Just in time for Father’s Day, new research highlights some real differences in the way that fathers interact with daughters vs. sons. Working from audio recordings of real-life chatter between fathers and toddlers of both sexes, plus brain scans of fathers looking at pictures of their children, social scientists have confirmed that fathers engage very differently with the emotional lives of girls and boys. And these gender-influenced interactions start very young.
For the new study, a group of 52 fathers wore small recording devices that captured random 50-second audio clips of life at home over the course of two days. When researchers from Emory University and the University of Arizona analyzed the recordings, there were clear differences in the way that fathers spoke to their toddler daughters and sons.
Fathers of girls used a lot more “analytical language” (all, below, much) and words referencing the body (belly, foot, tummy), while fathers of boys talked a lot more about achievement (proud, win, top). The research team, led by Jennifer Mascaro of the Emory University School of Medicine, didn’t make any direct links between the dads’ word choices and their children’s life outcomes, but noted that further studies could connect the dots.
“We know from previous research that girls, especially adolescent girls, have distinct body images, and often negative body image issues more strikingly than do boys,” said Mascaro, clarifying that the fathers in the study didn’t use “negative” or “positive” words to talk about their little girls’ bodies, just that they used more body-related words in general. It’s also tempting to connect the higher level of analytical language around girls to their comparatively high achievement in school.
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The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Behavioral Neuroscience, also confirmed some long-established notions that fathers talk more about emotions with girls, especially sadness, while engaging in more rough-and-tumble play with boys. The new data reinvigorates the debate over the “socialization of gender” and whether our gender roles are dictated more by our DNA or formed in early life.
“The differences that we’re seeing in dads, they’re showing up in dads of one and two-year-olds,” said Mascaro. “That helps us understand why this ‘nature vs. nurture’ question is so thorny. When boys and girls are born into the world, we treat them differently right from the start.”
Word choice was only one component of the study. Researchers also wanted to know what was going on inside the fathers’ brains while interacting with their kids. To capture this data, the dads were asked to lay down inside MRI scanners and were then shown eight photographs of their child making eight different natural facial expressions ranging from very happy to neutral to very sad (moms helped with this part, either leaving the room or taking away their toddler’s toy to make them cry).
First, the happy pictures. As the researchers expected, the brains of the fathers with daughters lit up much brighter in the reward and emotional centers when they saw their little girl smiling compared to the brains of the boys’ dads. This confirmed existing behavioral data showing that fathers of girls seem more aware and engaged with their child’s emotions compared to fathers of boys.
The sad pictures elicited an equal response from fathers of both sexes, possibly because the photos of their kids crying were just so darn pitiful that the brain responses were equally strong in both camps, said Mascaro.
But one of the most surprising results came from the neutral facial expressions. In that case, it was the fathers of the boys whose brains kicked into high gear, especially in the parts of the brain that are responsible for attention. When Mascaro and her team started comparing the brain and behavioral data, they discovered an interesting correlation. The fathers whose brains lit up the most in the lab upon seeing their little boy’s neutral facial expressions were also the ones who engaged in the most rough-and-tumble play at home.
“You see rough-and-tumble play in all social mammals and it seems to be really important in training social competency,” said Mascaro. “The interaction itself could be aggressive in other contexts, so it’s a somewhat ambiguous style of play where you really have to attend to the ambiguous nature of it, including ambiguous facial expressions.”
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Even though this new study reveals some stark differences in the ways that fathers interact with their children, it’s not an indictment of dads, said Mascaro, who believes that all parents are doing their best to raise happy and emotionally healthy children.
A little self-awareness never hurts, though.
“When we look at findings in light of other studies, it’s pretty clear that validating emotions in young children is really important for both boys and girls,” Mascaro said. “If fathers are doing that less with boys, that’s an important observation.”
Mascaro also notes that despite this new data, the nature vs. nurture debate roils on. It’s entirely possible that dads are exhibiting these gender-specific behaviors in response to the inborn tendencies of their children. A little girl who naturally likes to talk about her emotions is more likely to have a dad who talks to her about her emotions. Just like a boy whose first word was “fight” is more likely to wrestle with his dad.
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