Fathers with toddler daughters are more attentive and responsive to their needs than fathers with toddler sons, according to a study published in an American Psychological Association journal.
"If the child cries out or asks for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons," said lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University. "We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children."
The research took a look at whether the different ways fathers treat sons or daughters may be influenced by different brain responses to male or female children. Emory University and University of Arizona researchers took their study out of the laboratory and used a sample with real-life situations, the APA said.
The study used data from 52 fathers of young children (30 girls, 22 boys) in the Atlanta area who agreed to clip a small handheld computer onto their belts and wear it for one weekday and one weekend day. The device randomly turned on for 50 seconds every nine minutes to record any sound during the 48-hour period.
The fathers also were told to leave the device charging in their child's room at night so any nighttime interactions with their children could be recorded, said Mascaro, an assistant professor in family and preventative medicine at the Emory School of Medicine.
In daily interactions, fathers of daughters used more language referencing the child's body (e.g., words such as belly, foot and tummy) relative to fathers of sons. Previous research has shown that pre-adolescent girls are more likely than boys to report body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem relating to body image.
The study focused on fathers because there is less research about fathers' roles in raising young children than mothers, Mascaro said.
If fathers are more attentive to daughters and open about expressing emotions, that may help girls develop more empathy than boys. Fathers of sons could take the same approach, Mascaro said.
"The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize," she said.
Previous research has shown that rough-and-tumble play by parents can help young children better regulate their emotions. Fathers of daughters may want to engage in more rough-and-tumble play with girls, even though such play is more often associated with boys, Mascaro said.
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