How dad interacts with kids often depends on gender, study finds

ATLANTA — Dads behave differently around their kids depending on the gender of their offspring, a new study finds.

Researchers at Emory University in Georgia recruited 52 local fathers to examine their interactions with their young toddlers. Each father was instructed to equip a listening device onto their belt for a non-continuous, 48-hour period — on one weekday and one day over the weekend — which differentiated the research from previous studies.

Dad holding a baby
A new study finds that gender plays a significant role in a how a father responds to and interacts with a young child.

The researchers were admittedly shocked to see how much participants were prone to forgetting that they were wearing the device, or didn’t believe it was always working, leading them to act normal more often than thought.

Fathers also underwent MRI scans while exposed to pictures of their children to determine their reactions.

“It appears that men’s brain responses to their children may be related to their behaving differently with sons compared to daughters,” says lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro, an assistant professor in Family and Preventive Medicine, in a university news release.

One key finding the researchers discovered was that fathers were more likely to react to a plea from a daughter than they were a son.  In addition, the MRIs showed a proclivity for fathers to respond more strongly to images of their female child smiling than their male child.

“We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children,” adds Mascaro.

Fathers also demonstrated a tendency to use different diction around their sons and daughters.

Daughters were more likely to receive words associated with emotions (e.g., “cry” or “lonely”), or words associated with the anatomical body (e.g., “belly,” “cheek,” “face,” or “fat).

Meanwhile, boys often received words related to power or achievement (e.g., “best,” “win,” and “super).

These findings are consistent with previous research, which has found that parents are more likely to engage in emotional language with daughters, and rougher language with sons.

“It’s important to note,” says anthropologist James Rilling, senior author of the study, “that gender-biased paternal behavior need not imply ill intentions on the part of fathers. 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.”

Although fathers don’t necessarily intend to neglect their son’s emotional side, a child’s inability to express themselves emotionally can later lead to symptoms including depression, decreased social intimacy, marital dissatisfaction, and a lower likelihood of seeking mental health treatment.

Thus, the researchers recommend that fathers not only interact physically with their son, but engage with his emotions.

“Validating emotions is good for everyone — not just daughters,” says Mascaro. “A take-home point is that it’s good to pay attention to how your interactions with your sons and daughters may be biased. We need to do more research to try to understand if these subtle differences may have important effects in the long term.”

The study’s findings were published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.