Play’s the thing: what mums and dads do differently

New research in TCD lab focuses on how parents, babies and toddlers interact

The differences fathers and mothers bring to the parenting equation may be a sensitive topic in our era of equality, but researchers at Trinity College Dublin are currently looking very closely at the impact of gender on parent-toddler interactions.

"We started from the idea that fathers are pretty neglected in research with children, for the most part," says Dr Jean Quigley, a lecturer in TCD's school of psychology, who is leading this research, along with her colleague Dr Elizabeth Nixon.

A lot is known about how mothers communicate with babies, and about the developmental outcomes associated with a mother’s parenting style; not so much about fathers’ direct interaction with their children. This project is intent on capturing how fathers interact with their children – not to see if it’s better or worse than mothers, stresses Nixon, but rather to examine the differences.

It is the first major study to use the new infant and child research laboratory in the psychology department at Trinity. The researchers are observing and filming real-time interactions between children and parents, which are then painstakingly analysed to give a better insight into how they are communicating.


The results will feed into research on language acquisition and development, emotional development, and parenting and family systems.

“We have done this sort of work before, but mostly by bringing cameras into people’s homes,” says Quigley. “We can now bring people in and have something much more sophisticated: a little more control over the environment.”

Soften the atmosphere

Standing in the lab’s control area, behind the one-way mirror that separates it from the room beyond, a police interrogation centre springs to mind. A small table and three chairs are pushed close to one wall in the adjoining room but two colourful mats on the green carpet, one made out of numbers and the other of letters, soften the atmosphere.

These mats are the focal points for the two cameras on the ceiling, which are operated from behind the mirrored wall. By the end of this year, researchers hope at least 100 families will have stepped into the play lab, for sessions that last up to three hours. For this particular project they are looking for a mother and father with a toddler aged between 22 and 26 months (see sidebar).

As soon as a couple enter the room with a child to start a session, variations in behaviour start to become apparent.

“Typically” – a phrase which Quigley and Nixon are at pains to use frequently when discussing observed gender differences – fathers are quick to get down on the ground. They are likely to lie down, curved around the child, while mothers will more often be on their knees, more upright over the child.

Such details may sound banal, says Quigley, but they all shape the interaction. “We are reasonably confident that we are capturing not just the interaction in this room but what it is they are doing [at home].”

The family of three is observed through phases of structured play and free play; there are also assessments of the child and questionnaires to be filled in by both parents, so each parent is alone with the child for a period.

Knowing that they are being recorded, aren’t parents likely to be on their best behaviour and at their most attentive?

“Actually, people forget remarkably quickly and are quite naturalistic,” says Quigley. “They are left in the room by themselves and very quickly the toys take over. It is quite hard not to be natural with your own child, quite hard to adopt a totally different style of interacting.”

However, with the pattern of “shift parenting” that many couples develop at home, it may be reasonably unusual to have both the mother and father playing with the child at the same time.

“The advantage of that is that the kids love it,” notes Quigley. “They seem to really enjoy the attention and the focus.”

Voice patterns

One area of potential difference between fathers and mothers is complexity of language and voice patterns used in conversation with babies and toddlers.

“For example, mums are more tuned into their babies’ ability in terms of language and they tend to adjust their speech and use the words they know the babies know,” says Quigley. They are also more likely to know what their child is trying to say.

Fathers often, although not always of course, don’t spend as much time with the small child or baby, so are not as clued in to exactly what words they know and don’t know and, therefore, use more complex language.

“Dads are more challenging,” says Nixon, explaining how lots of studies show that fathers’ vocabulary during book-reading sessions, for instance, have a unique, independent effect on the child’s vocabulary a year later compared with the mother’s.

Besides the words spoken, the acoustic profile of a mother and father is also likely to be very different. There are very subtle alterations, such as in pitch, that, typically, mothers use with babies and men tend not to.

“You can’t hear it yourself,” says Quigley, but automated software tracks the profile on recordings. “It is the variation that is important.”

Fathers probably do raise their voices a little when talking to a baby or a small child but they don’t vary it the way women do, which is the really engaging aspect for the baby, she explains.

“That is what the baby is listening out for – the variation in pitch – and the baby is really, really interested in it. That’s what hooks them in and that’s where you get all the learning: the eye contact, the facial expressions and watching. It is really important.”

In this research, emotional regulation of the toddler is another area they are looking at: how children learn about feelings and what to do with them.

Two-year-old children are poor at regulating their own emotions, points out Nixon – hence the so-called “terrible twos” – but it is a skill they are starting to learn. The researchers are looking at the role parents can play in holding difficult emotions.

“When a child becomes upset or frustrated, how does the parent respond? Do they acknowledge that; do they understand it from the baby’s point of view; do they provide comfort?

“It is through these type of interactions that babies learn to manage that kind of stress and emotion,” she says. What starts as co-regulation eventually becomes self-regulation for the child.

“What we see are differences in how mums and dads engage in that sort of regulation process.” This becomes apparent in a mastery task, which the child is given during the session.

Mild frustration

The idea is that the child will experience some mild frustration, says Quigley. They are looking to see whether the child persists with a difficult game and how and which parents help them to do that – whether they use language, what cues from the child are noticeable to the parent, or not, and how they respond to them, and so on.

“Fathers tend to be more comfortable with more frustration, allowing it to happen a little bit before jumping in or trying to help,” she says. “Mothers tend to want to help more and to very quickly smooth over the frustration. In that way they are doing a lot of the regulation for the child.”

Whether we are praising children too much is a question of much debate in the media, continues Quigley, and they’re looking at what exactly parents are saying in those situations.

“Is it person praise – ‘good girl’, ‘good boy’, ‘you’re so clever’ – or is it process praise – ‘you’re working really hard at that’, ‘keep at it you’ll get it’ – and whether there is any association between that sort of commentary and whether the child persists, and how long they persist, and whether they seek help.” Already they are seeing differences relating to gender.

“Typically” fathers use a good deal less praise and commentary through the session. Their verbal contributions “tend to be more measured and tend to be focused on a specific event or behaviour, as opposed to the ‘You’re great’,” says Quigley.


A more unusual aspect of this research will be looking at the family “as a system”, says Nixon – the triad. “The subtle ways in which mums, for example, may support dads’ unique style of interaction with their babies – or may undermine it.”

Researchers will be teasing out the styles of both parents and looking for what the child responds to when both parents may be talking over each other and giving contradictory instructions.

On average, says Quigley, they use about 20 to 25 minutes of a filmed session for comprehensive analysis.

This involves hours and hours of work by students, coding the interactions. They log, for example, the number of question words used, the time between responses, and so on.

Many of the behaviour traits they are recording aren’t visible to the naked eye, she explains. “You don’t see the pattern of responses that are being set up.” They become apparent only in slowed-down, frame-by-frame observations.

While they are yet to start analysing this data, one question is does the difference between mothers' and fathers' interaction with the child matter? But for now, "It is about understanding how parents, whether it is by virtue of their gender, or their education level, or whatever, bring something different," says Nixon.

Quigley continues: “We are talking [about] quite subtle gradients of developmental outcome here. By statistically analysing you can find an association between complexity of vocabulary used with a child and their vocabulary 15 months later.

“But we are talking [about] quite small variation – it is not about, for instance, if there is not a man in the house there is a whole piece of the developmental picture missing. It is simply analysing the pathways by which different ‘inputs’, if you want to put it like that, have different effects.”

The ultimate aim is, of course, to look at the long-term effects, adds Quigley, and they hope to recall families.

“But we are also really interested in how does it work on a daily basis? On a moment-by-moment basis? Because that, ultimately, is what causes the effects down the line.”

For more information, see

Conversations with baby: child-parent interaction from day one is essential We're born social creatures and babies want to interact with caregivers, so parents need to let them into the "conversation".

This means establishing a pattern of turn-taking, for which the baby’s response may be a gaze, a smile, a gurgle. While running commentary may help to enrich a child’s vocabulary, it is the parent-child “conversations” that promote positive development and a good relationship.

"When babies are born they have no sense of self or personhood and it is developed only through being treated as if they do," says Dr Elizabeth Nixon of TCD's school of psychology.

Her colleague Dr Jean Quigley continues: "When you watch videos, slowed down frame by frame, of tiny one-week, two-week, six-week-old babies interacting with somebody, you see they have a really wide repertoire of things they do to engage attention. They are doing all sorts of things and, quite predictably, they are interacting with you."

To make the most of these interactions, parents have to learn to read their child’s signals. While a balance between routine and novelty is important, the right level will vary from child to child – what’s arousing for one child will be overstimulation for another, says Nixon.

You can and should read to a baby from the first couple of months on, adds Quigley. “Reading aloud to your child is really, really important.”