Me and my dad (Ken Holland) in 1967.
By Anne Gagliano
My dear father just passed away a few weeks ago. His death has hit me like a truck, has prompted me to reminisce on all that he was to me. I loved my dad; and, more importantly, I truly liked him. He was my friend; I enjoyed his company, and now I have one less person in this world who sincerely loves me. My father wasn’t perfect—he certainly didn’t do everything right. He sometimes fell short of the ideal, as many fathers do. But what he did do right is immeasurable. The gifts he gave to me are part of who I am today, and for those things I am eternally grateful. It is these I wish to share with any fathers out there who may be reading this—especially fathers of daughters.
It’s easy to underestimate the role a father plays in his little girl’s life. Fatherhood, after all, tends to revolve around sons. With boys, it’s easier and more obvious. Boys need a positive role model and a tough disciplinarian who isn’t as easily “bowled over” as Mom. The rough-housing, vigorous play, and sportsmanship that a man can provide to his sons are part of their development. Only a man can truly impart manhood. But what does a father do with a daughter? After all, he’s not trying to turn his little girl into a man. So what then does his role mean to her? A father’s relationship with his daughter is powerful, as it impacts her in the following ways:
Mental and Physical Health. Attentive dads give their little girls self-confidence. Girls tend to have to try a little harder to get Dad’s attention than Mom’s; so, if she has it, she feels empowered. And this empowerment makes her less fearful of men, of anyone really.
Countless studies have proven that girls with loving fathers are much less likely to become clinically depressed, develop psychological problems, or become addicted to drugs or alcohol. And girls with no father are far more likely to exhibit aggressive, even criminal behaviors.
Body image is also impacted more by a father than by a mother. Girls with involved, positive fathers are less likely to develop eating disorders. And healing occurs more quickly when Dad becomes involved; for example, anorexic girls recover two times more quickly if spending time alone with Dad is added to the therapy.
No one quite knows why this is so, but girls get a positive or negative body image from their fathers. If a father only points out his daughter’s physical attributes, such as her beauty or the lack thereof, then she may become preoccupied with just that and suffer immensely if she’s not “perfect.” But if a father points out his daughter’s intrinsic values, such as character, intelligence, courage, and integrity, she becomes less focused on her physical attributes and more confident in her personality and worth.
Education and Achievement. A U.S. Department of Education study found that highly involved fathers’ children were 43 percent more likely to earn mostly As than others and were 33 percent less likely to repeat a grade. This is true for both boys and girls. And another such study found that girls were more likely to stay in school and have higher quantitive and verbal skills and higher overall intellectual functioning if they had an attentive father in their life.
Fathers influence a daughter to become achievement-oriented, competent, and successful in many arenas including sports, music, the arts, and academics. A father’s words of “You can do this” have tremendous impact. For this reason, daughters of loving fathers are far more likely to receive college scholarships. And thus, successfully educated, they are more likely to become successful professionally as well.
Romantic Relationships. Pediatrician Meg Meeker writes in her book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, “Fathers are a template for all male figures—teachers, boyfriends, husbands, uncles, and even God Himself—in a daughter’s life.”
Dr. Linda Nielsen, Ph.D., professor of education and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University,
adds to this concept when she writes, “Dads, more than Moms, have the greater impact on the daughter’s ability to trust, enjoy and relate well with the males in her life.”
Daughters of loving, involved fathers tend to wait longer to become sexually active and are far less likely to become pregnant during their teen years. They are the most likely to demand to be treated with respect and thus less likely to be “talked into having sex” with someone they don’t love. Countless studies show that for girls, less Dad equals more sex. Deprived of a loving male presence in her life, a girl may be more likely to seek substitute male attention, even if it’s negative. The closer she is to Dad, the easier it is for her to refuse unwanted sex.
And, most importantly, girls with loving fathers tend to marry better and have longer, happier, satisfying marriages. Accustomed to emotional intimacy with her father, she will settle for no less than that in her mate. Girls are drawn to the familiar; they will typically marry a man who is at least somewhat “like” their father, whether good or bad.
Ways for Fathers to be Close to Their Daughters. The biggest mistake fathers can make is to not understand their significance. A father is much more than just a protector or a provider, as was just clearly established in the previous text. Fathers may find it easier to relate to sons, but they must make a concerted effort to find ways to stay close to their daughters, as so much of their healthy development is at stake. Start out attentive when they’re little, and stay close even through the teen years. This is the age when it can become awkward for a father, and he may start to “withdraw” a bit. But it is then that she needs him most of all, to guide her through her vulnerable years till she’s old enough to truly make wise decisions.
In my next column, I will share four ways that my father kept me, his only daughter, close. I believe these things positively impacted my major life decisions. Any father can do them, and it’s never too late to start, no matter what your daughter’s age.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 31 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.