If you thought "daddy's little girl" was a just cliché, think again.
According to a study published today in Behavioral Neuroscience, dads are more attentive and responsive to toddler daughters' needs than fathers with sons of the same age. Researchers studied the brain scans and random, daily recordings of interactions of a group of fathers and found that they "sang more often to their daughters and spoke more openly about emotions, including sadness, possibly because they are more accepting of girls' feelings than boys'."
And it's not just the touchy-feely stuff that dads doled out liberally to their daughters — what they said was different, too. Fathers with young sons tended to focus on achievements and more physical, rough-and-tumble play, using words like "win," "proud" and "top" more often than with girls. On the flip side, dads with daughters used more analytical, detail-oriented words like such as "all" and "much." The study authors noted that this kind of language has been linked to future educational and academic achievement.
The study, which is one of the few to research a father's role in child rearing, couldn't say one way or another whether our brains are wired to treat kids differently or we're just reacting to basic social norms.
"If the child cries out or asks for dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons," says lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro, PhD, of Emory University. "We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children," she says.
Not everything in the study skewed more favorably to girls. In the recordings of daily communication, dads used language that referenced their daughters' body parts ("belly" and "tummy") more often than fathers of sons. Research has shown that body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem increases for girls more than boys later on in adolescence.
Worried that you may have subtle gender biases and blind spots? You're most likely not alone. "Recognizing points of bias are often the first step in addressing them, and so the observation that we may talk about emotions less with boys could serve as a reminder to help all children, girls and boys, identify and label their emotions," says Mascaro. Here are some simple strategies to keep the parenting playing field a bit more even:
Don't be afraid to roughhouse. Research has shown that getting on the floor and physically (but safely) playing with your children — both boys and girls — can help them regulate their emotions.
Words matter. If what you say can affect everything from academic and physical achievement (think: sports and school) to body image, remember to use the same kind of healthy praise and attention with both your sons and daughters.
Be attentive to both boys and girls. "The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize," Mascaro says. Children who have their emotional needs met develop more empathy as they get older — which just might come in handy for dad (and mom) during those challenging teenage years.