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.
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
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