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Dads show gender biases, in both brain responses and behaviors toward toddlers

eScienceCommons

Neuroscientist Jennifer Mascaro finds that a toddler's gender influences the brain responses and behavior of fathers in a new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience.

A toddler’s gender influences the brain responses as well as the behavior of fathers — from how attentive they are to their child, to the types of language that they use and the play that they engage in, a new study by Emory University finds.

The journal Behavioral Neuroscience published the study, the first to combine brain scans of fathers with behavioral data collected as fathers interacted with their children in a real-world setting.

One of the more striking behavioral differences was the level of attention given a child.

“When a child cried out or asked for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” says Jennifer Mascaro, who led the research as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Emory anthropologist James Rilling, senior author of the study. “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”

Mascaro is now an assistant professor in Family and Preventive Medicine at the Emory School of Medicine.

In addition to being more attentive, fathers of daughters sang more often to their child and were more likely to use words associated with sad emotions, such as “cry,” “tears” and “lonely.” Fathers of daughters also used more words associated with the body, such as “belly,” “cheek,” “face,” “fat” and “feet.”

Fathers of sons engaged in more rough-and-tumble play with their child and used more language related to power and achievement — words such as “best,” “win,” “super” and “top.” In contrast, fathers of daughters used more analytical language — words such as “all,” “below” and “much” — which has been linked to future academic success.  

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