It is a well-worn mantra that boys need male role models, in particular they need a father figure. The lack of a dad is often held up as the reason boys go off the rails. But as our knowledge of the role fathers play in their children’s physical and emotional development grows, it is becoming increasingly clear that dads have the potential to be even greater role models for their daughters to follow.
Indeed, recent studies show that fathers appear to have a greater impact than mothers on how daughters, rather than sons, navigate some of the key events of their adolescence and early adult life; academic and career success, first romantic loves, mental health and life stress.
It’s time for us to correct the record and fully appreciate the role of men in their daughters’ lives. They don’t just step in to terrify prospective boyfriends or girlfriends or to accompany their daughter down the wedding aisle, they are with her every little step of the way.
In writing my book “The Life of Dad,” I collated all the studies from the very beginning of fatherhood research a decade ago right up to the present day, both my own and that of my colleagues, with the aim of providing as complete a picture as possible of who dad is and how he experiences parenting.
As I wrote, and re-visited the interviews I had carried out with fathers, a pattern emerged that rang true for all the dads of the world, however they achieved their fathering goals. All fathers seemed to have a role in scaffolding their child’s entry into the world beyond the family — encouraging them to jump in, explore and challenge themselves and equipping them with the life skills to help them succeed.
In the West, this might be dad coaching your sports team, joining him on the golf course for the all-important business chat or using his contacts to get that critical internship and first step on the career ladder.
Among the strongly patriarchal Kipsigis of Kenya — where your ability to grow your crop and negotiate a good sale is survival critical — this means taking your sons to the meetings where business deals are done and all-important social alliances built.
As a result, dads have been the most influential when it came to the development of the language that eases our social interactions, in promoting the neural structures which supported the key social skills of empathy, trust, sharing and emotion control, in building their child’s mental and physical resilience by pushing their developmental boundaries and, by teaching them how to assess risk, surmount challenge and deal with failure.
As a consequence — and this is meant to take nothing away from mothers, of course — they hold a significant part of the key to life-long good mental health.
But here’s the unexpected thing.
While studies note that dads influence girls and boys alike, they suggest their impact on daughters appears to be stronger. Daughters who had secure and open relationships with their dads were significantly better placed to succeed both academically and vocationally, have high quality and stable romantic relationships, have positive psychological outcomes — lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem — and were empowered both to avoid negative peer pressure and refuse unwanted sexual advances and emotional coercion in their relationships.
The world’s female politicians are disproportionately members of the first daughter’s club, which is to say, they have often been women who have no brothers.
And, contrary to the message we sometimes get from our culture, girls generally want more engagement from their fathers. In their 2011 study exploring conversations around sex and relationships, American researchers Katherine Hutchinson and Julie Cederbaum found that 80% of the 234 daughters they questioned wanted more of their dad’s input and advice, not less.
The fact that women who have secure relationships and open communication with their fathers go on to have secure, healthy relationships as adults — and as a consequence better mental health — means that we should be encouraging and supporting dads to have these conversations.
Why is dad particularly special? Partly because he is the parent — son or daughter — who is tasked with opening that door into the wider world. This is because, while his attachment to his child is based on nurture and affection, as is mom’s, his bond has an extra element — challenge, the drive to use the close relationship he has with his child to push their developmental boundaries. And the biggest challenge any child will face is the fast-changing, less-benign and less-forgiving world beyond the family.
Where daughters are concerned, this paternal influence is particularly critical, because in a culture which still has strong ideas about how girls and women should be, it is dad who needs to lead the way in showing his daughter, and giving her the patriarchy’s permission, to be assertive, to be confident, to believe that what they think and feel has merit and value.
All of these advantages are built upon the foundation of a strong, empathetic, loving bond between dad and daughter; there’s no substitute for that.
But it is also clear that what dad and daughter do together is important, particularly during adolescence. The key is one on-one-time doing an activity which both enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something elaborate: a bike ride, cooking the Sunday lunch, walking the dog.
There is, studies tell us, something about the doing that appears to be key to maintaining closeness between dad and daughter as she matures, and remaining a positive influence in her life however old she may be.
This association between doing things and strengthening the underlying relationship may partly be based on the belief among children that dads show affection by spending time with their children, whereas moms do so by being physically affectionate.
Finding the occasions to be together can be a struggle when your teenage daughter seems to prefer the company of their peers and is determined to follow their example however much you protest. But where dads persevere and continue to be present, sensitive and supportive, their daughters reap the rewards in adulthood.
The relationship between dads and daughters becomes rewarding in both directions.
It provokes eyerolls among many, I know, when male politicians begin to discuss some topic or another by calling themselves “a father of daughters." But maybe we shouldn’t be so cynical. It is increasingly clear that helping raise girls and young women influences your views on a range of topics, including gender equality.
In their 2018 study entitled “The ‘Mighty Girl’ Effect: Does Parenting Daughters Alter Attitudes towards Gender Roles?” a team of researchers from the London School of Economics found that being dad to a school-age daughter significantly increased the adoption of liberal attitudes to gender roles within the home, including who should care for children and who should financially provide.
Further, these dads were not only “talking the talk” but “walking the walk,” with dads carrying out significantly more housework. The distribution of household chores was significantly more gender-equal within families with daughters compared to those without them.
I am often to be found banging the drum for dads — whether they are biological, step, adoptive or other — because by empowering them to be involved, we can harness the powerful positive influences they can have on their child’s development. And in a world beset by an adolescent mental health crisis, I strongly believe that we need them to be a key player in our families and society.
But dads of daughters also have something unique to bring to the table when it comes to the fight for sexual equality. They know the power and potential that rests in their female child. After all, in loving their daughters they have contributed to it, and by helping them to father, we are likelier to gain a world populated by assertive, mentally strong and successful women. That’s something we can all benefit from.