Study: Fathers Respond Differently to Toddler Sons, Daughters

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Jun 5, 2017

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A study recently found fathers of toddler daughters are more attentive to their daughters’ needs than fathers of toddler sons, suggesting that a father daughter relationship could be materially different than a father son bond.

The researchers used brain scans and randomized recordings of interactions between father and child to reach the conclusion that gendered interactions start much earlier than most think.

The biggest difference, the team found, was in the discussion of emotion with children. Fathers of toddler daughters spoke more openly about emotions, particularly sadness. They also sang more to the female children, used more body-part language (e.g. ‘belly,’ ‘toes,’), and used more analytical language (words like ‘all,’ ‘below,’ and ‘much’), which has been linked to future academic success.

Meanwhile, fathers of toddler boys were more likely to roughhouse with their child and used words associated with achievement more often, such as ‘proud,’ ‘win,’ and ‘top.’

“If the child cries out or asks for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” said lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro, PhD, of Emory University. “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”

Interestingly, these different responses do seem to be driven by brain activity; MRI scans of fathers’ brains while viewing photos of their daughters show fathers responded most strongly to images of daughters’ happy facial expressions, while the strongest response of fathers of sons was to images of their sons’ neutral expressions. But researchers couldn’t tell whether this difference in brain activity is hardwired, or is the result of societal conditioning.

“The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize,” Mascaro said.

While the study wasn’t designed to uncover long-term implications of these gendered interactions, researchers did suggest that fathers might want to be conscious of their interactions with toddler sons and daughters and aim to be as open and attentive to boys as girls (which could better teach empathy) and as rough-and-tumble with girls as boys (as a way to teach emotional management).

“Most dads are trying to do the best they can and do all the things they can to help their kids succeed, but it’s important to understand how their interactions with their children might be subtly biased based on gender,” Mascaro said.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

See all articles by Liesl

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