Why do women tend to be more empathetic than men? Is there something unique about female physiology that produces the ability and willingness to experience another person's feelings? Or is empathy a learned trait we encourage in girls and discourage in boys?
A fascinating new study that observed fathers interacting with their toddlers lends evidence to the latter argument. It finds dads interacting with their two-year-olds in ways that reflect gender stereotypes.
The study reports fathers of sons "used more achievement language" during their interactions, while dads of daughters used more language "related to sadness and the body." It further finds fathers "were more actively engaged" with their female child.
"Fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions," says Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University, lead author of the new research. "If the child cries out or asks for dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons."
The study, in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, featured 52 fathers—30 with young girls, 22 with young boys. (The children averaged just under two years of age.) For two full days, each dad wore a device that periodically recorded their voice as they interacted with their child.
The recordings revealed that fathers engaged in more "rough and tumble play," such as "tickling, poking, and tumbling," with boys than girls. On the other hand, "fathers of girls used more sadness language when talking to their child."
In addition, "fathers of daughters engaged in more whistling and singing, and were significantly more engaged and responsive to their daughters," the researchers write. "This may facilitate the development of increased empathy in girls."
"Fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions."
The researchers also discovered some unexpected linguistic patterns.
"While fathers of sons use more language related to achievement, such as 'top,' 'win,' and 'proud," fathers of daughters used more analytical language," they report. Since such language has been "linked with future academic success," this "may help explain the consistent finding that girls outperform boys in school achievement."
"Additionally, fathers of daughters used more language referencing the body, such as 'belly,' 'foot,' and 'tummy,'" Mascaro and her colleagues note. In doing so, they may be instilling a hyper-consciousness of one's body way before puberty, which could lead to many problems in adolescence and beyond.
The fathers also underwent brain scans, which measured neural activity as they observed various images of their child's face. Here, too, some telling patterns emerged.
"The fathers' brains responded differently to the emotional facial expressions of daughters compared to sons," the researchers write. "Specifically, fathers of daughters had a more robust response to happy facial expressions in visual processing areas, likely reflecting increased attention of fathers to their daughters' happy faces."
Of course, this does not definitively settle the nature vs. nurture question. "Gender differences in paternal behavior may be the result of fathers responding to differential cues from the children, some of which may be highly influenced by biological sex differences," the researchers speculate.
As they note, it's possible that boys, having been "exposed to higher levels of fetal testosterone," essentially "ask" their dads for more rough-and-tumble play, and the fathers respond accordingly. What's more, such play arguably teaches emotional intelligence in its own way, given that it shows the child that certain physical actions that would be seen as threateningly aggressive in one context can be fun and harmless in another.
Nevertheless, the finding that fathers—or at least those participating in this small-scale study—were more attentive to their daughters is disturbing, and potentially revealing. If a boy learns early on that he is on his own, he could grow up to become fiercely self-reliant—or emotionally detached, with an inability to empathize with others.
Is that the lesson we want to be teaching our sons?