Parental behavior is pervasive throughout the animal kingdom and essential for species survival. However, the relative contribution of the father to offspring care differs markedly across animals, even between related species. The mechanisms that organize and control paternal behavior remain poorly understood. Using Sprague-Dawley rats and C57BL/6 mice, two species at opposite ends of the paternal spectrum, we identified that distinct electrical oscillation patterns in neuroendocrine dopamine neurons link to a chain of low dopamine release, high circulating prolactin, prolactin receptor-dependent activation of medial preoptic area galanin neurons, and paternal care behavior in male mice. In rats, the same parameters exhibit inverse profiles. Optogenetic manipulation of these rhythms in mice dramatically shifted serum prolactin and paternal behavior, whereas injecting prolactin into non-paternal rat sires triggered expression of parental care. These findings identify a frequency-tuned brain-endocrine-brain circuit that can act as a gain control system determining a species' parental strategy.