Dads’ Brains Respond Differently To Daughters Than Sons, Study Finds

Dads’ Brains Respond Differently To Daughters Than Sons, Study Finds

According to one study, dads with toddler daughters were more attentive to their needs than dads with toddler sons. So much so, it was even evident in brain scans.

Researcher Jennifer Mascaro, PhD, of Emory University monitored interaction between dads and their toddlers through recordings of daily interactions and brain scans.

Dads’ Brains Respond Differently To Daughters Than Sons, Study Finds

They were looking at what influence brain responses may have on how dads treat sons or daughters.

As the mama of just one daughter after four sons, I’m frequently asked if it’s different having a girl. So far, my only response has been a baby is pretty much a baby and it’s not different yet.

After all, she’s just eight months, how different can it be?

Well, ask dad the same question and he instantly responds it’s just different, very different and he proceeds to sing silly songs in her face. Why is that?

What’s Different About A Dad’s Interaction With A Daughter Versus A Son?

From a completely anecdotal perspective, I see my husband sing silly songs while doting over every sound and movement our daughter makes.

It isn’t to suggest he didn’t do the same with our sons, but he just seems responsive in a different way and says “aww” to every little thing.

I did the same with all my babies, and he’s always been very hands on, but there’s definitely a level of special attentiveness that has been unique with a little girl.

What lead researcher Mascaro found was that dads with toddler daughters:

  • Sang more to their daughters
  • Spoke more openly about emotions
  • Responded to cries out for dad more often and/or quicker
  • During brain scans, showed more response to happy expressions from their daughters.

What’s unique about this parenting study is it wasn’t conducted in a lab, which can skew results when it comes to parent and child interactions.

Research participants clipped a small handheld computer to their belts which recorded randomly for 50 seconds every nine minutes to record any sound. Recording took place over one weekday and one weekend day.

While wearing a device might impact interactions, it’s subtler than being observed in a lab. Mascaro said, “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.”

Why Would Dad’s Interact Differently With Daughters?

While the differences were notable, this research couldn’t determine if the different brain responses meant dads are hard wired through genetics or evolutionary changes to treat daughter differently than sons. Nor can the research determine if dads are influenced by and conforming to societal norms related to gender.

Basically, research saw clear differences in the way dads responded to daughters, but what isn’t clear is why. Are their brains wired to treat daughters a certain way? Or do their brains respond that way because of cultural conditions?

More research would be needed to make that determination, but knowing there are differences can be important in making conscious choices about the way we interact with our children.

Because there’s a possibility these brain responses are influenced by cultural factors, the results may not be relevant in cultures outside the United States.

Is It OK For Dad’s To Respond Differently To Daughters?

The study couldn’t determine if a father’s brain responded differently because it’s wired to do so, or if dads respond differently due to cultural influence and the brain responses were simply a result of that.

If we knew there was a necessary biological reason, perhaps we would have more understanding of the pros and cons. In the absence of a why, it’s still possible to look at the pros and cons of responding to a child differently due to gender.

One positive that was noted for daughters was the type of language used during interactions. Dads were more likely to use analytical words (e.g. all, much) which is linked to academic success.

However, with sons, they used words linked with achievement, such as proud and win. It would seem, both boys and girls can benefit from analytical and achievement related words. Being conscious of how we talk to our children, regardless of gender, could be important.

The study also found dads were more likely to use words related to the body when speaking to daughters versus sons. Previous research showed that pre-adolescent girls are more likely to report dissatisfaction with their body and low self-esteem related to body image.

While we can’t connect this current study and a dad’s language to that, it is something to consider when thinking about what we talk about with our very young children.

What Does This Study Really Mean?

As mentioned, it really doesn’t give us clear whys, it simply showed dads do in fact respond differently to daughters.

This study also only focused on dads, simply because researchers are working towards filling in an area of research which can be lacking. Most early childhood studies focus on the interaction between children and their mothers.

Be sure to read Dad’s Mood Plays A Key Role In Child Development for more information about the impact dads have on early childhood development.

The take away from this study is that as parents we should be conscious of how we respond to our children and what biases we may have due to gender.

Past research has shown little boys are often discouraged from showing and sharing emotions. Restricted emotions in adult men has been linked to depression, marital dissatisfaction, decreased social intimacy, and less likelihood of seeking mental health treatment.

Being more responsive to little boys could be key in helping them grow up without restricting their emotions.

Other research has shown that rough and tumble play is an important part of helping younger kids learn to regulate their emotions. Some dads may be less likely to incorporate rough play with their daughters, but it may be healthy to incorporate it.

Lead researcher Mascaro said, “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.”

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Maria Pyanov CPD, CCE CONTRIBUTOR

Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.


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