Do Fathers Treat Toddler Girls Differently Than Boys?

toddler daughter and father
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There's just something about daughter and daddies, right? No matter what, those little girls seem to have their fathers wrapped around their little fingers—those big eyes, those little pigtails, those hands reaching up to their dads for hugs.

And if you've ever wondered if there is a difference between the love of a father and daughter and the love of a father and son, science is actually saying that there is a slight difference. A new study examined the difference between how fathers interacted with their toddler sons and daughters, with some interesting findings.

The Study

The study, which was done at Emory University and published in the journal of Behavioral Neuroscience, studied interactions between fathers and their children of both genders for a period of over 2 days. It was based off previous theories that parents treat female and male children differently and hoped to prove that the theory was actually true.

The researchers were hoping to glean information about how the fathers interacted with their children, looking at how they spoke to the children, what words they used, and their overall behavior. All together, 30 toddler girls and 22 toddler boys took part in the study. The fathers of the children wore special recorders on their belts for both a weekend day and a weekday, which turned on randomly and recorded their conversations and anything else, like singing or play activity sounds.

The Findings

At the end of the study, the researchers discovered that fathers spent about 60 percent more time "attentively responding" to their daughters versus how they responded to their sons. They also spent a whopping five times more time interacting in silly ways, such as singing and whistling with their daughters. And lastly, the fathers spent more time openly discussing their emotions, including sadness, with the girls. They were more likely to use words like "cry" and "lonely," to describe their own emotions and what emotions the girls were experiencing.

And perhaps very tellingly, fathers also used more words focused on their daughter's bodies, including "fat," "feet," "belly," and "face." Although all interactions were innocent, of course, the researchers still wondered if the simple fact that at such a young age, girls learn to pay more attention to their looks, plays a role in long-term body image development.

On the opposite end, fathers interacted more physically with their sons, spending three times as long doing activities such as playful wrestling. They also tended to use more language that reflected achievement, such as words that included "proud," "win," or "best."

Interestingly enough, the study also found that it's not just fathers treating their daughters differently, but that the way their brain responds to their daughters is actually different. So the way fathers are wired, whether through years of social conditioning or something else, is to treat their daughters differently.

What the Study Means

Although the study is an interesting look at the fact that fathers interact with, speak to, and act differently around their daughters and sons, it still doesn't completely tell us why. It's similar to a chicken or egg scenario: Do daughters learn certain behaviors from the way their dads treat them or do fathers treat them a certain way because of the daughters' behavior? It's a difficult question that researchers think has many factors—parents' own upbringing, social biases, and gender "norms" all play a part.

For example, the fact that fathers used more words to describe emotions with girls may help them to learn to communicate their own feelings better and develop empathy for others.

According to many experts, parents and adults may be passing their own gender biases on to their children through their actions and how they treat them without even realizing it. So studies like this can help parents open their eyes to how they may be treating their children differently based on their genders and more importantly, how they can change their behavior in the future.

What You Can Do

Previous studies have shown that parents don't necessarily like to admit that they treat their children differently, which is understandable. But the study is an important one to help us recognize different ways we can help children of all genders to develop. If you're the father of sons, for example, you may want to spend extra time talking to your son about emotions, using specific words to name an emotion or talking about your own emotions.

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Article Sources
  • Mascaro, J. et al. (2017). Child gender influences paternal behavior, language, and brain function. Behavioral Neuroscience, 131(3), p. 262–273 Retrieved from