Fathers tend to sing more and discuss emotions more openly with daughters than with sons.
Previous studies that examine gender differences in caregiving have been mostly conducted in mothers, and not in fathers.
The new study set out to investigate whether fathers' neural responses differ depending on whether they have a son or a daughter, and if the observed behavioral differences relate to gender differences.
Jennifer Mascaro, Ph.D., an assistant professor of family and preventative medicine at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA, led the research with collaborators from Emory University and the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Parenting studies conducted in laboratories are often biased due to participants either giving answers to questions that they think they are expected to provide, or because they are unaware of their own behavior at home. The researchers overcome this hurdle by using a small, hand-held computer clipped onto the belts of fathers to monitor real-world paternal behavior.
The device was used for 1 day at the weekend and 1 weekday, and it was switched on to record sound for 50 seconds every 9 minutes. The study participants included 52 fathers of toddlers, including 30 girls and 22 boys, from the Atlanta area. Although some of the participants had more than one child, the data studied focused on their interactions with one son or one daughter.
Mascaro and team also asked the fathers to charge the device in their child's room to pick up any interactions between the father and toddler overnight.
"People act shockingly normal when they are wearing it," says Mascaro. "They kind of forget they are wearing it, or they say to themselves, what are the odds it's on right now."
Fathers' brain response to their child was analyzed through functional MRI brain scans. They were shown an image of an unknown child, an unknown adult, and then their child with sad, happy, and neutral facial expressions to detect their neural response.
Language linked with future academic success used more with daughters
Study results showed that fathers of daughters were more attentive and responsive to the child's needs than fathers of sons.
Participants with daughters sang more to their child and talked more about emotions, including sadness. The researchers say that this could be because fathers are "more accepting of girls' feelings than boys'."
Fathers of sons took part in more rough-and-tumble play. Studies show that children who engage in rough-and-tumble play with their parents learn to regulate their emotions better. While rough-and-tumble is associated with boys, fathers may want to include more of this type of play with their daughters, suggests Mascaro.
Participants with sons used language connected with achievement, using words such as "win," "top," and "proud," while fathers of daughters used more analytical language that has been associated with future academic success, such as "all," "below," and "much."
Furthermore, fathers used more language with daughters that referenced the child's body, including "belly," "foot," and "tummy." Other research has indicated that before adolescence, more girls than boys report body dissatisfaction and have low self-esteem about body image.
"If the child cries out or asks for dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons," explained Mascaro. "We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children."
MRI scans differed between genders for happy, not sad faces
The MRI brain scans uncovered that greater responses in the areas of the brain responsible for reward, visual processing, emotion regulation, and face processing were seen in response to daughters' happy faces than of sons'. No significant difference was noticed in brain responses resulting from sons and daughters having sad facial expressions.
"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 continues. Research has linked suppressed emotions in adult men with depression, marital dissatisfaction, decreased social intimacy, and being less likely to ask for help with mental health.
"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."
Jennifer Mascaro, Ph.D.
While the research highlighted some recommendations for fathers, there were no definitive long-term connections drawn between the differing treatment of sons and daughters as toddlers and outcomes as they age. Given that the research took place in one area of the United States, no conclusions can be obtained about fathers in other locations or countries.