By Donna de Levante Raphael
Pride Parenting Columnist
New fathers are often a nervous lot, and when it comes to dealing with daughters, anxieties tend to run even higher. Quell those new-father fears and learn how to be the best possible dad for your daughter.
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 eighteen months, baby girls and boys are pretty much the same.
More than an Enforcer
“Wait until she’s a teenager.” 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 behaviour.
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 behaviour. 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 are to be treated by men and they are to respond to men. Dr. Linda Nielsen, EdD, 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)
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 (www.dadsanddaughters.org). 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.”
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.”
Donna de Levante Raphael is a former writer and publisher of the parenting magazine I-Parent, and women’s magazine Cayman Woman. She’s currently working on editing a new parenting media site and releasing a parenting book. To contact Donna de Levante Raphael: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more parenting information visit Village Parent Facebook page. “Like” us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/VillageParent.