Dads' brains 'more attentive and responsive' to their little girls, says study 3 years ago

Dads' brains 'more attentive and responsive' to their little girls, says study

Here's one for all the daddies' girls... Psychologists say the relationship between dads and daughters really is different.

New research, published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Behavioural Neuroscience, has found that Dads with toddler daughters are more attentive and responsive to their daughters’ needs than fathers with toddler sons. The psychologists, who used brain scans and recordings of the parents’ daily interactions with their kids, also found that fathers of toddlers sang more often to their daughters and spoke more openly about emotions, including feeling sad.

Dads with sons engaged in more rough-and-tumble play and used more achievement-related language, including words such as 'proud', 'win', and 'top', when talking to their boys. Daddies of daughters used more analytical language - words such as 'all', 'below', and 'much' - which has been linked to future academic success.

Lead researcher, Dr Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University in Atlanta, says dads respond differently to their little girls:

“If the child cries out or asks for dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons. We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”

Nature or Nurture?

The research examined if the different ways in which dads treat their sons and daughters is influenced by different brain responses to male or female children. However, the team couldn’t determine if these different brain responses meant fathers are somehow hard wired through genetics or evolution to treat their daughters differently, or if they were simply conforming to societal gender norms.


Lab-based parenting studies are often thought to be biased because those taking part give answers that they think are expected of them, or are not aware of their own behaviour. But the researchers, from Emory University and the University of Arizona, avoided that problem by taking their study out of the lab and into the real world. The psychologists used data from 52 dads of toddlers (30 girls and 22 boys), who agreed to clip a small computer onto their belts and wear it for one weekday and one weekend day. The device randomly turned on for 50 seconds every nine minutes to record any sound during the 48-hour period. Some of the fathers in the study had more than one child, but the study focused only on their interactions with one son or daughter. Dr Mascaro says it gave them more 'natural' research:

“People act shockingly normal when they are wearing it. They kind of forget they are wearing it or they say to themselves, what are the odds it’s on right now.”

The fathers also were told to leave the device charging in their child’s room at night so any nighttime interactions with their children could be recorded, said Mascaro, an assistant professor in family and preventative medicine.

Are dads' brains hardwired to their daughters' happiness?

Dads taking part in the study also underwent functional MRI brain scans while looking at photos of an unknown adult, an unknown child, and their own child with happy, sad or neutral facial expressions. Fathers of daughters had greater responses to their daughters’ happy facial expressions in areas of the brain important for visual processing, reward, emotion regulation and face processing than fathers of sons. But dads showed no significant difference in brain responses to sad facial expressions of their sons or daughters.

Dr Mascaro says that the study focused on dads because there is less research about fathers’ roles in rearing young children than mothers:

“The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognise.

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