Parental care is essential for the survival of mammals, yet the mechanisms underlying its evolution remain largely unknown. Here we show that two sister species of mice, Peromyscus polionotus and Peromyscus maniculatus, have large and heritable differences in parental behaviour. Using quantitative genetics, we identify 12 genomic regions that affect parental care, 8 of which have sex-specific effects, suggesting that parental care can evolve independently in males and females. Furthermore, some regions affect parental care broadly, whereas others affect specific behaviours, such as nest building. Of the genes linked to differences in nest-building behaviour, vasopressin is differentially expressed in the hypothalamus of the two species, with increased levels associated with less nest building. Using pharmacology in Peromyscus and chemogenetics in Mus, we show that vasopressin inhibits nest building but not other parental behaviours. Together, our results indicate that variation in an ancient neuropeptide contributes to interspecific differences in parental care.