Fathers and daughters

Sigmund Freud said, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection,” and for much of the past century men have been encouraged to believe their role as a parent was simply that of a protective but emotionally distant provider. This notion was further reinforced by popular theories in child development that implied the relationship between mother and child was the only one of any real significance.

Of course, there is no argument that a father’s protection is needed now more than ever before, but in today’s complicated world, a child needs so much more from their dad than is provided by the traditional concept of father as protector. The reality is that today’s father needs to be an involved and emotionally available co-parent.

There has been a huge shift in parenting in the past few decades and much attention has been given to the importance of a father’s role in raising his children. Research has repeatedly shown that a strong paternal relationship is fundamental, not only for the welfare of the child, but also the wellbeing of the father himself.

The significance of fathering is beautifully illustrated in the book, The Collected Wisdom of Fathers, by Will Glennon, who writes, “Fathering is different from mothering. We come to our task from the outside, and captured in that configuration is the miracle we have to offer; for true fathering is not the physical act of planting a seed; it is the conscious decision to tend and nourish the seedling. Real fathering is not biological — it is the conscious choice to build an unconditional and unbreakable connection to another human being.”

Much of the recent acknowledgment of paternal parenting has been focused on the relationship between father and son as human male offspring have, historically, essentially learned their skills by working side by side in apprenticeship with their father. While recognising the importance of fathers being available to their sons is to be applauded, the enormous importance of dads in the lives of their daughters is often forgotten or overlooked.

Fathers, as the primary male role models in girls’ lives, have a profound influence on their daughters. While many men do have a sense of that influence, they don’t necessarily grasp the underlying principles behind it. Having grown up as a boy, it is virtually impossible for an adult male to understand what it’s like to be a girl. This gender inexperience, often coupled with psychological conditioning from their own upbringing that girls are the sole responsibility of the mother, causes some men to shy away from getting “too close” to, or exploring deeper relationships with, their daughters.

The impact of a father’s behaviour on his daughter is nothing short of overwhelming and can make a huge difference to the quality of his daughter’s life. Research repeatedly demonstrates that paternal influence can and does affect many facets of a woman’s life, from her sense of self to the treatment she comes to expect from men and even her career and academic success. To become a successful and strong woman, a daughter requires the attention and wisdom as well as the protection of her father. A successful and strong father is one who sees this as an opportunity as well as an obligation.

Dr Bruce Robinson, author of Daughters and Their Dads and Fathering From the Fast Lane, says an involved father is not only a moral anchor for his daughter but a role model of independence and competency who demonstrates the way to navigate the world outside of the family. The importance of the relationship between father and daughter has altered somewhat in recent decades for a number of reasons. Fathers don’t get as much time with their daughters as they used to, because they are being asked to work harder and longer than ever before and have less time available to spend with their children. When they are around, they’re often busy, tired or distracted because they’re mentally exhausted.

Daughters are also exposed to a lot more potentially risky influences than was ever the case when their fathers were young. In a society where girls are bombarded with negative, false and superficial media portrayals of women, a strong, present and protective father has never been more critical. The media sends messages to even very young girls that it’s normal to experiment with sex and that they need to be a certain size, have a certain look or dress immodestly to be beautiful.

To counteract the negative effects of this media onslaught, dads need to spend time with their daughters. Says Dr Robinson, “If dad’s never home and his daughter watches a movie with inappropriate content or something happens on the news, he won’t be there to discuss it. The teachable moment has disappeared. Whereas, if dad is around enough, when issues do arise, he can make a point. You have to have the time for the teachable moments. “You also have to say the right thing at such moments. One of the best approaches with girls is ultimately to say, ‘You don’t need to do that or dress like that that — you’re already beautiful.’ Otherwise, girls will be affected by it.”

What a daughter needs to hear

Dr Robinson believes there are three main things that a daughter needs from her father: a sense of her own beauty, a sense of self-confidence and a sense of how she should expect to be treated by a man. A father needs to tell his daughter she is beautiful with an emphasis on inner beauty as opposed to prettiness. Prettiness fades, but a woman can become more beautiful as she ages. Mothers should have that input as well, but girls expect their mums to say they’re beautiful and have a tendency to look outside their gender for validation, usually from their father or from a father figure.

Daughters are susceptible to the actual words their fathers use. Those words can be powerful or destructive. American First Lady, Michelle Obama, was recently quoted in a magazine saying, “I had a father and a brother who thought I was beautiful, and they made me feel that way every single day. I grew up with very strong male role models who thought I was smart and fast and funny, so I heard that a lot. I know that there are many young girls who don’t hear it.”

It’s extremely important to articulate the risks a teenage girl can face if her father doesn’t encourage in her a sense of her own beauty. Dr Robinson says a girl has a radar for what the opposite gender thinks of her. The very first point that radar lands on is her father and if he says she is beautiful and makes her feel worthwhile and special, she doesn’t need to go searching around the broader community for further validation. If he doesn’t, she won’t get that sense of her own beauty. She is at greater risk of poor body image and eating disorders because she hasn’t been told she should be happy with her body. She may begin to dress inappropriately and seek out boys who are going to tell her she’s attractive. The number one cause of teenage promiscuity is girls searching for the love and affection their dads didn’t give them.

A father needs to let his daughter know he believes in her. In our society, though this is changing, most people a girl sees in positions of power are male, so praise and recognition from the male authority figure in her life can give her a certain confidence that other girls might find more difficult to achieve. Listening and letting a daughter know that her opinions are valued is an important factor in developing her self-esteem. Girls tend to be more verbal than boys and love to talk, so it’s crucial to pay positive attention to what she has to say. Dismissing her opinions and dreams as “stupid” can crush her confidence, so choosing the right words to validate her thoughts is imperative.

Dr Robinson says there’s plenty of evidence that dads are more likely to be risk takers and allow risk taking in their children, something he believes helps build confidence in girls. “You can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Appropriate risk is an important part of life. If she grows up without being told to have a go, she won’t. She won’t form or express opinions and will be too frightened to have a go at things for fear of failure and humiliation.” No matter how capable a woman is, if she isn’t made to feel confident by her father or by a father figure, she can grow up lacking in self-confidence, no matter how successful she may become.

A father also teaches his daughter how she can expect to be treated by males when she is older by the way he speaks and acts towards her. Observing the way her father treats his spouse and other significant females in his life is the model on which a daughter bases her future relationships with males. Statistics indicate that a significant proportion of girls who grow up with violent or aggressive fathers end up in relationships with violent men. If a girl is treated with respect, she won’t put up with anything less from boys. Conversely, if she is treated with no respect, she won’t grow up to expect it. A father needs to be respectful of his daughter and allow her to assert herself without aggression.

Adds Dr Robinson, “The number one factor that determines a woman’s likelihood of having a successful marriage is the relationship she had with her dad. When a father reflects on the enormity of this influence and responsibility, it can seem frightening.”

The importance of time

A father needs to give his daughter time. It’s important to get rid of the old notion of “quality time”. You can’t engineer quality moments and memories; they just happen. As for quantity of time, there are plenty of dads who are home a lot but hang around doing nothing. Dr Robinson points out, “Neither quality or quantity time work by themselves — quality moments happen on a platform of a quantity of time.”

As the “gatekeeper” in a family, a mother can greatly influence both the quality and quantity of the relationship between a father and his children. If a mother believes a father can and should be a competent co-parent, she is more likely to encourage a deeper and more fulfilling relationship between father and daughter. Conversely, some mums get their self-esteem from being a parent and jealously guard the parenting role, uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on her children’s time and confidences. These mums don’t actually want their husbands to be too involved in the parenting of their children until they realise, sometimes too late, how essential that involvement is for their children’s long-term wellbeing.

Physical affection from both parents is important, especially as a daughter reaches adolescence. Girls often describe how previously strong paternal relationships become awkward and strained as they enter their teenage years. A father might feel a bit distant from his daughter during this time, but this can be a confusing time for her and it’s when she needs her dad’s attention and affection the most.

Fathers should spend regular one-on-one time with their daughters. Dr Robinson is a great believer in “dad dates”. “If you have three daughters, have three separate dates. It should just be time for just the two of you. Use that time wisely, not as an opportunity to preach at her but as an opportunity to listen. It will make her feel special and worthwhile.”

Dr Robinson also suggests that fathers and daughter should consider taking a trip together. “I know a bloke who took his daughter away to a conference. A few weeks later, he came bouncing up to me and said, ‘That was a fantastic trip. We had a great time. Our relationship wasn’t very good before we went, but when we got back it was transformed. It was the best two weeks of my life.’ He hadn’t realised how much fun he could have with his daughter.”

In our busy modern lives, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to really connect with their daughters and this is particularly true for dads, but any father needs to realise that if he’s not taking time with his daughter, he’s probably missing out just as much as she is.

For further reading, The Collected Wisdom of Fathers by Will Glennon and Daughters and Their Dads by Dr Bruce Robinson can be found in good book stores.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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