The Father-Daughter Dance

Dads may be wired to treat boys and girls differently

By Carol Clark

New research indicates that a toddler’s gender influences the brain responses as well as the parenting behavior of fathers— from how attentive they are to how they speak, sing, and play.

A recent Emory study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience is the first to combine brain scans with behavioral data collected as fathers interacted with their children in a real-world setting. Results showed a striking difference in the behavior of fathers toward sons and daughters.

“When a child cried out or asked for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” says Jennifer Mascaro, assistant professor in family and preventive medicine, who led the research as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of anthropologist and senior author James Rilling.

Fathers of daughters also sang more often to their child and were more likely to use words associated with sad emotions, such as cry, tears, and lonely, and with the body, such as belly, cheek, face, fat, and feet.

Fathers of sons engaged in more rough-and-tumble play with their child and used more language related to power and achievement—words such as best, win, super, and top. In contrast, fathers of daughters used more analytical language—words such as all, below, and much—which has been linked to future academic success.

“It’s important to note that gender-biased paternal behavior need not imply ill intentions on the part of fathers,” Rilling says. “These biases may be unconscious, or may actually reflect deliberate and altruistically motivated efforts to shape children’s behavior in line with social expectations of adult gender roles that fathers feel may benefit their children.”

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