Some years ago I was trying to think of a way to get my students in my Sociology of the Family course to see how the ideal of mothering and fathering is socially constructed. The textbook we were using at the time certainly made this point but, from class discussion, it was pretty clear that students saw parenting in terms of sex-irreducible gender roles (Starbuck 2010, p16) 1 , i.e. the behaviors of mothers and fathers arise solely from the basic sex differences between men and women. Women get pregnant so they stay home and nurture children. Men do not get pregnant so they do not nurture children but leave the house to make money. As we discussed mothering and fathering in class, often it would come out in discussion that the mothers and fathers of my students often shared similar behaviors or characteristics. But I still felt that the students were downplaying those similarities as exceptions to the rule. So I started doing the following exercise. 2
I teach the course as a relatively large (65 student) lecture-based class. At least one class session prior to our discussion of parenting, I split the class down the middle. I have the students take out a piece of paper and have half of the class write MOM at the top of the paper and the other half write DAD at the top of the paper. I then tell them to write down the 5 most important characteristics of a good MOM or DAD (depending on which group they are in). I emphasize the word “good” because I am trying to get them to think about the ideal of mothering and fathering. When they are done, they hand them in. I often will have them put their name on the paper and give them a couple points extra credit.
Before the next class in which we discuss parenting, I go through the papers and pull 10 of them — 5 MOMs and 5 DADs. I try to pull some that are “traditional” descriptions (e.g. use the word nurture for MOM, breadwinner for DAD) and some that are non-traditional (e.g. use the word nurture for DAD, breadwinner for MOM) or neutral (e.g. do not use either the word nurture or breadwinner) descriptions. In the years I have been doing this, I have never had a problem pulling a mixture of descriptions.
In the class we discuss parenting I start out by discussing the perspective of sex-irreducible gender roles. I then tell the class we are going to have a “quiz” to see how good they are at recognizing descriptions of mothers and fathers. Sometimes I will have them take the quiz in their notes. Sometimes I will have them hand it in for a few points extra credit. I usually preface the quiz by 1) reminding them that the description I’m about to read are the ones they themselves wrote down in the earlier class and 2) noting that if mothering and fathering is totally based on biology, and thus mothers and fathers are totally different in their behaviors, each description should be easy to recognize and everyone should get 100% correct.
I then read the 10 descriptions to the students pausing after each one to have them write down whether they think the description is of a mother or a father. Once we are done with all 10, I ask them how confident they are that they got them all correct. Usually a few students will raise their hands to indicate that they are fairly confident. We have a brief discussion at that point as to why the entire class is not confident they got them all correct. Students usually offer some version of “they all sounded the same” as an explanation. I then remind them that they came up with the descriptions. We then go back through each description. I read it again.
I have the class say out loud what their answer was. Usually there is disagreement on each description. I ask each group why they answered the way they did. This brings out a discussion of stereotypical characteristics which the students look for as clues. I then tell them what the “answer” was – if it was a MOM or a DAD. At this point there are a lot of “YES!” and “What?” responses. When we have gone through all 10 descriptions and the students have “graded” their “quizzes,” I ask how many students got them all correct. The highest I’ve had in the years I’ve been doing this exercise is 8 out of 10 and that has only been one or two students each semester. The average for the class is about 5 correct — usually the number of “traditional” descriptions I include in the mix.
“Why it is the case that the majority of the class only got about 50% correct,” to segue into a discussion of how culture and society affects ideals of parenthood and the actual behaviors of parents. I ask them why many of the descriptions “sounded the same” in that the same descriptors were used for both moms and dads. Students usually draw on their own experiences pointing out that their parent (mom or dad) was a single parent and therefore did “double-duty” as mom and dad or both of their parents were in the paid labor force and therefore shared parenting duties. A few students each semester have stay-at-home dads who for various reasons (disability, unemployment, personal preference) took over “mom” duties.
I have never done a formal assessment of this exercise so I cannot say with any surety what impact it has on my students. However, the feedback I get through the class discussion has been entirely positive and my own impression of the discussion following the “quiz” is that students are more open to examining the cultural and structural factors that affect parenting. Students also write a paper at the end of the analyzing the experiences of three generations of their own families based on the topics we have discussed in class. Most of them seem to have “gotten” the point of the discussion on parenting in that they incorporate it into their papers. Either that or they are just trying to make me happy!
1. Gene H. Starbuck. 2010. Families in Context, Second Edition Revised and Updated. Paradigm Press
2.In the interest of full disclosure, I have been doing this exercise for at least 8 years now and do not remember if I got the idea from someone else. I do read Teaching Sociology so if I am borrowing someone else’s exercise without proper attribution, I apologize.