The Father-Daughter Factor

Fact: Babies as young as six months whose fathers are present and active in the home score higher on mental development tests than babies whose fathers are not present and active.

Fact: Teenage girls who are close to their fathers are far less likely to become sexually active.

Fact: Teenage girls are twice as likely to stay in school if their fathers are involved in their lives.

Fact: Dads matter. A lot.

In her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Ballantine Books), Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician, uses these facts and more to make the case that few things matter more to a girl’s mental, physical and social development than her relationship with her father. Drawing on her 20-plus years of counseling teenage girls, she outlines what a father can do to strengthen or heal his relationship with his daughter and help her become a mature, healthy woman.

This interview by Emily Stimpson is reprinted with permission from the June 15, 2008 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.

OSV: Whether fathers like it or not, what do their daughters expect from them?

Dr. Meg Meeker: A daughter naturally wants to view her dad as a leader. She looks to him as a protector, as a provider. She wants to look up to him. Fathers have a tremendous power over their daughters. That's not just the way it’s supposed to be; that’s the way it is. The dad is really the daughter’s first love. He is the most important man in her life. His interactions with her set her up for how she’s going to relate to all other men and to God. That's a heavy load, but a wonderful truth. If she learns to like her dad, and she can trust him, she’ll have a much easier time trusting her husband and trusting God.

OSV: What do you think is the most common, albeit perhaps well-intentioned, mistake that most fathers make?

Meeker: Fathers dramatically underestimate the importance of themselves in their daughters’ lives. They withdraw much too quickly, doubt their significance and influence, and grossly misunderstand how very much their daughters need and want to have a good relationship with them.

OSV: What can the consequences of that withdrawal be?

Meeker: When a dad pulls out of a girl’s life, she flounders. Her self-esteem flounders. Her ability to have healthy relationships with other men flounders. Her sense of what she’s able to accomplish flounders. Particularly girls between the ages of 10 and 17 have a strong need for male attention, affirmation, affection and touch. If dad backs out, she’ll get what she needs from male friendships or from romantic sexual relationships. The No. 1 influence on a girl's self-esteem is affection from her dad. If you really want to boost a girl’s self-image, get the father to give her physical affection.

OSV: Being a good father also has a lot to do with being a good husband, doesn’t it?

Meeker: Definitely. Daughters watch their dads like hawks. They watch not only how he treats her, but also how he treats her mom. If she sees her father open doors for her mother, help clean up in the kitchen and is patient, she will take what she sees into her own marriage and, whether she likes it or not, consciously or unconsciously, reproduce that. Daughters learn how they should be treated by watching how their dad treats their mom.

OSV: Why should fathers not underestimate the importance of setting rules and expectations for their girls?

Meeker: So many fathers think that if they set boundaries, establish curfews, even make their daughters do chores, that they will alienate their daughters. But, in fact, just the opposite happens. Girls who end up in trouble are not the girls whose dads are heavy on boundaries. They’re girls whose fathers failed to do so. The key, of course, is that the rules need to be balanced with fun and pleasure in the dad-daughter relationship.

This is especially critical during the teenage years. If every time a father talks to his daughter he lays down the law, the daughter is not going to want to talk with him. Every conversation about a rule or a daughter’s behavior should be balanced by five parts pleasure and fun -- going to a movie, canoeing, talking about things besides rules.

OSV: But so many fathers are at a loss when it comes to talking with their daughters. How can a dad get his daughter to open up about what’s going on in her life?

Meeker: It starts with letting your daughter know you really want to hear what she has to say. One of the best ways to do that is to listen to her answers without interrupting. Ask, then sit and listen to her response. Whether you agree or disagree, don't respond the first time around. Revisit the conversation later if you need to.

It’s also important to remember that every conversation should not be a teaching conversation. That’s a big mistake a lot of fathers make. Ultimately, you have to approach these conversations with the long term in mind. You can’t expect your daughter to open up right away, but if you can communicate to her that you value what she says and thinks, you’ll have her ear after a couple of months.

OSV: In your book you stress the importance of fathers talking with their daughters about sex and about God -- two of the toughest topics for most dads to raise with their girls. Any tips on how to have those conversations?

Meeker: Don’t get hung up on depth and complexity. Keep it simple.

When a dad talks about religion or sex, he doesn’t need to go into the nitty-gritty. A daughter wants to know what her dad thinks about God and what he thinks she should do.

Those messages can be communicated simply by sharing his thoughts on what he thinks is good, by saying things like, “It’s really important that you're not sexually active until you're married,” or “Boy, it’s beautiful when a woman waits.”

That’s what a daughter wants to hear. Use simple language and ask very open-ended questions.

If a dad is uncomfortable asking what his daughter thinks about sex or religion or anything else for that matter, then he should ask what her friends think or what her friends are doing. That will give him an idea of what his daughter is up to.

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