Fathers pay more attention to the needs of their toddler daughters than sons

Researchers found that fathers' brains responded differently to their daughters than sons.

The study, published today by the American Psychological Association, found marked differences in the way fathers treat their toddler sons in comparison to their toddler daughters. We talked to lead author Jennifer Mascaro from Emory University to find out why and whether she thinks these differences are more likely to be rooted in biology or to be shaped by societal norms.

ResearchGate: Could you briefly describe the results of your study?

Jennifer Streiffer: We found that fathers of daughters (aged 1-3), compared with fathers of sons, were more attentively engaged with their daughters, sang more to their daughters, and used more language related to sad emotions (for example, “cry,” “tears” and “lonely”) and to the body (for example, “belly,” “cheek,” and “feet”). They also used more of a category of language that we called analytical language (for example, “all,” “below” and “much”), which facilitates more complex discussions and which previous research has found to be related to academic success. Fathers of daughters also had a stronger neural response to their daughter’s happy facial expressions in areas of the brain important for reward and in emotion regulation.

In contrast, we found that fathers of sons engaged in more rough and tumble play, and they used more language related to achievement (for example, “best,” “win,” “super,” and “top”). Fathers of sons had a more robust neural response to their child’s neutral facial expression, and this neural response was correlated with the amount of rough and tumble play they engaged in.

RG: What is the significance of these results?

Streiffer: We think these results are significant because they indicate that fathers play and speak differently with sons than with daughters, and that these differences arise very early in children’s lives. Some of the findings are consistent with previous studies – for example, other studies have shown that parents tend to use more emotion language with girls and do more rough and tumble play with boys – but often those findings come from laboratory observations of brief interactions or from parents’ reports of how they behave. Our findings emerge from real-world observations gathered over 48 hours and so are a very rich source of information about how fathers interact with their children. These findings are also the first to indicate that fathers’ brains respond differently to sons than to daughters.

RG: Could you briefly explain the method you used to reach these results?

Streiffer: We had fathers wear a small device developed by co-author Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona, called the electronic activated recorder (EAR). They clipped the device onto their belts and wore it for one weekday and one weekend day. The fathers were also asked to leave the device charging in their child’s room at night so any nighttime interactions with their children could be recorded. The EAR software randomly recorded ambient sound for 50 seconds every nine minutes during the 48-hour period. At a later time, we had fathers undergo functional MRI brain scans while viewing photos of their child with happy, sad, and neutral facial expressions.

RG: What real-world impacts could these findings have?

Streiffer: Importantly, we cannot definitively link our findings with any real-world outcomes because we did not longitudinally follow these toddlers. However, we can try to understand our findings in light of existing research. For example, previous research indicates that rough and tumble play facilitates emotion regulation and social competency, so it is potentially important that fathers are engaging in more of this behavior with sons. Similarly, it is clear that validating children’s emotions and helping them identify their own emotions is important for emotional development, and so it is important to know if fathers tend to do that less with boys than with girls. It is possible that there are real-world impacts of the gendered interactions that we observed, and we think this methodology has a lot of potential for connecting real-world parental behavior with child outcomes.

RG: What do you think the likelihood is that these differences in the ways fathers their female vs male toddlers are rooted in biology as opposed to being shaped by societal norms?

Streiffer: This is always a question with findings like these, and we cannot tell whether the differences in paternal behavior and brain responses are due to biological underpinnings, perhaps shaped by evolution; or to cultural and social understandings of the way one “should” interact with boys and girls; or to some combination of the two. For example, while it could be that fathers of daughters are engaging in less rough and tumble play because of gendered notions of the way girls play, it could also be that fathers are responding to cues from their sons and daughters. My bet is usually on the more complex picture in which biological influences are interacting with the deeply embedded cultural norms that shape our behavior.

I’d also like to note that gender-biased paternal behavior doesn’t imply ill intentions on the part of fathers. These biases may be unconscious, but our findings may also reflect a deliberate effort to shape children’s behavior in line with social expectations of adult gender roles that fathers feel may benefit their children.

Image credit Quang Nguyen.