Whether it's the color they paint a baby's nursery, the clothing they pick out, the toys they buy, how they expect a child to behave, and even the name they choose, most parents would admit that when it comes to raising sons and daughters, the process isn't identical. While it's true that there are a few areas — such as potty training — that necessitate different approaches, researchers have often wondered why, and how, parents treat sons and daughters differently. New research about dads shows gender tropes might be more ingrained than we thought — and it's unclear whether science, or society, is to blame.
Researchers from Emory University and the University of Arizona wanted to study how parents interact with sons versus daughters, as well as other children, according to the study's press release. Since there's a great deal of research on how mothers interact with children, the researchers chose to focus their study on fathers instead. They devised a clever model for the study, since they realized that sometimes being in a lab-setting can make participants aim to "please" the researchers by telling them the answers they think they want to hear — rather than what they really think. Instead of observing the dads interacting with their children in a lab, instead, they affixed a small recording device to the participants belt loops and sent them on their way.
However, the device was not always on, so participants weren't aware of when it was recording and when it wasn't. Researchers hoped this would help control for any of the "aiming to please" bias they had been concerned about in a lab setting. It turned out that their strategy worked — and the findings of their study were quite surprising. By analyzing the interactions of 52 dad-toddler pairs in Atlanta who participated in the study (admittedly, a very small sample size), researchers discovered that the way fathers interacted with daughters was much different than how they interacted with sons, especially when it came to emotions. With daughters, dads were more likely to openly express emotion and encourage conversations about feelings, according to their findings. With sons, the interactions were more often rooted in achievement and competitive language, or expressing pride. While dads were also more likely to engage in physical play with sons ("rough housing"), they were more likely to use descriptive, analytical language when interacting with their daughters (like adjectives to describe size, amount, direction, or distance).
What the researchers couldn't determine was whether dads were interacting differently with sons versus daughters because of some kind of genetic hardwiring, or if it was a learned social behavior — or a combination of the two. The team then put fathers into an MRI machine so they could observe their brains as they were shown pictures of their children experiencing various emotions. The emotional center of the brain in dads who had daughters responded more to their daughter's happiness than the fathers of sons. Interestingly, researchers also noticed that the fathers of sons' brains lit up more in response to their son's neutral expression than their happy one, according to the study.
Researchers noted that while it's certainly beneficial for daughters to have emotionally, supportive and open relationships with their fathers, sons who don't have similar reinforcing experiences may have trouble learning to talk about and express their feelings. Likewise, while sons seem to get the benefit of the bonding experience of play with their dads, daughters might be missing out. In the end, the study's lead researcher, Jennifer Mascaro, Ph.D., of Emory University, pointed out that “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." In any case, there's a lot to consider from these findings, and additional research would certainly lend itself to helping parents recognize and correct their own bias — whether it's caused by biology, sociology, or both.