You may have seen or experienced that dads often respond differently to sons and daughters. But why is that?

You may have seen or experienced that dads often respond differently to sons and daughters. But why is that?

An article published in the American Psychological Association’s Behavioral Neuroscience journal found that, when measured by brain scans and observation, fathers of toddler girls are more attentive and responsive to their children than fathers of sons.

Fathers of sons on the other hand, are more likely to engage in rough and tumble play with their children than fathers of daughters. Dads also use different kinds of language with their sons than their daughters. Dads with sons are more likely to use achievement-related language, such as “proud” and “win”. While dads with daughters use more analytical language, such as “all” and “much.”

Our unconscious ideas about gender roles can affect how we treat people, even our children.

Our unconscious ideas about gender roles can affect how we treat people, even our children. While receiving a functional MRI, fathers of daughters showed more response to their child’s happy facial expression than fathers of sons; the areas of their brains responsible for visual processing, reward, emotion regulation and face processing were more active.

Most fathers probably have no idea that their brains respond differently to sons and daughters.


Possible Explanations

So why do fathers respond differently to their sons and daughters? There are two possible explanations. Behavioral and emotional responses to children are either biologically based or they are learned. In reality, it’s most likely a bit of both.

Social learning plays a huge role in the way we see the world and interact with people around us. We are all taught, often indirectly, about gender roles. We are socialized to think that men and women are ‘supposed’ to be a certain way. Men are expected to be more masculine, and women are expected to be more nurturing.

Social learning is a crucial aspect to our development as people, and much of what we learn is subliminal. Which is partially why dad brains react differently to sons and daughters. It's also why they have no idea it's even happening. 

On the other hand, there are chemical and physical differences between the male and female brain. This would support the possibility that there is a biological basis for why dad brains react differently to sons and daughters.

What Can Dads Do?

You can't change the way you were socialized, but you definitely have the ability to change your thoughts and actions.  Take advantage of your brain's ability to change over your lifetime.

The best thing a dad can do is be aware that he might be inclined to treat his sons and daughters differently. 

Being aware is the first step, but making changes is the next. Talk to your sons about emotions the same way you would talk to your daughter. Engage in equal amounts of rough and tumble play.  Pay attention to the language you use with your sons and daughters.

Making a conscious effort to treat sons and daughters the same could make all the difference.


About Kate Carr

Kate Carr is a recent grad from the University of Vermont with a degree in Psychology. She's interested in social marketing and is the Editorial Content Associate for Zift. 

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    Comments: 2

  • Kate C.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your comment on my piece Crissa. My goal is not to dad shame, but to encourage all parents to be self-aware in their interactions and to hopefully encourage equality instead of stereotypes. I appreciate your feedback and agree that parents naturally adjust to their children’s individuality and we celebrate that! If you have more thoughts to share with us and other parents, we’d love for you to join our parenting group on Facebook. www.facebook.com/groups/SurvivingModernParenting/

  • Crissa B.

    This was all interesting until I got to the "What Can Dads Do?" section. Why must dads do something?? The author needs to state and defend her *assumption* that it is wrong for dads to treat sons and daughters differently for the article to make any sense.

    My husband is an excellent father, and he definitely treats our sons differently than our daughter. Why? Because they *are* different! (However, he learned very quickly that one of our sons does not enjoy the rough play and teasing that the other two do. Parents naturally adjust to each son and daughter as an individual, too.)

    As stated in the article, " . . . there are chemical and physical differences between the male and female brain." I'm grateful for this admission! Yes, males are different than females. Sons are different than daughters. Dads are different than moms. All this has been understood throughout history. Now must we be embarrassed by it?

    The reason I feel compelled to comment is that I can't stand the thought of a conscientious dad reading this and feeling guilty. There are many dads who do not interact with their children at all. I think the ones who are prioritizing time with their children should not have to second-guess their interactions and wonder if they are being "fair" (gender-blind?). Especially if they are not given any evidence that this is cause for concern!