THURSDAY, May 25, 2017 -- Mom, it's not all in your head: Dad does respond to toddler daughters and sons differently. Brain scans and random recordings of their times together prove it.
Fathers are not only more attentive to little girls, a new study finds, they're also more accepting of their feelings. Dads sing more to their daughters, play harder with their sons and speak to their little ones in strikingly different -- and important -- ways.
"The really interesting and significant thing to me is these differences are showing up very early," said lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro. She is an assistant professor in family and preventive medicine at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta. "We really need to think about unintended [gender] biases that we may have in our interactions."
The researchers wanted to learn if different brain responses to boys and girls might affect how dads treat their sons and daughters.
The new study doesn't resolve whether those brain differences mean fathers are hardwired to treat sons and daughters differently or if they are simply trying to behave as they think society expects them to, Mascaro said. But it offers an unfiltered look at how fathers behave with their 1- and 2-year-olds, and some lessons for parents.
For the study, researchers asked 52 dads to clip a small computer to their belts for 48 hours. The device turned on randomly to record their daily interactions with their toddlers -- 30 girls and 22 boys.
The recordings show dads responding swiftly and supportively when their daughters were sad or anxious, but paying less attention to their sons' feelings.
"When a child is expressing emotions -- rather than ignore it or try to distract them or try to undermine some of those really intense feelings -- validating those emotions, naming them and having the child sit with those emotions and identify them on their own is important," Mascaro said. "The idea that fathers and other adults are doing that less with boys is really important."
How dads talked to their toddlers differed, too.
With their sons, they used the language of achievement -- words like "proud," "win" and "top." With their daughters, they coaxed more complex chat with words like "all," "below" and "much" -- analytical language tied to future academic success.
Dads of girls also were more likely to refer to their daughter's body in conversation. That intrigued the researchers, because body stigma takes root in early childhood and girls are more apt than boys to say they are unhappy with the way they look.
In addition to the recordings, dads also had brain scans while viewing photos of their kids.
Although their brains reacted the same to sad-faced photos of their boys and girls, daughters' smiles elicited stronger responses in areas of the brain key to visual processing, reward and emotion control, the study found. That meshes with other studies suggesting fathers are more apt to link happiness with girls.
One finding researchers didn't expect: Dads' brains lit up when they saw pictures of their sons with neutral expressions, ones whose meaning hinges on context. Researchers suspect it's because dads get a kick out of roughhousing. That's a time when their boys' faces probably have just such an expression.
An expert on parent-child communication who was told of the study called it "very exciting work," but cautioned against easy explanations.
Makeba Parramore Wilbourn, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said cultural influences rather than biology probably underpin the way fathers behaved.
"Though we might get clear scans of the brain, behavior is complex and it's important for us not to lose sight of that and to remember that there are a lot of factors playing a role," Wilbourn said.
Mascaro agreed, adding further study is needed.
"I think it would be overstepping it to say we can make any predictions about how these differences would play out in the life of a child," she said.
Both suggested, however, that girls develop empathy because they are encouraged to express their emotions, which would also benefit boys. Suppressing their feelings can do lasting harm: It makes grown men feel depressed, isolated and dissatisfied with their marriages, studies have shown.
Fathers, meanwhile, might want to consider more rough-and-tumble play with their little girls -- not only because it's fun, but because it helps kids manage their emotions, according to the study.
Being there for your kids is what matters most, Wilbourn said.
"If I had to pick, I don't care what a dad is saying as long as he's there and saying something," she said. "The most important thing for dads and moms to recognize is that kids need your presence."
The study was published online May 25 in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.More information
The American Psychological Association has tips for building healthy parent-child relationships.
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