Like Father, Like . . . Daughter?

Baseball hard-hitter Harmon Killebrew tells a story that hints at the importance of fathers to boys: “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard,” he says on his website. “Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’”

Obviously, Killebrew’s father was tuned in to the needs of his sons, an admirable quality that seems only natural in a man. We accept that every boy needs a father as easily as we accept the notion that he needs a dog. But while society is beginning to acknowledge that a father is more crucial than a dog to a boy’s well-being, the question of how important fathers are to the well-being of their daughters has all but been ignored.

A search through online journals on family studies using the terms “fathers and daughters” does not prove entirely fruitless, of course. An abundance of material is available, nearly all of it exploring the psychological effects of incest and other dysfunctions. Unfortunately, however, there is very little that would lead anyone to believe that more positive relationships even exist between fathers and daughters, much less that such relationships may also have a profound and vital effect on a woman’s mental health.

This gap has been addressed by only a few researchers, one of whom is Linda Nielsen, professor of adolescent psychology and women’s studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Nielsen has been teaching a “Fathers and Daughters” course there since 1991 and authored its current textbook, Embracing Your Father: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted With Your Dad (McGraw Hill, 2004).

Do you realize how rare incest is between a biological father and daughter?” she asked rhetorically in a recent interview with Vision. “It is extremely rare. When we talk about girls who are victims of incest, that term, to psychologists and sociologists, covers being sexually abused by cousins, uncles, stepfathers, stepbrothers, brothers, half-brothers, men who live with your mother who are not related—that all goes into the category of incest victims. But when you look into the percentage of girls who were sexually abused by their biological fathers, it is very small. What this tells me, just as it told you—is that researchers have the wrong focus when it comes to studying father-daughter relationships.”

This wrong focus may contribute to the misconception that daughters don’t need their fathers after a certain age. “My students tell me that their fathers stopped doing things with them when they became teenagers—like going camping with them alone on the weekends—because it would look weird,” says Nielsen. “Once puberty hits, you aren’t supposed to spend as much time with your daughter. Once she’s a teenager, you’re supposed to back off and let Mom have the main relationship. If that’s the message you’re sent and you’re told that’s what a ‘good father’ does, then that’s what you’re going to do.”

This goes hand-in-hand with another stereotype that harms father-daughter relationships. “We portray fathers more negatively than we portray mothers in media,” says Nielsen. “Dad’s a blockhead when it comes to child raising—especially with his daughter. Mom is considered the expert. These messages discourage fathers from being actively involved.”

According to Nielsen, most men would like to be involved, and she adds, “Fathers do spend more time with their kids than in the past.” But she says some changes still need to occur. Although company work-life balance programs for men and women are becoming increasingly popular in Western nations, “men still spend an average of 15 more hours a week at work and commuting than their employed wives do, and American fathers spend about 70 more hours each year at work than do men in other industrialized countries. Dads still don’t have as much time as moms to be with kids.”

Clearly, as a society we remain unconvinced of how crucial fathers are to their children—particularly to their daughters. But would we be convinced if we read the research?

Vanderbilt University researchers have long known that girls who have supportive, involved fathers enter puberty later than girls whose fathers are distant or absent, and this is not as insignificant to a woman’s quality of life as it may seem. In 2003 researchers at the Cincinnati, Ohio, Children’s Hospital noted a link between early onset of menstruation and adult obesity. But there’s more. When early onset of menstruation was marked by early breast development, there was an associated rise in the risk for breast cancer. The accompanying factors may be complex, but there is certainly more to be explored in the association between good father-daughter relationships and a healthy future for adult females.

Beyond physical health, of course, the right attention from fathers can confer other benefits, as studies continue to demonstrate.

One such study was conducted in the United States and New Zealand in 2003, by Bruce J. Ellis, professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, and several of his colleagues. The researchers listed a variety of the negative outcomes adolescent girls are set up for when they have early sexual experiences. “Specifically,” they note, “adolescent childbearing is associated with lower educational and occupational attainment, more mental and physical health problems, inadequate social support networks for parenting, and increased risk of abuse and neglect for children born to teen mothers. Despite these consequences, the United States and New Zealand have the first and second highest rates of teenage pregnancy among Western industrialized countries. . . . Given these costs to adolescents and their children, it is critical to identify life experiences and pathways that place girls at increased risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy.”

After following a combined total of approximately 900 subjects from preschool to late adolescence, the researchers concluded that “father absence was an overriding risk factor for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy. Conversely, father presence was a major protective factor against early sexual outcomes, even if other factors were present” (emphasis added).

Ellis and his colleagues were not the first to make the association between strong father-daughter relationships and healthy sexual outcomes, of course, nor were they the most recent.

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, reported similar findings in February 2006. In a study involving 10,000 students between 7th and 12th grade, Regnerus reiterated that girls who had positive relationships with involved fathers waited longer to have their first sexual experience. He added, “Girls who have poor relationships with their dads tend to seek attention from other males at earlier ages and often this will involve a sexual relationship.” This surprising characteristic of strong father-daughter relationships was not duplicated between mothers and daughters.

Nielsen’s own research has been conducted among her college students over a span of more than 15 years, and like other researchers before her, she acknowledges that positive fathering produces well-adjusted, confident and successful daughters who relate well to other men in their lives. Unfortunately, she says, fathers tend to spend less time with their daughters than with their sons, and many do not see anything negative about this. Nielsen also points out that “most of these fathers and daughters do not communicate, share personal things, or get to know one another as well as mothers and daughters.”

One might wonder how she hopes her course for young college women will change this. Shouldn’t she be talking to their dads? What can a young woman do to close the distance if her childhood is behind her, and with it, seemingly, any chance of a good relationship with her father? According to Nielsen, plenty! Unfortunately, many women are held back by the belief that their father should make the first move, or that patterns of communication in their relationship are so entrenched that they cannot be changed. Or perhaps they’ve tried some of the strategies before, without result. Nevertheless, Nielsen assures her students, the strategies she outlines in her class and its textbook will bring about changes. Indeed, the greatest changes may occur in the daughters themselves.

Let’s say that your pessimistic assumptions turn out to be right,” she offers in her textbook. “No matter how many of my suggestions you try . . . your relationship with your father doesn’t get any better. Yes, you’ll be disappointed, frustrated, and sad—and maybe angry. But these are the same feelings you had before you started. So you really haven’t lost anything. And I seriously doubt that you’re going to regret having tried. Every daughter I know who has reached out and tried again, regardless of the outcome, feels better about herself. It’s as if she has lifted a weight off her shoulders. Like these daughters, you can give yourself the gift of pride and respect that comes from being active instead of passive, from acting like an adult instead of a child.”

Acting like an adult, in Nielsen’s view, includes understanding that daughters may also have contributed to the stereotypes that keep their fathers distant. Daughters may keep things from their fathers under the assumption that their fathers would respond more critically than their mothers. Daughters may assume fathers aren’t as nurturing or intuitive as mothers are, and may avoid going to them for personal advice and comfort.

Mothers may also contribute to the problem through what some researchers call “gatekeeping” behaviors. A 2005 study by the National Council on Family Relations explains that maternal gatekeeping may take a number of forms, any one of which “either encourages or discourages fathers from acting on their paternal identity. . . . One path to changing fathers’ behavior may involve changing the way that mothers look at them. If mothers believe that fathers can and should be capable parents, they are more likely to allow fathers into the lives of their children.”

Nielsen agrees this can be a factor. Her recommendation to her students is “Don’t build a road to Dad through Mom.” Unfortunately, Nielsen’s study of the data collected from her students between 1990 and 2004 revealed that most daughters do go through their mother to reach their father, which has the effect of pushing him away and diminishing their odds of improving their relationship.

So then, does all of the responsibility for good father-daughter relationships fall on daughters? Of course not. Especially while they have young children, fathers carry the bulk of the responsibility for spending as much quality time as realistically possible with their children, whether girls or boys. But as they mature, sons and daughters can contribute to the effort too. Eventually there comes a time when the best way to turn the heart of a father to his daughter is for his daughter to turn her heart to her father.