Dads Really Do Treat Daughters And Sons Differently, And It Has A Lasting Impact

by Christine Organ
Image via Shutterstock

The different ways dads respond to and interact with sons and daughters can have a lasting impact

We’ve all heard the phrase “daddy’s girl.” Cue the collective awwwww, or eye roll. Maybe a little of both. But does that phrase have any truth? Or is it something we parents just conjure up in our heads? Do dad’s really have a different relationship with daughters than sons?

Turns out dads really do treat their daughters different than their sons – and it can have a lasting impact, not just on their daughters but on their sons as well. A new study published in the June 2017 issue of Behavioral Neuroscience looked at the ways dads treated their daughters and their sons, but unlike other studies, this one looked at dads’ brain responses to both genders as well to see if dads (consciously or subconsciously) had different responses to daughters and sons.

Researchers first strapped the dads with a wearable computer clipped to their belts, which randomly recorded audio interactions for 50 seconds every nine minutes. Researchers hoped to get more accurate information by randomly recording interactions since most studies about parenting have some inherent bias because they consist of questions and responses, with a high risk that parents will respond as they believe they’re expected to respond or may be unaware of their own behaviors.

Of the 52 participants – who were dads of toddlers (30 girls, 22 boys) in the Atlanta area – dads were more attentive with their daughters, sang to them more, and used analytical language to talk about emotions and their body. Dads were also less likely to roughhouse with their daughters than sons.

Next the fathers underwent MRI brain scans while the looking at photos of adults they didn’t know, children they didn’t know, and their own child with happy, sad or neutral facial expressions. Dads of daughters tended to respond more to their own daughters’ happy facial expressions in those areas of the brain important for things like reward and emotion regulation. In other words, dads turn to mush when they see their little girls happy. Nothing all that surprising there.

The really surprising part of the study, however, was that the fathers of sons had stronger responses to their sons’ neutral facial expressions than the fathers of daughters, indicating that dads might actually prefer emotional ambiguity and stoicism for sons – whether they want to admit it or not. Hence the stereotypical (and dangerous) expressions like “man up” that some dads are apt to use with their sons whenever they show emotion.

There was no difference in dads’ brain responses to sad expressions of sons and daughters because, duh, no parent likes to see their child sad.

“If the child cries out or asks for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” said lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro, PhD, of Emory University.

Mascuro advises parents to be aware of the unconscious notions of gender and how they can play into the way parents treat their children, even from an early age. The differences can have a lasting impact on both daughters and their sons as well. For instance, an article in Parents points out that the fact that dads are more likely to talk to daughters about their bodies could have an impact on their body image as they grow up, and the use of analytical language has been linked to academic acheivement.

Conversely, because dads are less likely to talk about or pay attention to the emotional needs of boys – and might actually have a subconscious preference for emotionlessness in their sons – this behavior could (unintentionally) stunt their emotional development, which could have a lasting impact into adulthood. According to Science Daily, other research has found that emotional restriction in adult men is linked to depression, decreased social intimacy, marital dissatisfaction, and a lower likelihood of seeking mental health treatment.

“Most dads are trying to do the best they can and do all the things they can to help their kids succeed,” Mascaro said, “but it’s important to understand how their interactions with their children might be subtly biased based on gender.”