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The Difference Between Dads of Girls and Dads of Boys

Photograph by Twenty20

OK, dads, it's time to admit it: Fathers do treat their daughters and sons differently. Actually, the gender bias is so real that it's even showing up in brain scans.

A study recently published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found dads of toddlers spoke differently and showed different levels of attentiveness when parenting girls versus boys. The researchers wanted to observe real-world interactions, so they gave dads of toddlers—52 men ages 21 to 55 who lived in Atlanta, Georgia—a recording device to be worn on their belts during one typical weekday and one typical weekend day. The device recorded 50-second snippets of sound every nine minutes, though the dads and children didn't know when exactly it was on.

Turns out, fathers of daughters were more attentive to their toddler daughters, sang more to them and spoke more openly about their emotions. These dads used more comparative words like "much" and "better," adjectives related to sadness like "cry," "sad" and "lonely," and language that referenced the child's body like "belly," "foot" and "tummy." Though this indicates fathers are having more complex discussions with their daughters, the larger focus on girls' bodies can be worrisome, as body image issues are surfacing in kids as young as 3.

In comparison, fathers of toddler sons engaged in rougher, more physical play and were more likely to use competitive words like "win," "top" and "proud."

“The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize," said Jennifer Mascaro, lead study author and assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, in a press release.

A 2014 study showed mothers also evoke more emotion-based language when talking to their daughters. Experts say encouraging boys to talk about their feelings can help develop their empathy and understanding. Silencing or ignoring them teaches them to avoid dealing with difficult topics, which can have far-reaching consequences.

"The study couldn’t make any definitive long-term connections between the varying treatment of sons or daughters as toddlers and future outcomes for those children, but the research explored some possible links that may offer some recommendations for fathers," writes the American Psychological Association. "Other research has found that restricted emotions in adult men is linked to depression, decreased social intimacy, marital dissatisfaction and a lower likelihood of seeking mental health treatment."

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men in the U.S. die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women.

If the behavioral records aren't proof enough of the gender-based differences, researchers also took MRI brain scans of the fathers. When they were showed pictures of an unknown adult, an unknown child and their own child with different facial expressions, fathers of girls had a stronger neural response to their daughters' happy expressions while fathers of boys had a stronger response to their sons' neutral expressions. The response areas in the brain examined are the medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which are important for reward and emotional regulation.

Researchers think dads of boys respond strongly to their sons' neutral facial expressions perhaps because it's unclear what the son is feeling and fathers may need to interpret the expressions more to understand it.

Why this difference exists is still unclear, and more research needs to be done to determine what behavior is a result of biological differences and what is a product of internalized cultural and social norms.

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