Hey, dad, want to get closer to your daughter?
Find something to do together.
A recent 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 fathers and daughters, was participating in a shared activity. Second was the marriage of the daughter.
In a recent study conducted by Baylor University, fathers were asked to list the turning points in their relationship with their daughter; daughters were asked the same about their dad. Note that physical distance, which could be viewed as a negative, actually created opportunities for daughters and dads to miss, and subsequently value, each other.
1. Participating in activities together
2. Marriage of the daughter
3. Physical distance
4. Daughter matures and develops friendship with father
5. Daughter has children
1. Participating in activities together
2. Marriage of the daughter
3. Daughter begins dating
4. Daughter claims independence
5. Physical distance
Source: Baylor University
“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.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
Dads and moms
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,” she 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.”
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. Ms. 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,’” she says. “If she believes that, she won’t take junk from other men. If she doesn’t feel that from her father, she’ll pick junk in whom she dates and who she marries. She’ll always be looking for that support she didn’t get from her dad.”
The third way girls benefit from a good relationship with their father is health; those daughters have fewer emotional and psychological problems, Ms. Nielsen says.
A father who wants to improve his relationship with his daughter needs to find an activity they can do together, Mr. 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.”
Ms. 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, Ms. 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.
“‘Eww, that’s weird; my dad wants to go off with me like we used to.’ Why is it weird? Because society has told us. Why is it weird for you to go prom-dress or shoe-shopping with your dad once in a while? ‘Eww, that’s weird. That’s a mother-daughter thing.’ Why? There’s no reason for it at all. It’s just the script. And once you buy into that, it’s hard to get back.”
It’s obvious a father has a big impact on his daughter’s development, but it also works the other way around, says Ms. Nielsen.
“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 for father and daughter to be together with no other family members infringing on their time. Then talk — about real topics, not just the superficial stuff.
“That starts with your daughter [when she’s] young,” Ms. 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.”