The Biological Reason Dads And Moms Treat Their Parental Roles Differently

It's not just in your mind.

Originally Published: 
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How did mothers and fathers come to have the defined roles that they do? Of course your wife is every bit as capable of chopping wood, driving around the riding lawn mower, wrestling with the kids, and grilling up a fine steak while drinking a six pack in the backyard. But, the Western world has decided those are stereotypical dad duties. There must be something more to being maternal or paternal than just the eons of gender norms and misogyny. Here’s what science says is the reason why you treat the kids one way, and your wife treats them another.

Indirect Versus Direct Parenting

In 2008, researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Edinburgh were checking out the genetic link between the way a particular creature fathers versus the way it mothers. Their subject? The burying beetle — which has very specific parenting roles based on their biological sex.

They found that the male burying beetle is involved in much more indirect care of offspring, doing things like taking care of the nest and gathering food. The female burying beetle was much more likely to be involved in direct care of the offspring, doing activities that kept them in much closer contact, like feeding. They’d also be more apt to complain about the male burying beetle playing golf with his buddies on Sundays. Just lay off, Belinda!

If you separated the beetles so that they were single parents, their behaviors did not change. This suggests that those gender normative activities were deeply ingrained in the creature’s biology. And researchers did find a genetic correlation to the beetles behavior. But that’s a big leap to equate what bugs do and what humans do (unless you’re Gregor Samsa).

Mothering And Fathering

While discovering a genetic link to explain the differences in mothering and fathering is yet to happen, the differences absolutely do exist. At least that’s the conclusion of thousands of observational studies. Here’s how a few break down:


  • Mothers: Are more likely to talk to their kids while they play. They also tend to rely on using toys and objects. This kind of play is great for socialization, and emotional growth, and toy company profits.
  • Fathers: Are much more physical in their play and allow for a bit more spontaneity and risk-taking. This helps kids learn their limits while releasing the bonding chemical oxytocin … and sometimes farts.

Language Development

  • Mothers: Will use baby talk on a more regular basis when communicating with their kid. This helps the baby get a grasp on the language and how it works.
  • Fathers: Talk much more directly to their children, with less sing-songy baby talk. That’s totally cool too, because it might actually act as a bridge to more adult language, like “Holy shit, you’re talking.”


  • Mothers: Have a tendency to point out the social cost of being an asshole when they discipline kids. That’s very good for them to know, considering you want them to have friends and not turn into some kind of Shkreli.
  • Fathers: Are inclined to point out concrete results of bad behavior, including things like jail time or fines. Kids need to know that stuff too. Unless you want to establish a bail account now.

On Same Sex Parenting

While this might imply that kids being raised by single gender families are somehow at a loss, that appears to be not the case. A 2010 study from the Journal Of Marriage And Family, found that lesbian couples don’t really split into different roles. Instead, the kids just get a double helping of momness, which does little to affect a child’s outcome. In fact, studies found that in many respects kids were getting more out of their two moms than if they were in a typical heterosexual family.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the case for gay male couples parenting a kid. In these cases it was more likely that one of the men would take on a much more motherly “direct parenting” role. Other studies have shown that when a man becomes a primary caregiver, the portion of the brain associated with mothering emotions light up like a Christmas tree. A tasteful one.

Biological Roles In Parenting

The idea of the researchers in the beetle study is that the genetic differentiation in parenting roles has reinforced the survival of the creatures. Therefore, there is a passing down of the genetic material associated with strong parenting roles.

But there’s one thing that beetles lack, and that’s culture (plus half of their band members — RIP John and George). When you throw the kind of complex culture and psychology humans deal with everyday, things get messy. It might mean the only true biological difference that matters between mothers and fathers is the ability to pee standing up.

Other than that, as long as the caregivers are working together to support and love their kid, things should work out just peachy.

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