Editor's Pick - September 2023
Parental son preference and depression in later life: The moderating role of childhood friendship experience
The authors investigated the relationship between parental son preference experienced during childhood and depression symptoms among Chinese men and women aged 45 years and over. They also assessed the childhood friendship experience of these people, to explore whether having a close friend as a child could mitigate the effect of experiencing parental son preference on developing symptoms of depression in later adulthood. Data were obtained from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Studies conducted in 2014 and 2018.
Most societies in the world have been, or are still, patriarchal, so this research topic is of universal interest. In China, the authors observe, “the concept that the status of men is above that of women has become an important feature of traditional culture.” Even in the current era of industrialization, under China’s one-child policy that ended only in 2016, son preference was implicit. As the authors point out, this was even more explicit prior to 1979 when if the first child of a rural family was a girl, a second child could be born.
The average age of the study sample was over 60 and only one in five lived in urban areas. As the authors of this study observe, “the model for, and content of social production in rural areas are still dominated by male productivity requiring greater physical strength,” it seems very likely that the cultural environment would have been traditional for the large majority of the sample..
In their assessment, the authors took into consideration the fact that although son preference is aimed at women, there may also be spillover effects on men's health. When it leads to gender segregation of peer relationships in early childhood, parental son preference can hinder boys’ ability to benefit from diversity in their friendships and, thus, could limit their learning about how to interact with peers with different skills, backgrounds, and interests.
However, the results in the study clearly showed that, in later life, women who had experienced parental son preference in childhood had more symptoms of depression than men who had this experience, and the positive correlation found in the study was persistent and cumulative. Furthermore, analysis showed that rural women were more prone to these symptoms of depression than urban women.
The authors found that having a close friend in childhood could be helpful, in alleviating depression symptoms in later life after experiencing parental son preference. Again, their results showed that the alleviation effect was greater for women than it was for men.
Beyond the actual scope of this interesting study, it provokes thought about how parenting is impacted by deeply embedded cultural beliefs to the detriment of the life experience and mental health of girls and women. The authors drew attention to how “the ancient mode of agricultural production by ploughing” had bred the concept of gender role many centuries ago. Because of the physical strength required, this role central to the family’s continuing food production was a task done only by men.
But the wish for a “son and heir” is not based exclusively on the practicalities of the relative physical capabilities of boys and girls, and can exist in societies that are no longer exclusively agricultural. Thus, in any society it is quite possible that parental son preference may still be an influence in the mental health status of women in later life.
Dorothy Pilkington | Copyeditor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal
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