Find something to do together.
A new study by Baylor University researchers puts participation in shared activities at the top of the list of pivotal moments in the father-daughter relationship.
The study included 43 fathers and 43 daughters who were asked to identify a crucial moment of change in their relationship. The most frequently mentioned turning point for both was participating in a shared activity. Second was the marriage of the daughter.
“One that popped out the most was sports,” says study co-author Mark T. Morman, a professor of communication in Baylor’s college of arts and sciences. “Dads can help coach or help them practice or just come to games.”
Morman says, though, that it doesn’t matter what the activity is. Just doing something together strengthens that bond.
“One father told me about going to choir so he could be with his daughter,” Morman says. “Another father told me he got in a play with his daughter, and they were together every night for eight weeks. So it’s not really what they’re doing, just so they’re doing something together.”
The Baylor researchers refer to this father-daughter bond as “closeness in the doing,” as opposed to the mother-daughter bond, “closeness in the dialogue,” which is based on sharing and talking.
Wake Forest University professor Linda Nielsen has researched and written about the father-daughter relationship for more than 40 years. Her book “Between Fathers & Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship” (Cumberland House) should be on every father’s reading list.
She names three areas where the quality of the father-daughter relationship has a greater impact than a mother-daughter relationship.
The first encompasses academics, money and career — and independence.
“Even though we are a less sexist society, data show in most families the father has the job that makes the most money, is more challenging, the job that calls for greater negotiation with the world of work — and he’s the one teaching the girls these things,” Nielsen says.
In addition, “before the age of 5, it’s the father who is doing the more challenging play, doing more risk-taking, who’s less likely to help the daughter out when she’s in a little jam. The mother is babying the daughter; the father is teaching them to be more self-reliant, more ambitious and more successful, to be at the top of their game. That’s what fathers do better than mothers.”
And that, she says, translates into success in the academic arena, which means better-paying jobs and the development of leadership skills.
The second area where fathers play a more crucial role is in the daughter’s relationships with men: social, sexual, romantic and marriage. Nielsen says that a mother can tell a daughter that she looks pretty, but it doesn’t carry the weight as the same statement from a father.
“He builds up, gives you confidence to feel ‘I am lovable; men should find me lovable,’
The third way girls benefit from a good relationship with their father is health; daughters who have good relationships have fewer emotional and psychological problems, Nielsen says.
A father who wants to improve his relationship with his daughter needs to find an activity they can do together, Morman says.
“It sounds simplistic, but the study overwhelmingly points to activities being very important factors,” he says. “A lot of times, men are anxious or a little hesitant to engage their daughters because they perceive what’s going on with mom and daughter — an emotional, dialogue-driven, disclosing thing. Dads think, ‘I can’t do that.’ So what I say is, find something to do together.”
Nielsen goes a step further. She says dads shouldn’t be leery of doing “non-dad” things. When girls become teenagers, fathers often back off, deferring to the mother. It should be the opposite, Nielsen says, with the mother standing back and letting the father-daughter relationship continue as it did when the child was 8 or 9. That, though, may mean bucking norms.
“What we’ve done as a society, we’ve scripted the fathers and daughters and mothers, and the script is, you can be close friends with your little girl, go off and do things (with) just the two of you, but once she hits puberty, the script changes and says, ‘Dad, you have to back off and let the mother take over because it’s two women. Dad, back off because your daughter doesn’t want to be with you.’ We suddenly bring down this curtain. If you believe it, your daughter believes it, the mother believes it, you’ll follow that script.
It’s obvious a father has a big impact on his daughter’s development, but it also works the other way around, Nielsen says.
“Research shows that having daughters versus having sons changes a father’s political and social values,” she says. “Research is showing that men who have girls become more politically and socially liberal, versus those who have sons and not girls.
“There are so many issues that affect daughters: reproductive freedom, the right to choose, equal pay. They’ve studied male voters in the U.S. and Britain, and they show that men (with daughters) change from conservative to more liberal in their voting.”
A key is one-on-one time, when father and daughter can be together with no other family members infringing on their time. And once you’re together, talk. About real topics, not just the superficial stuff.
“That starts with your daughter (when she’s) young,” Nielsen says. “You can start at 5. Tell them bedtime stories, but then tell them stories about yourself. They get to know who you are. And what happens in return? They reciprocate and tell you. ‘Dad, let me tell you what happened at school today. Let me cry.’ You’ve been disclosing things; so will she.
“You’ll tell them about the stupid, foolish, mean things you did when you were young. The more she knows you, when she’s a teenager, she’ll share her life with you. She knows you. Most fathers don’t do that.”