As part of a new study, scientists have attempted to uncover the key differences in the way fathers behave around toddler daughters and sons. Analyses of brain scans as well as recordings of their day-to-day interactions have revealed that fathers are more tender and attentive towards daughters than to their sons. In fact, they are more inclined to sing and talk about their emotions with girls than boys, the new research states.
Recently published in the Behavioral Neuroscience journal, the study shows that the male parent is usually more attuned with the daughter’s needs and feelings, using analytical language focused on academic success to interact with her. By comparison, fathers have been found to rely on physical activities such as rough-and-tumble games to bond with their sons. The language used in this case is more achievement-oriented, featuring words like win, proud as well as top. Speaking about the findings, Jennifer Mascaro from Emory University said:
If the child cries out or asks for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons. We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.
To eliminate the risk of bias of any kind, the team decided to observe their subjects in the real world, instead of confining them to a lab room. For the research, conducted by scientists from the University of Arizona and Emory University, 52 fathers (of 22 boys and 30 girls) were chosen from the city of Atlanta. The parents of the toddlers were then asked to keep a small, wearable computer attached to their belts for two days, one during the week and the other during the weekend.
According to the researchers, the recording device was switched on for 50 seconds at a time, every nine minutes or so. At night, the contraption was kept in the kid’s room so that it could capture whatever nighttime conversation the father had with his child. Mascaro added:
People act shockingly normal when they are wearing it. They kind of forget they are wearing it or they say to themselves, what are the odds it’s on right now.
To test the accuracy of their findings, the scientists put the fathers through functional MRI scans while looking at pictures of an unknown kid, an unfamiliar adult and their own children with different facial expressions. When viewing the photos of smiling daughters, their brains showcased greater activity in the areas responsible for reward, visual and face processing and emotion regulation than in the case of sons.
In fact, the brains of parents of toddler boys seemed to be more responsive to neutral facial expressions, rather than happy ones. Interestingly, not much difference was noted in the way fathers’ brains reacted to seeing their daughters and sons sad. As pointed out by the team, one of the reasons girls grow up to experience some form of self-esteem and body image issues is likely that fathers use greater number of words relating to the child’s body (like tummy and foot) when interacting with daughters than with sons.
Additionally, the emphasis on emotions that is intrinsic to a daughter’s upbringing more often than not teaches her things like empathy and affection; something that doesn’t always happen in case of boys. On the other hand, hindering emotional growth during childhood can at times push adult men to depression, social anxiety and marital discontent.
The significance of the research, the team believes, lies in the fact that it is one of the few studies that attempts to look at the father’s role in a child’s physical and emotional development. Mascaro went on to say:
The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize… 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.