Joe Kelly

DULUTH, Minn. (WOMENSENEWS)–Ask 10 women about their relationship with their fathers; odds are you’ll not hear any lukewarm answers. In so many words, they’ll either say, “He’s my hero” or “He’s a jerk.” That’s concrete evidence of how important dads are to daughters.

As fathers and stepfathers, we have major influence on our daughters, especially while they grow up in a still-sexist culture. Even when we don’t want that influence, run from it, or try not to use it, we affect our daughters with our actions and attitudes.

If you are a father or stepfather of a girl, you are the first man (or one of the first) in your daughter’s life. You set the standard for what she’ll expect from boys now, as well as men and life partners for the rest of her life.

Yes, fathering a daughter nowadays is a big responsibility–and a fabulous opportunity. There’s shockingly little research on the effects of father-daughter relationships, but what studies there are indicate that Dad is often the key player behind a daughter’s interest in sports, physical activity, career and positive body image. Your constructive involvement helps her develop healthy sexuality, succeed academically, avoid alcohol and other drugs, and be true to herself.

Daughters Bombarded with Corrosive Images

Every day, our daughters are bombarded with corrosive cultural messages, such as “how you look is more important than who you are.” Underlying those messages is the premise that girls must limit themselves in order to get a male to notice them.

A girl’s dad is in the perfect position to combat those messages. When you listen to her, take her seriously, and encourage her passions, then you drive home to her (and her brother) the powerful truth that it’s what’s inside that counts. A girl’s voice is perhaps the most important and most threatened resource she has. Turn the light of your attention on her voice and watch it grow. Involved, aware dads raise strong, confident and healthy daughters.

Let’s be honest, though. Dad is at a significant disadvantage when raising a daughter– because Dad grew up as a boy. So, it takes extra, conscious effort to learn about girls’ development and the unique personal and cultural pressures girls face. You can learn this vital information from a variety of experts: researchers, authors, mothers–-and other dads.

Acculturated to think that nurturing children is women’s work, we fall into the “silence of the dads” and don’t easily talk to each other about the joys and challenges of fathering our kids. But when we break that silence of the dads–reaching out to ask a question or seek reassurance–we help each other make our fatherly influence as positive as it possibly can be.

But we can make our fathering “intentional.” We can father actively, on purpose and with a plan. We can learn how father influence can help girls overcome widespread difficulties and thrive. We can learn how and why culture and media combine to undermine our daughters’ current and future well-being. We can learn how to fight back–-advocating for girls in our communities, media and culture.

We can work to free girls from the sexist, gender straightjacket that promotes the myth that only certain subjects, hobbies, activities and careers are OK for girls. In the process, we can also help free our sons from the sexist, gender straightjacket that confines their opportunities.

Fathering a daughter is challenging and a lot of fun. Your positive father involvement reaps big rewards for your daughter–and for you, too. A girl with reason to respect and trust her father will love him unconditionally–and have a better chance to grow up learning how to be what Girls, Inc. calls “Strong, Smart and Bold.” Add it all up, and being the dad of a daughter is too good an experience to miss.

Joe Kelly is married to Nancy Gruver; their twin daughters, Mavis Gruver and Nia Kelly, are 21. Kelly heads the national nonprofit, Dads and Daughters, is publisher of the international newsletter “Daughters: For Parents of Girls,” and is author of “Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Support and Understand Your Daughter When She’s Growing Up So Fast.” He helped Gruver found the award-winning, girl-edited “New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams.”

For more information:

Dads and Daughters:

Girls, Inc.:

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams: