Raising Trouble: Girls vs. Boys

A study released yesterday of prospective adoptive parents found a big, fat quantifiable preference for girls. A team of CalTech economists found, looking at one online adoption agency over a five-year period, that girls were one-third more likely to attract the attention of adoptive parents than boys – and remember, economists are willing to ask some of the creepy questions that the rest of us might feel dirty for even wondering – parents were willing to pay $16,000 more in finalization costs to adopt a girl than a boy.

This is all somewhat surprising because biological parents, when they do use ultrasound and abortion to choose a kid's sex, tend to select boys over girls.

Really, people? It seems horrifying to care so much either way, when babies and kids of both sexes are so charming. In my son's dance class last summer, when the kids would select props, always with a hint of tension over their favorite items, the kids were taught to chant cheerfully, "You get what you get, and you don't get upset." Perhaps it's because I'm a New England Puritan, but this seems a useful ditty for parents as well.

Sex-selective abortions seem to occur mostly in cultures where girls are not valued, or are particularly costly, because of dowries, for example. (Of course I think people should be allowed to make their own reproductive choices, legally. But if we're not comfortable saying that sex selection is a dumb-ass reason to have an abortion, we're just too tolerant of a dumb-ass world.) But I'm curious why the adoptive parents prefer girls. Do girl children inspire rescue fantasies? Is it because privileged people find foreign or underclass males scarier than females? (The CalTech researchers, by the way, also found a steep inclination against African-American kids among this all-white sample.) Adoption inspires intense anxieties about the unknown; perhaps those fears map onto broader worries about boys and their behavior problems, even yielding some grudging public sympathy with the Tennessee mother who recently sent her adopted seven-year-old back to Russia after he threatened to burn down the house. Absent a man's desire for a biological male heir, or the difficulties facing parents of girls in hard-core patriarchal societies, do the perils and headaches of raising boys just seem too daunting?

I'm no expert on this, and reluctant to draw conclusions from either the sex selection or the adoption data, but I do wonder what the findings might reveal about the way we view both boys and girls -- even before we've ever met them.

What do you think?

by Liza Featherstone
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34 Comments Have Been Posted

Just speaking from my

Just speaking from my perspective, of course, I know that if I were to adopt a child, I'd want a girl. The reason would be nothing complicated, just that I have two beautiful boys and would like a daughter. If it were the opposite situation, I'd adopt a boy.
It's amusing to read about "the perils and headaches of raising boys", as any one I've every asked on the matter has sworn up and down that raising a boy is much easier than raising a girl. The reasoning has always been similar - "girls are moody". I hate that assessment.

My mom (who raised a boy and

My mom (who raised a boy and two girls, and worked with kids for several years) always tells people that boys are harder when they're younger, and get easier as they get older, while girls are easier whenthey're younger, and get harder as they get older.

I'm now beginning to wonder if this is in part due to the society we raise them in: boys being encouraged (or at least permitted) to be more rambunctious when they're kids than girls, and girls receiving such conflicting information from society (madonna/whore, be anything!/be a mom, etc.) as they grow up and start processing these messages.

Girls vs. Boys

Thank you Justine!!!! I have two girls and they have never been any trouble at all and have been easy to raise, menstrual periods and all!! However, I'd love to adopt a boy. I think it is all how you raise your children. Of course adopted kids will come with their own inherited personalities. I agree with Justine. If I had had two boys, I'd want a girl.

i have very flimsy basis for

i have very flimsy basis for this guess, but here's mine anyway: the initiators or most-enthusiastic-initiators of a majority of adoptions are women who feel most comfortable parenting (and being the primary caregiver for) girl children. at least, this is what friends who are beginning adoption proceedings intimate. as a single mother (of twin girls), i can relate. knowing that i was going to be role model number one and potty-trainer-in-chief, i was absolutely thrilled when my ultrasound tech broke the news.

Adoptive disparity

I've heard about this adoptive disparity before, and my best guess is that it's partially related to the "adoptive kids rebel" stereotype. Parents may be afraid that if their children can remember living without them, they will be less respectful and/or autonomous from a younger age, and then...
<i> Do girl children inspire rescue fantasies? Is it because privileged people find foreign or underclass males scarier than females? </i> Yes. This. For whatever reason, female children are often expected to act out *less* often, or be less damaging when they do.

The study talked about race, too

But focusing on the gender disparity, our social worker told us that part of it has to do with the "family name" thing. Part of it is a bias against adoptive kids where the person to "carry on the family name" needs to be blood related. And I do think part of it has to do with the idea of girls being more tractable, definitely.


You get what you get...

I've got numerous theories, backed up and not, for the reasons adoptive parents would prefer girls, but for now just wanted to voted against the mantra "you get what you get and you don't get upset." What human being follows that or even aspires to it? I suggest we get very upset by whatever upsets us, however irrational that upset may be, and then we figure out if it's the kind of upset you just experience and move on (like getting the green shovel instead of the red one, or having a child with a penis instead of a vagina) or if it's the kind of upset that requires major revolt.

I hate the idea that kids shouldn't get upset because then adults will feel they have to do something about it, when 1) it's not the kids responsibility to not get upset because then his/her caregiver will feel guilt/pressure and 2) just because a kid gets upset doesn't mean a caregiver has to do anything different.

Maybe it's the west coast jewish diva in me, but I've always believed in getting upset, acknowledging the upset, and then, depending on the situation, either start a revolution or, as my own favorite saying goes, "buck up."

I'm going to agree with

I'm going to agree with TheBadassMuppet here. It's not a myth at all that adopted children could possibly have issues once they've been adopted. And it's pretty well documented that on average boys have more behavior issues than girls (those aren't myths at all). Combine those two facts and I can see how adopting a girl would be so much less scary to some than adopting a boy.

Girls Are Quiet - Boys Are Loud...Or So We're Told

I have two boys and I've heard time and time again that I'm so lucky because girls are so much harder - "they're so emotional." Boys are just as emotional, we (as a society) just teach them to bottle it all up and not show it. I've also heard sympathy for having two boys since they are so loud and rough, etc. etc. Two sweet little girls would apparently be easier...until they become teenagers and you have to worry about pesky things like teen pregnancy (which apparently is only a concern for the parents of girls).

I think the rescue fantasy idea may be close. A sweet little girl with no home may inspire more sympathy than a little orphan boy. Boys also have the reputation for being louder and messier, while girls are supposedly more quiet and organized. My brother has four little girls and when you get them together with my two boys, they are all just as loud, messy, emotional, and aggressive as the next. While I recognize that there may be natural differences between the sexes, I think for the most part it's all stereotypes and societal pressures that we internalize from a very young age.

One thing I do worry about with having two boys is whether I will be as involved with my grandchildren. It's no secret that women take the dominant role in childrearing, and there seems to be a preference for the maternal grandmother (the mother usually trusts her own mother with the kids over her mother-in-law). I wonder if I'll be on the sidelines.

I don't know if that's a possible reason for choosing girls, or maybe it's just that the primary decision-maker in the adoption process is the prospective mother - who may have a preference for having a daughter.

A Transsexual Teen's Viewpoint

I think everything ultimately comes down to perception. I have no doubt that male and female brains are different, and they are incompatible with their bodies if they are switched. In fact, I am living, breathing, ranting proof of that.

However, as a child who was forced herself to appear as male throughout her childhood I know just how much society molds us. I was hardly 4-5 and I knew that telling my mother that I was a girl wasn't the right thing to do. It really wasn't in fact. I somehow sensed at that age that I had to be a boy and do boyish things. That playing with my mothers makeup was out and rough play was in. Of course I added my bits to it and I never really did it, but I still knew that this is what I had to do. I knew I had to like girls not boys, and I, even, became afraid of the kitchen once some kid told me that making lemonade was girl-y.

I lied to survive. I have been beaten up, abused and what not for who I am and from that age I knew what to do and what not to do...

So maybe just maybe there are somethings that are unique to boys or girls but the rest of it is simply a reflection of the society around the child. The child mimics and integrate into their identity the subtle signals they get from people around them. Especially parents and significant elders.

For example I've always know that the thing I have is just wrong and I've always wanted to cut it off and I've dreamed of that before I even knew of anatomy. It was just wrong to touch it and even look at it, but I never, ever told anyone about it.

In short, respect your child as an individual not a label.

If any of you follows Liza's lead, and you have the courage to do that (trust me it takes courage, lots and lots of courage) then your kids will never cease to amaze you.

Makes Sense to Me

If I were to have biological children, I'd strongly prefer they be boys, because girls are extremely unlikely to pass on the family name. If I were to adopt, I'd prefer girls, because if their birth parents did any pre-natal damage to them they're less likely to be aggressive against me than boys are.

What's in a name? Well...

If females are brought up in, or find a, strong feminist environment, their buying into the ownership symbol of taking a husband's name (should they marry a man) is much less likely. Males, also, may hyphenate or change their last name entirely upon marriage, and any offspring could legally change their name fairly easily for other reasons.

<i>If I were to adopt, I'd prefer girls, because if their birth parents did any pre-natal damage to them they're less likely to be aggressive against me than boys are.</i>
I'm not sure what you mean here; are you referring to specific health statistics?

Worth $16k to see my name and family carried on...

A feminist daughter might keep her name, but that doesn't matter for posterity. The odds of a daughter passing on her last name to the grandkids are practically nil. So if it's my genes being passed on I'd want to maximize the chance of grandkids with the family name, i.e. by having a son. I'm not saying I wouldn't love a daughter if I happened to have one, just that it would be well worth $16,000 to me to have a son instead.

If it's not my genes, I have no way of knowing if there's violence in the genes or early gestation of an adopted child. So I'd want to maximize my chances of escaping unharmed if the adopted child turned out to be violent, i.e., by adopting a daughter.

I've never understood the

I've never understood the big deal about the "family name". Are they less family if they don't share your last name? It's just a word, what's the big deal? It all sounds like mountains and molehills to me.

In response to "girls are easier/boys are easier" my very small sample (one boy, one girl) doesn't prove either gender to be easier or harder. I worry more about my daughter, not because she's more likely to have a baby too young (my son could do that, too, or do we only care about it if it's our girl who does it?) but because of the disparate way that society treats girls, over boys. I don't find it difficult to raise a confident, self-assured boy in a society that gives him all the tools, but it sure is hard to contradict all the messages my daughter gets about how she should be.

This study doesn't mention

This study doesn't mention that fact that white parents adopting African-American babies was STRONGLY discouraged for many years. The National Association of Black Social Workers, in 1972, likened whites adopting black children to “cultural genocide.” And now white adoptive parents of non-white children are urged to "reculturalize" themselves as much as possible to include history/language/contacts with people of the child's race/cultural experiences in their lives. Not that this is unreasonable and all for the child's benefit -- but it's a lot of WORK for people who have already been down the painful road of infertility treatment.

Second, it doesn't mention that the reason a lot of children "wind up" in foster care is NOT that they aren't chosen to be adopted as infants, but that the state makes every effort it possibly can to keep the child with biological relatives, even if they are unwilling/unfit. Very often these situations are disastrous and the child ends up with an attachment disorder, abuse issues, or other mental illness by the time s/he is available for adoption. Of course people prefer children who have been less likely to be exposed to these situations.

Also, if a pregnancy is in its very early stages, there is a lot of time for the birth mother to change her mind. A LOT.

Third, the myth of "crack babies" is still going strong, even though drug use is not limited by race.

Fourth, I do think there is some cultural trope about the helpless (i.e. feminine) baby being desirable, and perhaps less likely to "seek out her own heritage some day" than a boy who "must find his own identity." Women, in other words are more amenable to being "written upon" than men are, and are more likely to stay close to their parents throughout life.

Finally, yes, boy babies are more likely to have behavioral and health issues because of the weaknesses inherent in having a Y chromosome. Having a double XX means that you have a better chance of a troublesome gene being unexpressed (i.e. hemophilia.) Being an XY is quite risky from a genetic point of view.

I hope this helps.

Expanding on the cultural

Expanding on the cultural trope of female/male adoptees: Look at the orphan myths surrounding boys: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Prince Arthur, Hercules, etc. They generally involve the boy finding his "true" birth parents and thus his true identity and source of power.

Contrast this with female orphan characters -- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sara Crewe, Jane Eyre, Snow White. They do NOT involve birth parents for whatever reason -- instead the story turns on the character finding a new person (man) to transfer her dependence to.

The only counter to these stories I can think of is Neil Gaiman's original book (not the movie) Coraline.

42 years ago

My parents specifically asked for a girl. Why? Because they had just adopted a boy. I dunno, I never found it particularly horrifying. It was kind of nice to know my parents actually wanted a girl.

Could different biases have an influence?

Reading this article I thought one reason for a preference for girl babies (in the case of "western world" parents adopting from other countries) would be the idea that girl children have a higher chance of being given up for adoption in countries with a strong cultural preference for male children.

This of course may feed into the "rescue" idea, but also perhaps may reflect potential parents thinking they have a better chance of a successful adoption if they asked for a female child.

Though that would not explain the willingness to pay $16000 more. (I wonder, was this question framed as: Q1a: How much would you pay for a boy? Q1b: How much would you pay for a girl? / OR / Q1: Do you want to adopt a boy or girl? Q2: How much would you pay to adopt the child of your choice?).

Cheers, E.

Adoption costs

How about basic math? In 2009, Americans adopted 3001 children from China. 90% of those children were girls. When you add in the additional costs of international adoption (at least one round trip flight, sometimes two, LOTS of national level paperwork for both countries, the costs of translators etc.) it is not surprising that the extra girl adoptions from China will influence the stats more heavily.


one third more yields 133 vs 100
133 + 100 = 233
133/233 = ~57%
total actual difference: ~14%
(confirmed from the linked study)

still significant; not as nearly as scary as it sounds the other way.

... and proof that statistics can be very warped

I've wanted to adopt a kid

I've wanted to adopt a kid for as long as I can remember, and I've always wanted a girl. It has nothing to do with which is easier to raise or temperaments -- rather, I first learned about international adoption from the situation in China, where girls are abandoned much more often than boys.

Now that I've grown up into a raging feminist, I specifically want to adopt a girl from a country that oppresses and devalues women, in order to give one person a chance at an education and a life of choice she wouldn't have in her home country. I know young boy orphans face a life of hardship, too, but when I hear about Afghani girls getting attacked on the way to school, girls sold as sex slaves in their early teens, socialized rape, arranged marriages, etc etc etc, how could I NOT specifically want to adopt a girl?

I think that is a great idea

I have a chinese girlfriend, who I love so much, and when she moves over to my country from China, I want to spend time with her, and in hopefully 2 years, I will marry her, and then a year or so after that, I will talk to her about adopting a little chinese girl, and then later on maybe adopt another child from China. It doesn't matter what gender, but I have been hearing thing in China, and I think the girls need help. Even though my wife and children will be chinese, but I am ok with that.

Sincerely, Hawthorn


When we adopted our daughter, we requested a girl, and this was all me. My husband had no preference at all. I felt more confident raising a girl than a boy, since I knew more about being a girl than a boy. If you want to get all sociological about this, there's probably something in the knowledge that women do most of the child rearing in any family and so prefer a gender they have some experience with. This may also have a lot to do with people's unwillingness to adopt outside their race: they're not scared of what their child will become, they're scared of being unequipped to help them navigate what they will encounter.

Misconceptions about gender

I think this is a great post, but several the of the comments kind of skeeve me out.

Adoption is not a rescue effort, or shouldn't be. Adopt because you want to have a child, not because you want to "save" one from their own culture. If you already devalue a child's culture, you're not in a position to raise that child with a strong cultural identity.

The idea that a preponderance of women who place children for adoption are on drugs or irresponsible during pregnancy, or somehow genetically suspect? Offensive.

The idea that adopting a female child means you'll automatically get a 'girl'? Inaccurate.

Sex does NOT equal gender, and placing expectations on a female child that she will fill the "We want a girl" niche in a family or perform society's requirements for her sex seems to cut against the basic tenants of feminism.

The Reason

I know when we were adopting we wanted to help get a child out of a bad home and into a good one. The person who was helping us decide said china is a place where often girls are tossed aside in the streets as children since they are not as valued as men are. Because of the legal system there you can only have one child if you have two you are taxed heavily. Often this means people will get rid of female children.

This is often suggested by many people who work with people interested in adopting. Since their is such a demand for adopting parents to aid these young Chinese girls to live a good life, so long story short the stats you read didn't take into the account the fact that there are more girls in the system than boys, Thusly in the final pick it looks like more people are picking girls over boys. At least that is what I found out when we went though the process.

Anyway, this was 7 years ago and we have adopted two more beautiful girls from China who otherwise would be dead, or living in the streets. It makes me shiver to think that anyone would just toss away our girls like that but the parents felt they had no other choice. Imagine the government will take away your livelihood because you have 2 children instead of just one.

Boys vs Girls

When I was researching for my dissertation (1974), I discovered that boy babies are held less and for shorter periods of time. The researchers drew the conclusion it was the result of testosterone making the boy babies more active. In fact activity level is a major distinguishing fact between boy and girl babies.

This is hardly a scientific

This is hardly a scientific survey, based on anecdotes only, but here is my take:

I hope to adopt someday, and while i'll obviously take whatever child is next in line, be they pink, orange, chartreuse, (or selfishly brown so they better resemble both parents), the gender doesn't matter either. However, if i had a choice of two otherwise identical infants and i couldn't legally take both, i confess i'd take the male.

The reason? I assume most females i meet to be more or less like myself. And i know i was a difficult, horrible, awful, unlikable child who was always dirty and in trouble. In addition, i do not get along with most American females and frankly, i can't imagine just because one was my child wouldn't make me suddenly understand them or have a better affinity for them.

Now, granted, my relationships with non-American females have always been pretty darn good, so perhaps the answer is to move overseas and remove whatever cultural aspect is biasing my highly controlled N-of-one data point here and adopt a 50/50 ratio and hope for the best :)

Use your maths!

This is quite ridiculous. In the first paragraph she states "that girls were one-third more likely to attract the attention of adoptive parents than boys" which means that two-thirds choose boys! So the rest of the article is complete nonsense! Do you understand maths at all??

Little words

"One-third MORE likely" (emphasis mine) means that the first number equals the second multiplied by 1.33. In other words, Featherstone is stating that for every 100 boys with adoptive parents considering them, there were 133 girls: 100 + 1/3x100. Her grammar, and math, are accurate. If she had said "girls were one-third AS likely," you would be correct that more boys were being considered for adoption, but that's not the case.

Have to support most here

Actually I had an answer all laid out, but I have one more question myself. Are these findings based on private or state adoptions? Are a majority of these findings based on adoptions of solely newborns? Or does it include adoptions ranging from newborns to teenagers? What is the percentage of children up for adoption?

If it's a range I would guess that boys can be perceived as more difficult to raise. Especially if they come from an abusive environment. I would tend to agree that girls are more prone to being perceived as needing rescuing as well. Our society already shows the roles of women being raised to be more dependent, from first steps being encouraged to come to a parent as opposed to boys who are encouraged to walk away from a parent.

There's so much more information that is needed here.

What do I think?

This post relayed a watered-down set of findings and spent 90% of its time making conjectures about correlational implications of the results. I won't say that it didn't support its conclusions with facts because, frankly, there were no solid conclusions made.
If you're not going to take a stance, then just point out the data and let us conjecture ourselves. The article was much longer than it needed to be, and provided no decent insight.

I’m no expert on this, and

<i>I’m no expert on this, and reluctant to draw conclusions from either the sex selection or the adoption data, but I do wonder what the findings might reveal about the way we view both boys and girls -- even before we’ve ever met them.</i>

This is what Liza was asking for feedback on, the way we view boy and girl children, not your opinion as to whether or not she made a solid enough argument. As she herself said, she is not an expert and therefore was hoping to start a discussion, not assert her own opinions.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

From a biological standpoint

From a biological standpoint people who feel like they are financially stable are more likely to have a girl, naturally, whereas less financially stable families are more likely to have boys. This is for a variety of reasons, but is scientifically proven. It could be linked to that, in that families that have the money to adopt a child are more financially stable and therefor more attracted to having a girl for similar reasons to the ones leading to a higher likely hood for them to naturally have a girl.

I would posit that some of the correlation would go away when people in multiple income brackets where asked what gender they would adopt.

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