Parents may want to believe they treat all of their kids equally, but brain scans suggest that fathers are actually more attentive and responsive to daughters than sons. “Ours is the first study to examine whether paternal neural responses differ for dads of sons compared with dads of daughters,” coauthor Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University told Fatherly. Past studies of how fathers treat daughters versus sons have relied on self-reporting and short laboratory observations, Mascaro says, but this is the first time researchers have looked at relatively long-term data from MRI scans.
For the study, published today in the American Psychological Association’s journal Behavioral Neuroscience, 52 fathers (30 with girls and 22 with boys) wore recording devices on their belts for a full week, so that researchers could capture what they were saying to their children. Although some fathers had multiple children, the researchers focused on interactions between each father and just one of his children under the age of two. They found that fathers were more likely to use language related to sad emotions (“cry”) and the body (“cheek”) when speaking to daughters, and more likely to use analytical language (“below” or “much”). “These are pretty subtle differences and I think these findings are interesting because these aren’t differences you could glean from asking fathers about their interactions.”
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Dads were then shown images of an unknown adult, an unknown child, and their own kid while undergoing MRI brain scans. Fathers responded most strongly to smiling pictures of their daughters and most strongly to neutral expressions on their sons’ faces. Interestingly, survey results suggested that fathers who responded most strongly to neutral expressions on their sons’ faces were all the most likely report roughhousing with their boys—a bonding experience that often involves neutral, rather than smiling, facial expressions. Mascaro thinks there may be a link between the two. “This neural response was correlated with the amount of rough and tumble play they engaged in,” she says. “I think it’s a very interesting possibility that attention to ambiguous facial expressions may be important for this type of play.”
Since Mascaro and her team did not longitudinally follow families, she is cautious not to link findings to any real world implications for children, and the study found no indications that fathers favor daughters over sons. “It appears to be a complex picture in which fathers differentially interact with sons and daughters,” she says. Instead, the takeaway for Mascaro (also a mother of two boys) is that children might benefit from more nuanced, mindful parenting.
“If we treated our sons more like daughters in some respects, and our daughters more like sons in other respects, both sons and daughters would likely benefit by less gendered interactions,” she says.