Four Questions: How Dads Are Different With Daughters, Sons

Fathers talk more about emotions with daughters and achievement with sons, UA researchers found.
June 13, 2017
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"Four Questions" is an occasional feature in which UANews asks experts from the UA for their perspective on current events or pop culture.

Matthias Mehl
Matthias Mehl

With Father's Day approaching, it's a time when many people will reflect on childhood memories with Dad. Yet, those memories might look very different for sons versus daughters, new research suggests.

A compelling study by researchers at the University of Arizona and Emory University sheds new light on how children's gender affects how fathers interact with them.

Among the major findings: Dads of daughters are more attentive and responsive to their child's needs, speak more openly about emotions, and sing more to their little ones, while dads of sons are much more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play. In addition, dads use more analytical language with daughters, while they use more achievement-oriented language — words such as "proud," "win" and "top" — when talking to their boys.

The researchers based their findings, in part, on data collected through the Electronically Activated Recorder, or EAR, developed by UA psychology professor and study co-author Matthias Mehl.

The EAR, a portable, wearable recording device set to turn on at random times, helps give researchers a more accurate representation of everyday human interactions than they could get through self-reports. For this study, 52 fathers of toddlers wore the device for 48 hours.

Researchers also looked at MRI scans of the fathers' brains when they viewed photos of an unknown adult, an unknown child and their own child with happy, sad or neutral facial expressions. They found, among other things, that dads had greater responses to their daughters' happy faces than their sons' happy faces in the parts of the brain important for visual processing, reward, emotion regulation and face processing.

The study, titled "Child Gender Influences Paternal Behavior, Language, and Brain Function" (PDF), is published in the current issue of the journal Behavioral Nueroscience.

Mehl, one of two UA authors on the study — the other was clinical psychology doctoral student Kelly Rentscher — talked about the implications of the research and what it can teach dads this Father's Day.   

Q: What, if anything, was surprising to you about these findings? 

A: The fact that parents are ultimately "gendered" in their behavior toward their kids shouldn't come as a big surprise. We see it every day, left and right. What was, though, a surprise to me is how early it starts. The kids in our sample were all toddlers, most of them around 2 years old. They had just started talking in simple sentences — and the fathers in our sample already responded verbally differently to them, with more emotional language and more body-related words to girls, and with more of an achievement emphasis to boys. They had just learned how to move around with decent coordination — and our fathers already responded behaviorally differently to them, with more than three times the amount of rough-and-tumble play for boys. How early these gender-stereotypic patterns emerge, that's what surprised me. And, since I don't think the fathers in our sample noticed that they showed these subtle differential behaviors, it surprised me how easily such early gendered parenting patterns can fly underneath the radar of our awareness.

Q: How was the EAR device used in this study, and why is the EAR data so valuable?

A: This was the first time we used the EAR method to study parent-child interactions. In the study, we equipped fathers with the EAR device and it sampled brief snippets of ambient sounds around them periodically over a period of two days. To me, what was scientifically most exciting about this collaboration and about employing the EAR method in this research area, is that parenting certainly qualifies as one of the most evaluative behavioral domains. In other words, everyone who has a kid wants to be a good parent — and likely thinks of themselves as a good parent — and everyone who has more than one kid wants to be fair and treat their kids equally. So, if you go the traditional methodological route and ask parents about how they behave toward and talk with their kids, they will tell you — in all honesty and full sincerity — how they think they do so. But there can be a difference between these honest and sincere perceptions and the "behavioral reality on the parenting ground." And it's that moment-to-moment behavioral reality on the ground that the EAR, through its sampling of ambient sound bites, documents.

Q: What are some possible explanations for why dads interact differently with sons and daughters?

A: The big question really is where these differential behaviors toward boys and girls come from. Is it nature or is it nurture? Is it our biology or is it society? Are fathers biologically prepared to act differentially toward their sons and daughters or have they just profoundly absorbed what society has taught them? Unfortunately, our study has no answer for that. But based on the existing research on implicit gender biases and, more broadly, gender socialization, it is, I think, safe to say that the patterns we observed are likely at least in part due to deep-seated socializing processes. "Is it a boy or is it a girl?" — society really cares, and very early. Because gender is made so salient so early in childrearing, it is bound to influence "from the outside" from a very early time on. Of course, though, there are biological aspects as well.

Q: What can your average dad take away from these findings? 

A: I think the easiest take-home message is awareness, awareness, awareness. We want dads to spend time with their kids, connect with them, play with them, sing to them. And, naturally, some kids like rough-and-tumble play a lot, others less so. And, naturally, some kids get more pleasure out of being sung to than others. The challenge is to respond to what your kid likes, not to what gender your kid is. That's, to me, the practical takeaway.