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Fathers’ Brains React Differently to Daughters than to Sons

Dads’ brains respond differently to daughters than sons, suggests a new study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

The male is not like the female—a new study reveals yet another difference between the two through brain scans, and recordings of interactions between parents and their children. Conducted by a team from Emory University, and the University of Arizona, the research shows that the brains of fathers respond differently to toddler daughters: they are more attentive and responsive to the latter’s needs, as opposed to fathers with toddler sons.

For instance, fathers of girls would respond more when a child would cry out for daddy than would fathers of boys, says lead author Jennifer Mascaro. She adds that we should be conscious of how subtle gender concepts can find their way into the treatment of even young children.

Furthermore, fathers of daughters would be more open about emotions such as sadness. Perhaps, this is the result of them acknowledging the feelings of the female to a greater extent that those of boys. Also, these fathers would sing more often to girls than boys.

The fathers went through functional MRI brain scans as they were asked to view pictures of unknown adults and children, and their own kids with different facial expressions (sad, happy, and neutral). The findings show that, upon viewing their daughters’ happy expressions, the brains of fathers of daughters generated greater responses in brain regions associated with visual processing, reward, emotion regulation, and face processing, as opposed to fathers of sons. On the other hand, the latter would respond more robustly to neutral expressions of the sons; the researchers interpret this as possibly meaning that the fathers are reacting to the more complex emotional displays of their sons. It is to be noted that sad expressions of the sons and daughters triggered no significant difference in the fathers.

Mascaro explains that girls might become more empathetic because of the attentiveness of their fathers to their emotions. Therefore, if fathers of boys would recognise their sons’ feelings, they might also develop more empathy.

Another finding is that the conversations between father and daughter entail more analytical language, such as words “all”, “below”, and “much”. Also, the dads use more words pertaining to the daughters’ body (words like “belly”, “foot”, and “tummy”); note that previous studies have shown that pre-adolescent girls had a greater risk than boys to show body dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, fathers of sons have more ‘rough’ play-time with their kids. Rough-and-tumble play initiated by parents is believed to assist toddlers in better regulating their emotions, suggests past studies. Mascaro, therefore, recommends for fathers of daughters to engage in more of this type of activity for their children’s benefit.

As for verbal interactions between fathers and sons, they would also include language that is more achievement-oriented, namely words like “proud”, “win”, and “top”. The researchers suggest that the language difference might have a link with future academic performance of the children.

Where does this difference originate? While the study does show different brain responses of fathers to girls, and to boys, it does not elucidate the question of whether this arises from genetics and evolution or social gender norms.

One of the strengths of this study, though, it the fact that the researchers took their observations out of the lab and into real life with the recordings of parent-child interactions allows for the findings to be unbiased. Normally, participants would have to provide answers relating to their behaviour towards their children. But, for this study, the participants agreed to have a handheld computer attached onto their belts, work once during a weekday, and another time during the weekend.

“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,” says Mascaro.


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