"We have incredible influence in our daughters' lives. It is imperative that we use it positively and intelligently…
Why Dads Matter So Much to Their Daughters
By Joe Kelly
I'm really struggling with the fact that I don't verbalize how wonderful my daughters are often enough. I do tell them, but it does not flow spontaneously. I don't have the training or the modeling for it. I'll say "good job!" But I also don't want it to be "job." You know - the idea that you have value because you did something. That has been my toughest thing. Maybe just sitting with them with my arm around them, maybe that's telling them how special they are to me. I'm not sure. I have very little confidence about myself.
In more than 25 years of talking and corresponding with thousands of men with daughters and stepdaughters - dads like the one quoted above - I've yet to meet one who made it through fathering without some serious doubts.
But, despite our doubts, the impact of a father or stepfather on his daughter is astounding. Many of us vaguely sense this reality, but don't fully realize its meaning. First, having grown up as boys, we often can't understand our daughters at all. Second, we often buy into the notion (shared by many around us) that raising girls is women's work.
If you have any question about the impact a dad has, ask six adult women about their relationships with their fathers and stepfathers. The answers (seldom lukewarm) will fall into two general categories:
- My dad was/is my hero.
- My dad was/is an [expletive deleted].
One woman told me:
My father is my one male role model. And I really compare all other men in the world to my father. He is the most loving, accepting, honorable, responsible, nurturing person. He is the model that I judge all other men by - fair or not fair. The love and support and encouragement I had through those years, and continue to have, has made me a much stronger person.
We have incredible influence in our daughters' lives. It is imperative that we use it positively and intelligently, even if we're not always conscious of the impact. Before my daughter Nia set off to ride her bicycle around Lake Superior at age 18, I overheard her tell someone that she got into biking because I'd taken her riding on a local trail. I only did that a couple of times, when she was about 14, and I'm no endurance (or speed-demon) biker. But that shared experience turned her on to biking, even though I never knew it. That's one reason why I always try to act and speak around my daughters in ways that they'd be proud of.
Model, Listen and Respect
As fathers, we have many choices about how to use our influence. We can send our daughters down life's road with clear and healthy expectations of men, or leave them lost in tangled underbrush, confused about what to expect from men. They will probably be drawn to men who choose paths similar to the ones we tread as men and fathers. At a minimum, that means being an integral part of our daughters' lives, not abandoning them to wander into the world of boys and men without our strong, supportive and nurturing masculinity. Our example is the road map they use to discover relationships (romantic or not) with boys and men we'd be proud to have as sons and brothers.
We fathers lay the best foundation when we listen to and respect our girls. Bruce, a divorced dad, relearned that lesson recently:
This weekend was the first time I'd seen my daughter in several weeks. I was tempted to grill her: "Why don't you answer my calls or text messages? Are you angry about something I said?" Instead, I listened to what she had to say about herself, her school, her mother, what's new in her life since we last saw each other. It was truly amazing what came out when I remembered to keep my mouth shut for a while! It was a great, relaxed weekend with lots of laughter and affection.
Psychologist William Katte, author of the book Live-Away Dads, believes that listening is essential for every father, even though it sometimes goes against our instincts.
"Lecturing and arguing get me nowhere," Katte admits. "I can't help my daughter if I minimize her feelings or falsely tell her everything will be OK when I can't guarantee that it will." Instead, he counsels all fathers, listen and be there for your daughter; accept her for who she is, not who you want her to be or who you think she should be. Take the lead in communicating - even when you feel unappreciated.
"I may not agree with everything she says or does," Katte explains, "but when I listen, I build the emotional connection that will help her listen to me when it really counts."
Look to Other Dads
The most underutilized tool for fathers is other fathers. As walking encyclopedias of wisdom and experience, veteran dads can remind us that there's no magic formula to follow in raising daughters. Veteran dads know that fathering is far more art than science.
In his book The Collected Wisdom of Fathers, author Will Glennon puts it this way:
"True fathering is not the physical act of planting a seed, it is the conscious decision to tend and nourish the seedling. Real fathering is not biological, it is the conscious choice to build an unconditional and unbreakable connection to another human being. Once that choice is made, it cannot be unmade.
A man's life is irrevocably transformed by having a female child. There's nothing else quite like that experience - one too wonderful to pass up."
Compared to just a decade ago, there are now plenty of excellent books on fathering. Among them:
- The Collected Wisdom of Fathers, by William Glennon, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2002.
- Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast, by Joe Kelly, Broadway Books, 2003.
- The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, by Joe Kelly, Broadway Books, 2007.
- Live-Away Dads: Staying a Part of Your Children's Lives When They Aren't a Part of Your Home, by William C. Klatte, Penguin, 1999.
- The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, Jossey-Bass, 2007.
- Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., Random House, 2000.
Joe Kelly is the father of two adult daughters and co-founder of the national nonprofit organization Dads & Daughters. He has written four fathering books, including The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship.