Dads, do you think you parent your daughters and sons differently?

Here's the science behind the 'daddy's little girl' cliché
Here's the science behind the 'daddy's little girl' cliché

In our patriarchal society, it's hard to get around gender clichés and parenting, it seems, is no exception. 

In an attempt to determine whether stereotypes about gender are instilled from infancy, researchers from the Emory University found that at the cerebral level there is a notable difference in the way men care for their baby daughters and sons. 

And the results may have you rethinking the old nature vs. nurture debate. 

How'd they do that?

The 2017 study rounded up 69 fathers of various ages whose children were aged 1 to 2. The fathers themselves varied in ages between 21 and 55; 34 of them had daughters, and the other 35 had sons. 

The researchers used a range of methods to keep track of how these dads parented their children, including a self-report questionnaire completed by both the participants and their wives, MRI brain scans of all the fathers, photographic images of the fathers taken during play sessions with their children, and consented audio recordings capturing everyday home interactions. 

Their data showed that fathers of daughters:

  • Sang to their little ones more frequently. 
  • Were more attentive and engaged.  
  • Used more emotive and analytical language, especially regarding sadness.  
  • Spoke about the body more often (specifically used words like belly, foot, and tummy).  
  • Were more engaged by happy facial expressions – this was evident in the parts of the brain that deals with "visual processing... reward, emotion regulation, and face processing." 

For fathers of sons, researchers discovered the men: 

  • Used more language relating to success (in particular, words like top, win, and proud). 
  • Engaged in rough and tumble play (RTP). 
  • Had a bigger brain response to their sons' neutral facial expressions in the areas that deal with phases of consciousness, sleep, and attentiveness.

The researchers were surprised to find that there was no difference in how fathers of sons and fathers of daughters responded to their children's sad facial expressions. 

Do you think you parent your sons and daughters differently? Tell us your story by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous. 

What it all means 

Based on their findings, Emory University researchers propose a link between how children are parented and future successes and failures. 

For example, researchers deduced the frequent use of emotive language and a higher degree of attentiveness to their daughters' emotions "may facilitate the development of increased empathy in girls." 

The study also proposes that by using more language to refer to the body, fathers may be contributing to the way girls feel about their bodies later on during adolescence, highlighting previous findings that showed "body stigmatism begins in early childhood and that parents exert an important influence on young children’s body image."

In terms of the more physical play of fathers of sons, researchers established that "paternal rough and tumble play is positively correlated with children’s popularity with their peers," and that a male child's development of empathy may very well be dependent on affectionate interactions with their father. 

The researchers suggest that lower levels of empathy in men could be correlated with less affection shown to boys while young. 

"Fathers of preschool children are more likely to engage in sex-typed socialisation of empathy, with fathers of boys reporting less inclination to reinforce pro-social behaviour and less affection toward their sons." 

Parenting equally 

The Emory University casts light on the many ways fathers unknowingly parent their sons and daughters differently, and the negative implications thereof, calling for a more mindful approach. 

Here are a few simple things to bear in mind: 

1. Choose your words wisely

Be mindful of using both emotional and achievement specific language for both your sons and daughters. Your verbal input will directly impact how they'll think of themselves later in life.

2. Loving and attentive interactions isn't gender specific 

Keep in mind that you may be more affectionate with your daughters than with your sons, and you could be more open to your daughter's feelings than to your son's. Fostering empathy is a parent's duty, in both genders, and it's vital for healthy social interactions. 

3. Rough and tumble play is good for both boys and girls 

The Emory University study points to years of research of a variety of mammalian species that shows "the importance of RTP for social competence and brain development." 

Rough play like tickling and tumbling "is thought to both require and train emotion regulation and empathy."

Do you think you parent your sons and daughters differently? Tell us your story by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous. 

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