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Dads and Daughters

It is a well-worn mantra that boys need male role models, in particular they need a father figure and the lack of a dad is often held up as the reason boys go off the rails. But as our knowledge of the role fathers play in their children’s physical and emotional development grows it is becoming increasingly clear that dads have the potential to be even greater role models for their daughters to follow. Indeed, recent studies show that fathers appear to have a greater impact than mothers on how daughters, rather than sons, navigate some of the key events of their adolescence and early adult life; academic and career success, first romantic loves, mental health and life stress.


The Key to the World

In writing my book The Life of Dad, I collated all the research from the very start of fatherhood research a decade ago, both my own and that of my colleagues, with the aim of providing as complete a picture as possible of who dad is and how he experiences parenting.  As I wrote, a pattern emerged that rang true for all the dads of the world, however they achieved their fathering goals. All fathers seemed to have a role in scaffolding their child’s entry into the world beyond the family – encouraging them to jump in, explore and challenge themselves and equipping them with the life skills to help them succeed. Dads were the most influential when it came to the development of the language that eases our social interactions, in promoting the neural structures which supported the key social skills of empathy, trust, sharing and emotion control, in building their child’s mental and physical resilience by pushing their developmental boundaries and, by teaching them how to assess risk, surmount challenge and deal with failure. As a consequence they are the parent who holds a significant part of the key to life-long good mental health.


A Successful Life

Dads influenced girls and boys alike but their impact on daughters appeared to be stronger. Daughters who had secure relationships with their dads were significantly better placed to succeed both academically and vocationally, have high quality and stable romantic relationships, have positive psychological outcomes – lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem – and were empowered both to avoid negative peer pressure and to refuse unwanted sexual advances. And the world’s female politicians were disproportionality members of the first daughter’s club or women who had no brothers.

Why is dad particularly special? Partly because he is the parent, son or daughter, who is tasked with opening that door into the wider world but where daughters are concerned, it is because in a culture which still has strong ideas about how girls and women should be it is dad who needs to lead the way in showing his daughter, and giving her the patriarchy’s permission, to be assertive, to be confident, to believe that what they think and feel has merit and value.  


The Power of the Bond

All of these advantages are built upon the foundation of a strong, empathetic, loving bond between dad and daughter. But it is also clear that it is what dad and daughter do together that is important, particularly during adolescence. The key is one on one time doing an activity which both enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something elaborate; a bike ride, cooking the Sunday lunch, walking the dog. But there is something about the doing that appears to be key to maintaining closeness between dad and daughter as she matures, and crucially remaining a positive influence in her life however old she may be.


Liberal Dads

And while dads have something special to contribute to their daughters, daughters also have something to convey to their dads. It is increasingly clear that being the father of daughters influences your views on a range of gendered topics including equality. In their 2018 study entitled The ‘Mighty Girl’ Effect: Does Parenting Daughters Alter Attitudes towards Gender Roles? a team of researchers from the London School of Economics found that among fathers being dad to a daughter significantly increased the adoption of liberal attitudes to gender roles within the home including who should care for children and who should financially provide.


Strong, Successful Women

I am often to be found banging the drum for dads because by empowering them to be involved we can harness the powerful positive influences they can have on their child’s development. But dads of daughters also have something unique to bring to the table when it comes to the fight for sexual equality. For they know the power and potential that rests in their female child, after all in loving their daughters they have contributed to it, and by helping them to father we gain a world populated by assertive, mentally strong and successful women.  Something we can all benefit from.


Dr Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist, writer and broadcaster based at The University of Oxford.  She researches the science behind the close relationships that sit at the very centre of our lives; with lovers, children, friends and family. She is the author of the popular science and parenting book The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father.’


4 thoughts on “Dads and Daughters”

  1. Brad Richardson

    Thank you for reading the time to research and write this post. As a first time father to my 13-month old daughter, I’m always interested to learn how my parenting will influence and inform her future decisions.

  2. Pingback: 15 Things Dads Should Know About Raising Girls - AfricaX

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