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What Every Dad Should Know About Raising Little Girls

New fatherhood can spark fear of the unknown—especially if the baby’s a girl. A man may have grown up with sisters and learned about women from his partner, but neither set of experiences can prepare him completely for the father-daughter relationship. And, given dads’ importance to the social and emotional development of their daughters, fathers have every reason to be concerned.

The good news is that for the first 18 months, baby girls and boys are pretty much the same. In my own experience as the dad of both, girls are actually easier, especially with diaper changing—you don’t have to remember to point their pipework down before fastening the tabs. But if I complain about taking care of my little girl—or if I don’t complain enough—I’m admonished by seasoned parents: “Oh, just wait till she’s a teenager!”

More than an Enforcer

The phrase carries an unintended and ponderous truth: dads, if you wait to become involved until your daughters are teenagers—if you only step in as an enforcer when their moms can no longer control them—you’re in for an uphill battle. However, if you take part in your daughter’s life from the start (taking part, not taking over), the dreaded teen rebellion is likely to be less intense because your daughter will know that her father understands her and has clear expectations of her behavior.

The idea of girls actually wanting father-involvement may sound far-fetched, but it’s a familiar story to Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. In compiling interviews with teenage girls for her authoritative guide to parenting daughters, Wiseman found many of them fearful of “losing [parents'] respect and disappointing [them]” as consequences of bad behavior. In the words of 21-year-old Ellie, “Dads play a really important role in their daughters’ lives. Girls want their fathers’ approval.”

How Fathers Mold Their Daughters

Daughters learn from their fathers much of how they treat and respond to men. Dr. Linda Nielsen, author of the book Embracing Your Father: Building the Relationship You Want with Your Dad, has identified several specific areas in which fathers typically have an equal or greater effect on their daughters’ lives than mothers:

  • Creating a loving, trusting relationship with a man
  • Expressing anger comfortably and appropriately—especially with men
  • Dealing well with people in authority
  • Being self-confident and self-reliant
  • Maintaining good mental health (e.g., the absence of clinical depression, eating disorders, or chronic anxiety)

Dr. Nielsen’s claims correspond with the findings of Dr. Barry Ellis, a psychologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. After interviews and observation involving several hundred girls over many years in both the US and New Zealand, Ellis found that the absence of a biological father correlated significantly with young girls’ sexual behavior, including the incidence of teenage pregnancy. While a father’s absence doesn’t directly cause a girl to act out sexually, it does appear to contribute to such behavior more significantly, according to Ellis’s data, than temperament, personality, and even socio-cultural and economic factors.

In a related study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ellis found that the age of puberty in girls corresponded significantly with the presence of the biological father: girls who interacted infrequently with their fathers entered puberty earlier than those whose fathers were consistently present. While a few theories involving pheromones have been formulated to explain this phenomenon, the bottom line is that fathers do significantly affect their daughters’ social and sexual identity—even at the biochemical level.

Getting Involved

An exasperated Freud famously asked, “What do women want?” For a father, knowing how his daughter would answer the question (and the answer may change daily) is a strong indicator of the quality of his influence in her life. One measurement is the self-directed questionnaire “How Well Am I Doing as My Daughter’s Father?” from the national organization Dads and Daughters. Dads answer 30 questions, the first five of which are as follows:

  • I can name her three best friends
  • I know my daughter’s goals
  • I’m physically active with my daughter
  • I make dinner for my family
  • I comment on my wife/partner’s weight

As these items suggest, dads damage their chances for a strong relationship with their daughters by under-investing in how their daughters actually are and over-investing in how they think their daughters should be. This kind of dad, according to Barbara Goulter and Joan Minninger, authors of The Father-Daughter Dance, is likely to perceive his son as being much like himself, a natural companion, but wonders what he can do with a daughter. “Not knowing the answer, he may neglect, abandon, exploit, or abuse his child,” write the authors. Conversely, he may “make a pampered pet of her, imagining that’s what she wants, and sometimes being stunned when she is ungrateful or resentful in return.”

Ellie, the young woman quoted in Queen Bees and Wannabes, also voices a daughter’s frustration with not being recognized and valued by her father: “There’s something really powerful about being daddy’s little girl, and most girls don’t want to tarnish that image. At the same time, it’s also difficult to talk to fathers because it seems like they don’t know what to say and they also seem kind of clueless sometimes.”

In other words, too many dads are saying to their daughters, “I don’t understand you, and for that reason I’ll try to avoid you or make you into something that I do understand.” While this domineering attitude needs correction, unfortunately many dads attempt to do so by emulating the traditionally gentle and nurturing qualities of mothers. The truth is, neither the hard-headed patriarchal father of previous generations, nor the mothers of any age, can serve as role models for dads today. Men need to be involved in their daughters’ lives while maintaining their paternal nature—and while allowing their daughters to maintain their personalities. More likely, it is partly through their relationship that a dad and daughter discover what their paternity and personality are like in the first place.

Making the Connection

It doesn’t take special knowledge for a dad to connect with his daughter. He doesn’t need to know anatomy or sociology or even the names of storybook princesses, bands, or clothing labels (she has friends for all that). So what does a dad’s healthy involvement with a daughter actually look like? From infancy onward, here’s what dads can do to get and stay connected:

  • Bathe and dress their baby girls. (Most men can actually coordinate outfits; if they can’t, they can learn. Moms, don’t be fooled by false incompetence!)
  • Start and maintain special daddy-daughter rituals: for example, going out periodically for dinner or ice cream, playing a sport together, or when they’re younger, simple activities like reading together or playing in the park.
  • Allow themselves a place in their toddlers’ imaginative play, even as it begins to center on “girl” things like dolls, dressing up, and playing house.
  • Encourage (but don’t push!) their daughters to express themselves through healthy physical play, beginning with plenty of holding and cuddling and progressing to rough-and-tumble wrestling with daddy (contrary to popular belief this doesn’t make kids more aggressive), and then, if she wants, on to informal and then organized sports.

Once dads are involved in their little girls’ lives, it becomes easier to keep in tune with their adolescent permutations. While new dads don’t have to worry about the following steps yet, it’s never too early to start preparing for them:

  • Listen without fixing. At the risk of stereotyping, guys can’t get a real perspective on a woman’s world unless they can listen without solving problems in their heads while she’s talking. Learning to listen is easier said than done; an excellent guide through the process is the book I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better, by Gary and Joy Lundberg. Of course, some discussed problems do need to be fixed, and a dad who can do either depending on the situation is in a true position to help.
  • Express affection. Many men look forward to having sons so they can teach them what they know and do all the things they think are fun with them. But there are facets of the father-daughter relationship that are equally unique and irreplaceable. It’s worthwhile for a guy to talk with his partner about her experience with her father: what made her feel special, and what hurt her feelings. A dad who acts on this knowledge will win both his daughter’s and his partner’s hearts over and over again.
  • Enforce boundaries. Despite the bad rap that harsh disciplinarians give this aspect of parenting, dads who work with moms to consistently maintain reasonable rules are showing love for their children no matter how the kids respond. Parents who have decided beforehand how to handle tantrums, whether from a toddler or a teenager, are in a much better position to be consistent and united in their discipline. An expecting couple can make a game of the scenarios they each might encounter with their kids. It can be illuminating for a dad-to-be to realize he has no effective counter-arguments for the simplest of resistances: “No!” “Why not?” “You can’t make me.”

As the dad of a daughter who’s just learning to talk, I’m not looking forward to hearing these phrases. But at least I’ll know how to handle them because I’m not waiting until she’s a teenager to plan for them.

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