Dads of daughters: Your Father’s Day gift arrived early.
A new study gives dads high marks for attentiveness to their daughters — singing to them, quickly responding to their cries and validating a range of emotions including sadness.
The news is certainly good for little girls. But Joe Kelly shares why this is an especially sweet surprise for fathers.
“I had a smile on my face that somebody is digging that deep,” Kelly said. “The father-daughter relationship is far and away the least studied dynamic in families.”
Kelly is co-founder with his wife, Nancy Gruver, of New Moon Girls. The international online community was founded in Duluth, Minnesota, 25 years ago to help adults raise strong and confident daughters. Kelly also is author of six parenting books, including “Dads and Daughters,” and the father of 36-year-old twin daughters.
The study, said Kelly from his home in Richmond, California, “makes perfect sense.” He said, “Having a girl prompts men, and in some ways forces them, to talk more about their inner life than they were socialized to do growing up as boys.”
Published May 22 in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Behavioral Neuroscience, the study tracked 52 fathers of toddlers — 30 girls and 22 boys. Dads were asked to clip a small computer to their belt and wear it for one weekday and one weekend day. The device randomly turned on for 50 seconds every 9 minutes, including throughout the night.
Fathers also agreed to MRI brain scans while being shown photographs of adults and children exhibiting a range of emotions, from happy to sad to neutral.
Lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University said the findings were part of a larger study comparing brain function and hormonal shifts of about 130 Atlanta-area fathers and non-fathers.
One surprise in the findings, said Mascaro, was the “more analytical language” dads use in talking with their toddler girls, words that are tied to later academic success. Dads did not use this specific, complex language with their sons.
Dads also more freely entered the emotional zone with their girls. They used words such as cry, lonely, sad and tears more often with their daughters than with their sons, Mascaro found.
And they were quicker to respond to the cry of a daughter asking for Dad.
Are dads driven by biology? Cultural cues?
Mascaro said that’s the million-dollar question.
“We’d need to follow up to find out why,” she said. “Perhaps fathers feel more comfortable using those words, or perhaps the girls are pulling those words out of their dads.”
Kelly is heartened to see confirmation of what he has observed in writing about fatherhood for more than two decades.
“A man who is interacting with a daughter is interacting with ‘girl society,’ which is more emotionally literate, more driven by an inner life,” he said.
“For a man who was socialized to tamp it down, to repress emotions quite a bit, this is a new experience. A lot of dads raising daughters describe it as scary and liberating and unfamiliar. ‘But I get to sing!?’”
Still, Kelly and Mascaro acknowledge that the findings reveal potential parenting land mines.
Might, for example, a father’s protective instincts toward his daughter unwittingly lead her to believe that she is forever vulnerable and in need of protection, instead of powerful and in control of her life?
Conversely, if fathers default to rough-and-tumble play with their boys, and use words such as “win” and “proud,” which the study revealed, how will those little boys learn to comfortably express emotions and tears? Develop empathy?
“The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys — despite their best intentions — is important to recognize,” Mascaro said, noting that other research has tied restricted emotions in adult men to depression, decreased social intimacy and marital dissatisfaction.
“The results suggest that both sons and daughters are potentially missing out on positive interactions of different sorts,” said Mascaro, the mother of two young sons.
We don’t need a study to know that girls and boys benefit from freedom to express a range of emotions, from being hugged, from testing, and celebrating, their physical strength.
“It’s hard not to think of those things — gender notions, subtle bias,” Mascaro said. “It’s hard not to think of the impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy, the feeling that we control our lives.
“Most dads are trying to do the best they can to help their kids succeed,” she said. “I hope this is food for thought for potential studies that could look at future outcomes.”