Examining the Father-Differentiating Hypothesis
The evidence has continued to accumulate since I brought it together in 1963 that fathers differentiate between sons and daughters more than mothers do. Although mothers clearly respond differently to their male and female children, the tendency to respond differently is more marked in fathers. Moreover, male and female children respond more differently to fathers than they do to mothers. The greater differentiation that fathers make between their sons and daughters and the greater differentiation sons and daughters make in their responses to fathers has been found in experimental and observational studies and in unconscious and conscious behavior and statements. These findings also seem to hold regardless of the age of the child. Although the associations are rarely strong and are not always found, the persistence of the trend in various types of studies suggests that they reflect an underlying phenomenon, namely, male dominance and male control over female sexuality.
This basic phenomenon is overlaid by other factors. First, in the
middle class in the United States at least, there is a remarkable lack of differential treatment of children of either gender by either parent, and also few behavioral differences between males and females have been found. Certainly compared to other societies, children in the United States are treated remarkably similarly and do not differ greatly from each other on the basis of gender, at least with respect to the variables ordinarily measured. Also in the larger picture, fathers not only have much less contact with children than mothers do, but also their style of interacting with children differs from that of mothers regardless of the child's gender. Fathers are more likely to engage in play activities than in routine caretaking, and they interact more briefly and intensely and physically with their children than do mothers. It is within these larger trends that the greater tendency for fathers to differentiate between genders occurs.
The greater differentiation on the part of fathers occurs even among parents who believe in "nonsexist" child-rearing and who conscientiously try to minimize gender-differentiating interactions. Moreover, this more-differentiating behavior of fathers cannot be explained by the fathers' lesser experience than mothers with early child care. Even when fathers are experienced primary caretakers, the differentiating behaviors continue. These findings fit with the commonsense perception that men and women are different, and they suggest that there may be some unconscious basis for some of these tendencies.
Generally, the gender-differentiating behavior of fathers takes two forms: withdrawal from girls (or preference for boys) and a differentiated style of interaction with girls. Fathers explicitly state that they feel more responsibility toward a male child than toward a female child. Generally, fathers want to have male offspring, and in the event of divorce they are more likely to maintain frequent contact with their boys than with their girls. Generally, fathers pay more attention to male children than to female children, both rewarding and punishing boys more than they do girls. For example, Margolin and Patterson, in a careful observational study of fourteen families with a boy and a girl, showed that although mothers did not differ in their responses to their sons and daughters, fathers provided almost twice as many positive responses to their sons as
to their daughters. Boys receive more punishment from both mothers and fathers than girls do, but fathers are more likely to physically punish boys than girls. Mothers tend to use indirect or more psychological methods on both genders.
Studies concerning infants find that fathers touch and vocalize to their newborn sons more frequently and contingently than to their newborn daughters and that fathers' relative withdrawal from daughters becomes much more pronounced during the second year of life, when fathers become twice as active in interacting with their sons as with their daughters. Mothers do not withdraw from sons nor step up their interaction with daughters in a complementary fashion.
A recent study of adult-child verbal interaction, using trained child confederates in order to control for the influence of children themselves, found that women did not respond differently on the basis of the child's gender in either an unstructured or a structured situation. Men, in contrast, made a substantial differentiation on the basis of gender; they spoke more often and longer with boys than with girls in the unstructured situation. In the structured situation men spoke more to both boys and girls than women did. Here the father's actions might be interpreted as modeling for and being a fellow male with the boy and paying less heed to the girl.
Going beyond the question of amount of interaction, studies that have included both fathers and mothers and sons and daughters show that fathers both behave differently and reinforce gender-stereotypical behaviors more than mothers do. Fathers have more gender-stereotyped attitudes toward newborns than mothers do, and fathers are more likely to encourage gender-stereotyped toys and play behaviors.
Fathers, more than mothers, interact in a different manner with boys and girls and "come across" to them differently. Alfred Heilbrun of Emory University found that brothers and sisters had differing reactions to the same father, with girls perceiving him as being more nurturant than boys saw him to be. Sons tended to describe their fathers in terms of adjectives depicting domination and control, such as aggressive, assertive, autocratic, confident, dominant, forceful, outspoken, and strong. Sons also use adjectives associating their fathers with goal attainment, such as deliberate,
enterprising, foresighted, industrious, inventive, and shrewd. Daughters, by contrast, described their fathers as forgiving, modest, praising, sensitive, talkative, and warm. Brothers and sisters mostly agreed with each other in their perceptions of their mothers, though, and the disagreements that showed up had no consistent pattern. Heilbrun's findings strongly suggest that boys associate fathers with dominance and instrumental qualities and that girls see fathers as expressive and nondemanding toward them.
Jeanne Block has reported that, in each of four separate studies of parents of children of four different age groups, greater paternal differentiation in child-rearing orientations is consistently found. Block has also showed that in teaching situations fathers interact differently with sons and daughters. With their sons, fathers set higher standards and place greater emphasis on solving the cognitive problem at hand; with their daughters, fathers are more likely to focus on the pleasures of interacting together. With daughters, fathers are less likely to explain principles and patterns or to show the way to solutions, and they are more likely to treat mistakes as nothing to worry about. A study on parents of toddler girls found that fathers like to have toddler girls around but are less likely than mothers to let them "help." Fathers are especially likely to comfort daughters and to try to protect them from experiencing failure.
On the basis of findings such as these, it is not surprising that the factor of "paternal nurturance" has been found to be significantly associated with cognitive competence for boys but not for girls. Norma Radin, who reports this, suggests that perhaps the father's presence stimulates cognitive growth in girls only if the relationship is not too loving. My feeling is that even if fathers were to emphasize the cognitive aspects of a learning situation with daughters, there would likely be some sort of metacommunication transmitted that refers to the father's perceptions of difference. I am thinking particularly of a scene in a film designed to encourage fathers to stimulate their daughters' intellectual capacities. In this scene the father is showing a leaf to his toddler daughter while he is holding her as if she were made of china and were likely to break. He was also speaking to her in a whispery voice that would seem quite strange if the child had been a toddler boy. At a somewhat
later age the father may undercut cognitive learning with a flirtatious attitude toward the daughter. One of the earliest studies to discuss father differentiating phenomena noted that fathers of young girls were more likely to flirt with them than were mothers to flirt with young sons.
The father is also likely to be giving messages about gender to his son, namely, that it is important for males to be cognitively competent and to compete effectively. A male student of mine once commented with some bitterness that his father was highly critical of his moves when he played chess with him, whereas he was very appreciative of his sister's least sign of intelligence. With the son, the father said in effect, "That will do for a start"; with the daughter, the father said, "You are so cute." It is in ways such as these that fathers encourage a kind of male-oriented "darling girl" orientation in daughters and a power-competence orientation in sons. Mothers with sons do not make differentiations symmetrical to fathers'.
In a systematic observational study of some seventy-eight parent-child dyads in Central Mexico, Phyllis Bronstein found that mothers did not differ in their behaviors toward girls and boys but that fathers did distinctly differentiate along the lines discussed above. She suggests that this
may play an important role in the socialization of their children for traditional sex roles. Boys were listened to and shown how to do things, which would seem to convey the message that what they have to say is important and that they are capable of mastering new skills. Girls, on the other hand, were treated especially gently, and at the same time, with a lack of fall attention and an imposing of opinions and values. The gentle treatment would seem to convey the message that they are fragile and docile. . . . The inattention and imposing of opinion would seem to communicate the view that what females have to say is less valuable than what males have to say, so that females need to be told more what to think and do, and can more readily be interrupted or ignored. Thus in this sample of Mexican families, very different messages were being transmitted to girls and boys—about their roles, their temperaments, their thinking, and their expected behavior—and fathers were the main transmittors of those messages.
These data are important in suggesting that at least in patriarchal cultures where fathers, as opposed to brothers or other male kin, head families, the behavior of fathers is similar.
Other evidence comes from a study by William McBroom of unmarried university women's acceptance of stereotyped expectations for the domestic role of married women. Using a scale containing such items as "a woman's place is in the home" and "a woman should yield to her husband regarding her own employment," McBroom found that women who rejected such items had poor childhood relationships with their fathers and that the women who endorsed such expectations had good relationships with their fathers. Good childhood relationships with mothers had no such traditionalizing effects.
Fathers also seem to be less alarmed about aggression in sons than about their sons' not fitting in with their male peers. In a study of forty sets of middle-class parents of children of both genders, Margaret Bacon and Richard Ashmore report that mothers ranked hostile aggressive behaviors highest on a continuum of behaviors they would consider to be problems in both sons and daughters; fathers ranked poor peer adjustment as an even greater problem than aggression in boys. Fathers consider such hypothetical items as "being pushed around," "getting stomachaches before school," "being left out of games," and "just sitting around" to be more serious problems than being hostile and aggressive. The authors suggest that the fathers might have perceived poor peer relations as indicating "feminine" or "sissy" behavior in boys. Here again is some evidence that fathers are concerned about boys being masculine and that fathers mediate between boys and the male peer group.
When one considers how many studies have been done on mother-child interaction and how few of these find differences in the way mothers interact with male and female children, and how few studies have been done on father- or adult male-child interactions and how many of these do find differences, one must suspect that fathers' differentiating attitudes will become increasingly apparent as more research on parenting includes both fathers and mothers.
A number of other studies seem to suggest in one way or another that girls who are close to their fathers are more, rather than less,
"feminine" and that boys who are close to their fathers are more, rather than less, "masculine." In these studies, the measures of masculinity and femininity are highly problematic and often obscure the maternal heterosexual distinction that I am making. That is, one cannot tell whether the qualities being measured are those related to mothering or to being a dependent wife and a subordinate in heterosexual relations. Generally, the masculinity-femininity tests used were self-administered and consisted of questions describing behavioral preferences or attitudes that men and women tend to consistently answer differently, but the reasons for the differences are not always clear. Nevertheless, the studies are worth examining.
Perhaps the most frequently used masculinity-femininity test is the Gough Femininity Scale (Fe Scale) of the California Personality Inventory. This same inventory also has a Socialization Scale (So Scale), which differentiates to some extent between delinquents and nondelinquents and measures the degree to which individuals can view themselves from the point of view of the other. Jack Block, Anna Von der Lippe, and Jeanne Block examined the association between adult subjects' scores on these two scales and variables related to parents that were collected when the subjects were children. The results suggest that the mother plays a more prominent role in general socialization and that the father is more involved with "femininity," which on this test does not mean mothering but may mean being passive and attractive. In this study the prior variables that distinguished women who ranked high on the femininity scale from those who ranked low on the socialization scale were their own physical attractiveness, a rejecting mother who did not emphasize values of tenderness and love in relationships, and a seductive father. Since the mothers of the highly feminine girls were rejecting and inadequate, one might presume the girls' "femininity" did not come from them, but since the fathers were seductive, this seductiveness may have been the source of a passive, male-oriented (and nonmaternal) femininity. The other finding of interest was that girls who were ranked low on the femininity scale and high on the socialization scale were, first of all, the best adjusted group. Femininity has been found in many other studies not to be related to adjustment. Less "feminine" women had affectionate fathers who were ranked high on marital adjustment, and who, presumably, were less inclined to play husband-
wife games with their daughters. Fathers who play these games are powerfully reinforcing male dominance, because their own objective power position over the daughter is great.
There is considerable evidence that both boys and girls do use the relationship with their father, or with adult males, as a lever to help them out of their early dependency relationship with their mother. Father "identification" involving both imitation and attachment increases with age and intelligence for children of both genders. Helene Deutsch uses clinical findings to make the same point in The Psychology of Women: "As the child with gradually increasing intensity turns away from the mother and childhood dependencies in favor of active adjustment to reality, this reality is represented more and more by the father —and this is true of both boys and girls" (vol. 1, p. 243). Significantly enough, Deutsch follows this by saying, "Contrary to our previous views, the girl's first turn toward the father has an active, not a passive character, and her passive attitude is only a secondary development" (p. 252). What seems to happen is that the girl turns to her father to help her out of her dependency on her mother, and within the fatherdaughter relationship the girl may indeed achieve a measure of independence from the mother, but she is at the same time likely to become dependent on the father and to overvalue men.
Whereas most fathers do seem to "traditionalize" daughters, there is considerable research support for the view that many, though by no means the majority of, female high achievers were close to their fathers and had their fathers' support and encouragement. But this closeness and support may be a mixed blessing at best if it perpetuates women's achieving simply to please a man or to do credit to the judgment of a man. Being a daddy's girl can interfere with female autonomy. Susan Contratto writes of seeing many high-achieving middle-class women patients in therapy who in one way or another find it extremely difficult to be assertive with men. Daddy's girls may be very assertive with men if the men approve of what they are being assertive about and back them up. Such women, however, have trouble asserting, or even knowing, their own needs. This lack of autonomy is the direct product of the nuclear family situation in which the father-daughter relationship can all too easily train the daughter, even though she may be highly "accomplished," in wifely deference.