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The Ties that Bind: The Sociology of Father’s Day Gifts

In celebration of Father’s Day, Ami Stearns argues in this post that the gifts we buy, or are encouraged to buy, for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day reflect deeper assumptions about what our society thinks it means to be a mother and a father.

It’s time to go buy your dad a tie! What are you getting your father for Father’s Day this year? One Father’s Day when I had no money, I decided to concoct some homemade barbecue sauce on the stovetop for my dad. I don’t even remember what ingredients I used, but for years afterward, Dad would bring up how good that jar of barbecue sauce was and ask if I could make it again (I was never able to recreate it, for some reason). Barbecue and men just seem to go together, don’t they?

The gifts that are promoted on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day often reflect society’s conception of what roles mothers and fathers are supposed to serve within the stereotypical heterosexual nuclear family. There are perhaps no other holidays that are quite so stereotypically gendered. Hanukkah, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries have us seeking out unique gifts that are tailored to the recipient’s particular personality, likes, or hobbies. But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gift ideas appear to fall back on socially constructed family roles.

Examining the most popular types of gifts to give can help us see how society (helped by marketers) conceptualizes mothers and fathers. Google Image searches, while unscientific, can allow us to see at a glance what types of gifts are considered most appropriate for mothers and fathers in our society. This type of content analysis is based on Goffman’s (1978) examination of magazine advertisements. Goffman encouraged social scientists to more critically examine what appears to be everyday common sense, especially those images presented in popular culture.

I began looking at the differences between gifts for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day by typing in “gifts for Mother’s Day,” on Google Images. Mothers are apparently obsessed with their children, as the majority of gifts reflect the children that she is responsible for. These types of child-centered gifts tend to emphasize the number of children, names of children, or birthdates of the children the mother has. Mothers also apparently drink copious amounts of tea and want flowers. In addition, the color scheme on a Google Image search for gifts for moms is predominantly pink and lilac.

When I searched for “gifts for Father’s Day,” the color scheme changed to blue, orange, and black. Gifts for dad assume that a father grills , fishes , has money and has a fantastic sense of humor. I saw few gifts emphasizing the number of children or names of children.

The Google Image search emphasized several differences between mothers and fathers. For mothers, the day should be all about their children. Motherhood is no laughing matter, as it was difficult to find “gag” or “funny” Mother’s Day gifts (as was so easily found for Father’s Day gifts!). Images of Mother’s Day gifts reflect quiet contemplation of a serious and weighty job. For fathers, the day should be outdoorsy with grilled steaks and funny aprons that give credit to the theory that men grill but do not cook. One of the more interesting finds from this Google Search was the preponderance of the dad money clip phenomenon. There is simply no equivalent for mothers. While women do carry wallets and purses and so theoretically do not need money clips, wallets and purses do not appear, at least in my Google Image search, to be popular items to buy for a mother on their special day. I would argue that fathers in our society are still thought of as the breadwinners. Gifts to fathers often emphasize the idea that it is the fathers who financially support children, while the mothers emotionally support children.

Theories on Motherhood and Fatherhood

According to sociologist Sharon Hays (1998), motherhood these days is intensive and sacred. Motherhood is based on the assumption that all women need to be mothers in order to be fulfilled. The gifts promoted for Mother’s Day certainly reflect this theory. On the other side of the heterosexual parental unit, anthropologist Nicholas Townsend (2002) argues that masculinity today is now a “package deal” that includes marriage, fatherhood, employment, and home ownership. In other words, according to these researchers, motherhood is the primary identity for women who become mothers, but fatherhood is merely one facet of what it means to be a man. (Note: these theorists are clearly situating idealized parenthood within a middle-class context.)

This quick comparison of Google Image search results supports the idea that when we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day we reinforce societal ideas of motherhood and fatherhood. Instead of tailoring our gifts/cards to the unique interests of the individual father or mother, these results suggest that we celebrate the generic role fathers and mothers are supposed to play in stereotypical heterosexual nuclear families. However, we would need to conduct a thorough scientific analysis with a randomized sample of images before we could say with any certainty that my findings accurately represent reality. Regardless, the work of Goffman, Hays, and Townsend can help us better understand how our conceptions of gender and family roles collide when we celebrate both Father’s and Mother’s Day.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask someone (or quiz yourself) about the most recent gifts they purchased for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Did these gifts fit the stereotypical mom gift and dad gift as described in the experiment above?
  2. Read this article about a national survey of Mother’s Day vs. Father’s Day. Do you agree with the results? If Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were held on the same day and you had to choose which parent to spend time with, how would you decide?
  3. Read this news story . Using the blog post above, explain why we spend more on moms than on dads.
  4. During your own childhood, did you feel as if your mother was the emotional caregiver while your father was the financial caregiver? If so, list five ways you determined this was true. If your experience differed, offer two reasons why your parents did not follow this pattern.


  • Goffman, E. (1978) Gender Advertisements. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hays, S. (1998) The Cultural Contradiction of Motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Townsend, N. (2002) Package Deal: Marriage, Work, and Fatherhood in Men’s Lives. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia