Nature, nurture, let’s call the whole thing off. A new study monitoring interactions between fathers and their girl spawn found striking differences in the content and frequency of their interactions compared to those with their sons, The Guardian reported. Most striking: Fathers spent 60 percent more time “attentively responding” when their toddler was a girl. Boy toddlers were out of luck unless they wanted to form a human pyramid together to fight a dragon.
The study, published in Behavioral Neuroscience, involved scrutinizing a 48-hour period of play where fathers wore clips that recorded ambient noise at random intervals (Mascaro notes that in such studies, people behave “shockingly normal” and quickly forget the device is even there). Then, researchers transcribed the interactions with kids and analyzed the data.
What followed was a generic send-up of some of our most basic assumptions about gender differences. With daughters, fathers were five times more likely to sing, whistle, and talk about feelings — especially sadness. They also made more frequent references to the girl’s body parts, such as face, cheek and fat. For sons, they reserved achievement-centric language like “win” and “best” and “proud,” and rough-and-tumble play.
“We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children,” the study’s lead author, Jennifer Mascaro, an assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at Emory University, told The Guardian.
It’s true, because even though it seems like girls are getting the red-carpet treatment here with fathers who are engaged and attentive (all pluses), regarding girls as delicate flowers and boys as resilient rocks translates into the perception that girls nurture, feel and discuss and boys save, do and argue. If that were even true across the board, which it isn’t, we double down on this proposition by devaluing those alleged girl skills and overvaluing the alleged boy ones. We discourage boys from girl activities and girls from boy activities. It predestines women to lower-paid, lower-value jobs and conscripts them to the social role of den mother and office-colleague-birthday-rememberer to the world. Meanwhile, men get to go off starting fires for fun or whatever, but remain cut off from emotion and intimacy.
This also makes economic recovery difficult for men in vanishing manufacturing jobs who balk at taking “pink-collar” jobs in nursing or education once thought to be the province of women. Being skilled at emotions and reading others’ emotions is now considered one of the most essential job skills, and it’s one that we’re still giving women a leg up on.
But to be fair: Mothers do it, too. A 2014 study in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that mothers also use more emotional content with daughters than sons, reinforcing that it’s okay for women to have lots of feelings, but not men. Other studies have shown that mothers are far more critical of their daughters than their sons, leaving girls with an endless internal monologue of doubt and self-scrutiny. Meanwhile, boys are free to inherit their fire-starting kit.
At the heart of this study and others like it are ongoing questions: Are fathers and mothers simply responding to their children’s cues, which are connected to real sex differences? Or are we simply reinforcing the gender notions we’ve been raised with and are comfortable perpetuating? The researchers cite studies that show male fetal exposure to testosterone is linked to rougher play, and studies show some of these biological differences are real. Girls develop social skills and structured play earlier on — but (except for all of my ex-boyfriends)—boys eventually do catch up on these skills. What’s more, such differences aren’t present in all members of the species, nor do they hold true over time —some boys learn polite, cooperative play eventually and some girls master the art of being rough-housing wildebeests, too.
But whether the dice came loaded or not, this is not an easy course to reverse, even when you want to. The Guardian cites a psychologist who explains that even just telling your daughter that “Girls can be firefighters, not just boys,” actually just reinforces the idea that girls aren’t inherently cut from the firefighter cloth in the first place.
This is why guides to more gender-neutral parenting usually start with parents having to undergo their own gender-neutral training, checking biases and being open to feedback from others about missteps. It’s a steep hill to climb, but the alternative is living in a men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus world where we imagine ourselves to be aliens from different planets, forever struggling to connect, when in reality, we’re the same species.
“Boys and girls are more similar than they are different, so assuming that all parents should rough and tumble play with boys and not girls, or that parents should pay attention to girls’ feelings more than boys’ feelings, may end up creating or deepening gender differences in kids,” professor Lisa Dinella told The Guardian.
That’s why one professor of gender and psychology thinks we should start by updating that Venus/Mars metaphor with a new, more accurate one that better indicates our real differences: Men are from North Dakota and women are from South Dakota. That’s a distance you can get your head, and hopefully your parenting, around.