Fathers are more attentive to toddler daughters than sons, according to a fascinating new study that illuminates the effect of unconscious gender bias.
The survey by the US-based Emory University found marked differences between the way dads behaved around their toddler daughters, compared to those with toddler sons.
Researchers monitored 48 hours of interactions between 52 fathers and their children in a real-world setting, and combined that behavioural data with brain scans of the volunteer dads.
Their results show that fathers spent around 60% more time attentively responding to their daughters than their sons, with five times as much whistling and singing.
They used more language associated with sadness, such as “cry,” “tears” and “lonely”. Behavioural scientists suggest this may help girls develop more empathy.
Interestingly, the fathers of young daughters also used more words linked with the body, for example “belly,” “cheek,” “face,” “fat” and “feet”.
Fathers of toddler sons, in contrast, spent about three times as long engaged in rough and tumble play, and used more achievement-related language such as “proud”, “win”, “super” or “top”.
“When a child cried out or asked for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” says Jennifer Mascaro, leading the study. “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”
Anthropologist James Rilling, senior author of the study, said the differences should not be read as malicious.
“It's important to note that gender-biased paternal behavior need not imply ill intentions on the part of fathers,” he says. “These biases may be unconscious, or may actually reflect deliberate and altruistically motivated efforts to shape children's behavior in line with social expectations of adult gender roles that fathers feel may benefit their children.”
To make the experiment as natural as possible, scientists conducted the survey by attaching a small digital recorder to the fathers over a 48-hour period. They left in charging in their children’s rooms overnight, to capture any night-time interactions.
The device then randomly turned on for 50 seconds every nine minutes to capture any ambient sound.
“People act shockingly normal when they are wearing the device,” Mascaro says. “They kind of forget they are wearing it or they say to themselves, what are the odds it's on right now. The EAR technology is a naturalistic observation method that helped us verify things about parental behavior that we suspected based on previous research. It also uncovered subtle biases that we didn't necessarily hypothesize in advance.”
Fathers also underwent MRI brain scans while viewing photos of an unknown adult, an unknown child and their own child with happy, sad or neutral expressions.
Fathers of daughters had stronger responses to their daughters' happy expressions in areas of the brain associated with processing emotions, reward and value.
Researchers say the results should encourage dads to be emotionally open with boys.
"The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize," Mascaro says. “Validating emotions is good for everyone -- not just daughters.”
The full study is published this week in the journal Behavioural Neuroscience.