Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
~ “Daughters,” by John Mayer
We hear a lot about the importance of male role models in a boy’s life. It is indeed important. But what’s often missing from the conversation is the importance of fathers in a daughter’s life as well. As we come up on the annual celebration of fathers in America, let’s consider the psychology of father-daughter relationships.
Children really do learn what they live. Not having the perspective of older people, they consider whatever their family is like as their “normal.” From infancy, girls draw conclusions about what men are like from the men in their life. If there is a father (or a male in her life who takes a father role), that man becomes her guidepost for what to expect of men and what to expect of men’s attitude toward women. His relationship to her mother or his significant other is her template for what her relationship with a man will be when she grows up.
Those early learnings are powerful. Regardless of what happens as a teen and adult, a girl who identifies her gender as female has already created a set of assumptions of what that means for her to be a woman by the time she is 4 or 5 years old. At each stage of her development, she is watching and learning from the women — and men — around her to figure out how to be successful as a woman and how to be in a relationship with a man. When that learning is positive and helpful for negotiating the world, a daughter will grow up to be at ease in her own skin and in her sexuality. When it is conflicted or creates expectations that are demeaning or less than useful for cooperating with others, her relationship with herself, with other women, and with men will be troubled.
What all this means for a father or father figure is that he counts. He counts a lot. Regardless of whether he wants the responsibility, a father’s relationship to the world and to women sets down a template that will be played out for another generation. Men who take their job as a father of a daughter seriously are men who know the importance of the following 10 basic principles:
- 1. Love her mother. Theodore M. Hesburgh, a former president of Notre Dame University, is quoted as saying that this is the most important thing a man can do. It’s true. To Hesburgh’s idea, I would add this: If you can’t love her mother, find something to respect and admire in her anyway. With a high divorce rate and equally high never-married-parent rate, it’s important to acknowledge that not all parents are bound by love. But however a father feels emotionally about a girl’s mom, it is in his and the child’s best interests for him to treat the mother with respect and consideration, no matter what. Even if the mother doesn’t return the favor, he can live an honorable life that shows his daughters that a man takes the high road when it comes to his respect for women and his responsibilities to his children.
2. Attach to your daughters. Let them attach to you. Girls with a solid sense of self are often their daddy’s buddy at least for awhile when growing up. Spend regular quality time with her. Don’t be afraid to take her out for a hike or for a game of catch or a round of the basketball game Horse (or Pig, or whatever variant you play). Girls are just as likely to like to do such things with their dad as a boy is. Let her know you love her with the words and hugs that are appropriate for her age. Whatever your relationship with her mother, your relationship with your daughter is critically important.
3. Attach with safety. In America, national surveys of adults find that nine to 28 percent of women say they experienced some type of sexual abuse or assault in childhood. The best preventative measure is to teach your daughter about privacy, modesty, and appropriate boundaries. Fathers model where the lines are between appropriate affection and inappropriate touch.
4. Celebrate her mind. Read to your little girl. Be interested in what she is learning in school. Pay attention to her interests and be honestly curious to learn what she knows about them. Share interesting things about your work and your hobbies. Research shows that the most successful women have generally had fathers who were interested in their intellect and their academics.
5. Go to her events. You may find you have real interest in girls’ basketball or musical theatre when it’s your daughter on the team or in the show. If you don’t, give yourself a pep talk and go anyway. She needs you there as a witness to her talents, her efforts, and her achievements.
6. Tell her she’s pretty. Admire her style. We live in a culture where girls are often insecure about their looks. A dad’s compliments for how she moves on a sports field, dresses for school, or combs her hair aren’t sexist when they’re sincere and not sexual. (A dad would – and should – do the same for his son.) Genuine statements of approval are one of the building blocks of her self-esteem.
7. Show her that real men can negotiate differences with women. When you and your significant other or a female relative disagrees, or if you disagree with her, let your daughter see you work through the conflict in a calm and reasonable way. She is less likely to fall for a bully if she knows that men and women can deal with differences respectfully.
8. Treat all adult women the way you want your daughter to be treated someday. Take care with what you say about women you work with, the women in your family, and even the woman driving the car in the next lane. Don’t indulge in mother-in-law or other sexist jokes. Your daughter is listening. Your attitude about women is part of the attitude she is developing about herself.
9. Treat her the way you want her future partner to treat her. The way you interact with your daughter is what she becomes used to when relating to a man. Treat her with respect, dignity, caring, and affection and she will expect to be treated that way by a mate.
10. Be the kind of man you want your daughter to marry. Make no mistake; you are the model for manhood your daughter is likely to look for when she starts to date. If you want her to find a man who is faithful to his partner, who is honest and hardworking, who knows how to have fun, who uses money wisely and who doesn’t abuse people, drugs, or alcohol, then you need to be that kind of man. “Do as I say, not as I do” seldom works. Your daughter will believe what you do far more than what you say.