parents at various points during pregnancy and after the baby’s birth, to fill out questionnaires that calculate their ‘risk aversion score’ – a measure of where they lie on the scale between daredevil and scaredy-cat.

After 20 weeks, once the sex of the baby was known, parents who would be having daughters were around twice as averse to risk as parents of sons – an effect which also persisted for a short time after birth. However, for parents of sons, there was no difference in risk aversion before or after finding out the sex of their baby.

Presenting the results at the recent Society for Risk Analysis conference in Lisbon, the researchers are confident that it is knowing the sex of the child, rather than any other explanation, that is the cause of this increase in risk aversion, for two main reasons.

Firstly, before knowing the sex of their baby, there was no difference in the parents’ risk aversion regardless of whether they would later have a girl or a boy. Secondly, the same increase in risk aversion is seen in both mums and dads, so a direct biological effect caused by unborn daughters on the pregnant mother can be ruled out.

The researchers are not sure exactly why parents become more risk-averse when they discover they’ll be having a daughter, but not when they find out they’ll be having a son. They speculate that it could be a response to the perceived roles of men and women in society – women being ‘softer’, men being more ‘hardy’ – but this is something that would have to be studied in future research.

The risk aversion test was a generic test, and did not ask questions that relate to their sons or daughters or parenting in general. But personally, I’d be interested to know whether the difference in risk aversion between parents of boys and girls translates into changes in behaviour – whether it changes their parenting styles as a result, or affects the choices they make regarding nutrition, healthcare, or vaccination, for example.

Looking at my wife and I, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we’re not exactly thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies – on holiday, you’re as unlikely to see us bungy-jumping or whitewater rafting, as you are to witness us leaving the hotel without a guidebook. And I don’t think becoming a parents has changed that. When our daughter was born, I carried her around like a handful of eggs – like I imagine all new parents do, I’d assumed that as a baby she was much more fragile than she really was.

Our daughter is not yet old enough to be a serious danger to herself, but there will be a time when it’s her turn to run around the kitchen and attempt to stick her head in the oven. And it’s inevitable that I’ll be a bit nervous when she’s old enough to climb trees, go swimming, or ride a bike – but it’s impossible to say, without a son to compare to, whether it’s because she’s a girl or just because she’s our kid. But having new experiences and sometimes taking risks is part of growing up – and of life – and I certainly hope I will occasionally find the courage to not hold her back.

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