Do Fathers Treat Their Sons and Daughters Differently?

New research explores gender differences and its roots in early parenting.

Posted Jun 08, 2017

Source: NadyaEugene/Shutterstock

Child-rearing practices vary widely across different cultures, and views about gender differences change over time, but there do seem to be some clear consistencies in the way boys and girls are treated, especially during the first few years of life. According to Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory of gender development, parents often have clear gender stereotypes about "appropriate" behavior for different genders and rely on punishment and rewards to ensure that their children abide by these expectations. Boys are often discouraged from playing with dolls or acting "effeminately," while girls are often prevented from doing any physically risky activities. 

Some studies suggest that mothers talk more with their daughters and actively prevent them from any activity that might lead to their being injured. On the other hand, both mothers and fathers appear more prone to engage in "rough and tumble" play (RTP) with boys rather than girls. There also appear to be gender differences in how parents respond to emotional outbursts. In a 2005 research study, fathers were found to be more receptive to daughters when they showed submissive emotions or prosocial behavior, while they were more likely to respond to boys when they acted out or showed temper tantrums.    

It is often difficult to do this kind of research, considering that most studies looking at how parents interact with their young children have focused on mothers rather than fathers. Also, parents tend to be reluctant to admit that they treat their sons and daughters differently, especially in an era of greater gender equality. For this reason, depending on self-report alone tends to provide a distorted view of the way parents actually raise their children and instill gender roles and values. 

A new study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience provides one of the first in-depth analyses of how fathers interact with their children and what this might mean in terms of brain physiology. A team of researchers led by James K. Rilling of Emory University's Center for Translational Social Neuroscience recruited 69 men (average age: 33) who were parents of children aged one to two years; 34 of the fathers had a daughter and 35 had a son, with no significant demographic differences between the two groups.

The study began with naturalistic photographs being taken of each of the children showing a variety of facial expressions corresponding to different emotions. The fathers were then given a mobile recording device, the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), that intermittently records snippets of conversations and other ambient sounds while the participants wearing them go about their lives. Essentially, the EAR is meant to produce an audio log of the wearer's day.  

For the purpose of the research, the fathers were asked to wear the EAR on a weekend day and a weekday. The EAR devices were set to record in 50-second bursts every nine minutes, from 8 a.m. Sunday morning to 8 a.m. Tuesday morning and, when not being worn, were kept charged in the child's bedroom. On average, each participant produced 158 audio files that could be used for the purpose of the study.   

Each 50-second audio file was independently rated by two research assistants, whose ratings were correlated to determine adequate validity. Coders were instructed to record all words spoken by the fathers in the files and a special coding system was developed to rate each file. Along with recording whether the father was talking to a child, friend, or spouse, each recorded expression was rated on whether it corresponded to one of the following categories:

  • Father affective expression (laughing, singing, complaining)
  • Toddler affective expression (laughing/giggling, fussing/crying)
  • Father-toddler activities (reading, nonphysical play, physical play)
  • Paternal caregiving behaviors (engaged attending to the child, showing empathy or affection, expressing praise and encouragement)

For fathers with more than one child (the average number of children per family was two), only those expressions directed at the target child were rated.  

Along with wearing the EAR on the designated days, the fathers also completed a self-report questionnaire on parenting. In a third laboratory session, the fathers provided blood and saliva samples and underwent structural and functional MRIs of their brains. During the fMRI sessions, each father was shown a series of photographs of their children with different facial expressions, interspersed with photographs of unknown adults and children.

Results of the auditory file analyses showed significant difference in language and behavior patterns between fathers depending on whether they were interacting with sons or daughters. As expected, fathers were more likely to engage in rough and tumble play with sons rather than daughters. This included tickling, poking, and tumbling behavior that was often aggressive in nature. When interacting with daughters, however, fathers were more likely to engage in singing or whistling, and were also more emotionally and socially responsive.

There were also significant differences in the kind of language fathers used with sons and daughters. Fathers were more likely to use achievement-related words with their sons—"top,” “win,” “proud”—while using more emotion-laden and analytical words with their daughters. This included words relating to sadness or words relating to the body. Based on behavioral results alone, fathers appear to be reinforcing gender expectations by encouraging girls to be more empathetic while encouraging boys to be more competitive.

In looking at the MRI findings, there appeared to be significant differences in brain response between fathers of daughters and fathers of sons. Fathers of daughters showed much higher activation in visual processing areas of the brain than fathers of sons when shown happy facial pictures of their children. They also showed greater activation in the orbitofrontal cortex linked to emotional regulation. Fathers of sons also showed significant brain activation when presented with neutral facial expressions which are often associated with rough and tumble play, though the exact reason for this is still unclear. On the other hand, fathers showed identical responding when presented with pictures of either their sons or daughters with sad facial expressions.  

Overall, these results highlight many of the differences seen in how fathers interact with their male and female children, and what it might mean for gender role development in children. It also demonstrates the value of EAR technology in exploring how parents play with their children, something that is often difficult to do without making parents and children feel self-conscious. Using the EAR also avoids problems with self-report data, which many parents might be unwilling to answer honestly.  

Still, while these results are consistent with previous studies looking at paternal behavior and gender roles, they also raise interesting questions about cause and effect: Do fathers treat sons and daughters differently because of their own gender expectations? Or are fathers simply responding to social and behavioral cues linked to biological differences between boys and girls? As James Rilling and his colleagues point out, males are exposed to higher levels of fetal testosterone, which has been shown to be linked to a preference for rough and tumble play. It also influences playmate selection so that both boys and girls high in fetal testosterone are more likely to prefer a more aggressive play style, something that may influence how fathers interact with them. More research is definitely needed to explore these questions further.

While most early childhood research has focused on how mothers interact with their children, this study yields some intriguing findings. Not only is there clear evidence of neural systems in the brains of fathers that respond in different ways depending on the gender of their children, but research using the EAR demonstrates differences in how fathers interact with their children and what it could mean to their later social and intellectual development. More studies such as this one may provide important clues about gender differences and the general well-being of children as they grow older.


Mascaro, Jennifer S.; Rentscher, Kelly E.; Hackett, Patrick D.; Mehl, Matthias R.; Rilling, James K.  Child gender influences paternal behavior, language, and brain function.  Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol 131(3), Jun 2017, 262-273.