A new study claims that fathers treat their daughters different than their sons. The study, published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, said that toddlers are highly influenced by the way their father treats them, including how attentive they are to their child, the types of language that they use and the play that they engage in.

Researchers also found that a child’s gender influences the brain responses. Scientists from Emory University conducted the study. It is the first ever to combine brain scans of fathers along with behavioral data collected as fathers interacted with their kids in a real-world scenario.

Father and Daughter
Sgt. Juan Ramos, 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, dances with his daughter at the “Princess of the Castle” event Feb. 7, 2014, hosted at the Officers’ Club. Image credit: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Charles Santamaria.

Fathers of daughters pay more attention to their child than fathers or sons

The researchers said that one of the more striking behavioral differences they found was the level of attention given to a child.

Father and son
As well as being more attentive, fathers of daughters sang more often to their child and were more likely to use words linked to sad emotions, like “cry,” “tears” and “lonely.” The researchers noted that they also used more words associated with a body, like “cheek,” “belly,” “face,” “fat” and “feet.” Image credit: Sempre Familia.

“When a child cried out or asked for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” said Jennifer Mascaro, lead author of the study, according to Emory University. “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”

Fathers of sons engaged in more rough-and-tumble play with their kids and used more words associated with power and achievement, such as “best,” “win,” “super” and “top.” In contrast to that language, fathers of daughters used more analytical words like “all,” “below” and “much,” which have been linked to future academic success.

James Rilling, an anthropologist and senior author of the study, said it’s important to note that gender-biased paternal behavior might not imply bad intentions on the part of the fathers, as these biases may be unconscious. Rilling said they might actually reflect deliberate and altruistically motivated efforts to shape a child’s behavior in line with social expectations of adult gender roles that fathers feel could benefit their children.

The study combined real-world settings with MRI brain scans

The study collected behavioral data in a real-world setting using an electronically activated recorder (EAR), which was designed and developed in the lab of co-author Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona.

The participants included 52 fathers of toddlers (22 boys and 30 girls) in the Atlanta area who agreed to attach a small digital assistant with the EAR software onto their belts and wear it for one weekday and a weekend day. They were also asked to leave the device charging in their child’s room at night, so any nighttime interactions with their babies could be recorded. The device turned on for 50 seconds every nine minutes to record any ambient sound during the 48-hour period.

new father
A father feeds a baby. Image credit: Thanasis Zovoilis/Flickr RF/Getty Images/NPR.

“People act shockingly normal when they are wearing the device,” said Mascaro. “They kind of forget they are wearing it or they say to themselves, what are the odds it’s on right now. The EAR technology is a naturalistic observation method that helped us verify things about parental behavior that we suspected based on previous research. It also uncovered subtle biases that we didn’t necessarily hypothesize in advance.”

Along with using the EAR device, fathers underwent functional MRI brain scans while looking photos of an unknown adult, an unknown adult and their own child bearing sad, happy or neutral facial expressions. Fathers of daughters showed stronger responses to their daughters’ happy expressions in parts of the brain important for processing emotions, value, and reward. Fathers of sons, in contrast, responded more to their child’s neutral facial expressions.

‘Our interactions with your sons and daughters may be biased’

The researchers noted that their study focused on fathers because there is less research about their roles in rearing toddlers than mothers. Mascaro said that their study provides one of the richest datasets for fathers now available, as it combines real-world behavioral assessments with brain responses.

The study’s findings are consistent with other studies indicating that parents -mothers and fathers- use more emotion language with girls and engage in more rough-and-tumble play with boys. The researchers noted it’s unclear whether these differences are caused by biological and evolutionary underpinnings, cultural understandings of the the way someone should act, or a combination of the two.

“Most parents really are trying to do the best they can for their children,” said Mascaro. “A take-home point is that it’s good to pay attention to how our interactions with your sons and daughters may be biased.”

Mascaro added that more research is needed to try to understand if those subtle differences may have important effects in the long term.

Source: Emory University