Dads Want Their Daughters to be Happy. Their Sons? Not So Much.

For the video version, click here.

I came across this article appearing in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, examining how fathers react differently to their young daughters compared to young sons.

The study was novel in that the researchers captured audio recordings during the everyday activities of the families. With that in mind, I took home my microphone and started recording:

It’s just as I suspected – we have a study examining a hypothesis that no one was disputing in the first place. But it does make for some good headlines.

Here’s Time Magazine:

And Science Daily:

And Technology networks:

In other words – you may well have seen some reporting on this study already, focusing on the fact that (no surprise) dads treat their daughters differently than their sons. But actually there are two really interesting aspects to this study: one is the development of a rather novel methodology to study parent-child interactions, and one is the integration of fMRI into the whole equation.

Researchers identified 52 fathers, each with a child between the age of 1 and 3. There were 30 girls and 22 boys.

For a three day period, the dads wore an audio recording device that recorded 50 seconds of ambient sound every 9 minutes. They didn’t know when it was recording or not. They also underwent an fMRI scan wherein they were presented with children’s faces. Some were happy, some were sad, some were their own kids, some were random kids, some were boys, some were girls.  All of this was to figure out which areas of the brain responded to which face.

What this adds up to is a LOT of data. Take just the audio component. The researchers transcribed all the father-child interactions and loaded them into a text-processing program to categorize the content of the interactions.  Some highlights?

Dads spent about 1.5% of their recorded interactions singing to their daughters, compared to only 0.3% for their sons. What about the boys?

Well, the dads engaged in more rough and tumble play with them, and more often used achievement oriented language like “win” and “proud”.

The fMRI results were rather interesting as well. Brain activity in areas responsible for reward and emotional regulation went up when fathers of daughters saw their own child’s happy face, but not for fathers of sons. Fathers of sons responded most strongly to their boy’s neutral face.

What does this mean? Do fathers like to see their daughters happy more than their sons? The researchers suggest as much – going as far to posit that father’s response to neutral faces in boys is due to the social ambiguity of rough and tumble play. I am by no means well-versed enough in the social sciences to comment on how socially ambiguous rough-and-tumble play is so I’ll just take their word for it on this one.

But the other interpretation is that, well, this was a small study with a lot of statistical tests. To be fair, the authors did their best to account for the multiple comparisons being evaluated here, but until we see some external validation, let’s hold off on blaming dads, or our brains, for caring exclusively about our daughters happiness.

Some other issues to note – there was no accounting in this study for birth order, or the sexes of other siblings. This was a point my oldest daughter brought up when we were talking about the study:

Finally, let’s remember that the arrow of causality is not clear here. Are fathers treating their daughters differently because we are imposing gender roles and norms upon them at an unconscious level? Or are biological differences in the responses of our children to our behavior making the difference? In other words, maybe I sing more to my daughters because my daughters seem to like my singing more.

Whatever the case, I'm glad no one is recording it.