The lessons I’ve learned as a father to my daughters

Being a father to daughters can open your eyes to issues you'd never considered and present challenges you didn't think you would face.

dad kissing daughter

“As a father of daughters” … it’s one of the most cringe-inducing phrases to hear in the media.

Whenever issues affecting women and girls specifically are raised, the daughter is the trump card men love to use as proof they really, truly care about women’s rights.

There is a major problem with this way of thinking, and it’s why I roll my eyes whenever I hear the daughter card played.

Quite obviously, one’s ability to care about women should not depend on one’s own personal relationship with specific female humans.

As people, we should be concerned about the welfare of other people, and men are not so deficient in empathy that they can only understand women’s issues by reference to the women in their family.

“Imagine if that was your daughter” should be an unnecessary entry point to an issue — just imagine that was a human being.

And yet, and yet … I have never believed that my daughters grant my opinions on feminism any greater weight, but at the same time, when you’ve got daughters, there can be no denying it sharpens your awareness of the difficulties society throws up for women.

“As a father of daughters” still makes me cringe, but I can’t escape the fact that I am a father of daughters, and that fact colours my perception of the world.

Moreover, it colours my perception of myself: having daughters pushes me to be more aware of whether I am setting a good example as a male role model, for female children.

Ideally, perhaps, I would simply be able to treat my daughters the same way I treat my son without a second thought: in practice the skewed world we live in makes it almost impossible not to second-guess myself.

I can make my own home a sexism-free zone, but I can’t do that for the world outside, and some preparation needs to be made for that, some awareness needs to be developed. Or does it?

Maybe they’d do better, after all, to grow up without an inkling of how disheartening life can be — what’s the best way to make them strong? And maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing anyway and making life harder for all of us by obsessing over feminist questions.

But there is genuine cause for dads of daughters to think carefully about these things. A recent study conducted jointly by Macquarie University, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Reading found that girls are more likely to develop anxiety disorders due to their fathers treating them like “princesses”.

According to the research, girls are more at risk because fathers are more likely to engage in “rough and tumble play” with their sons. One of the co-authors of the study Professor Jennie Hudson said that fathers should encourage their daughters to “push the limits” to minimise the risk of future anxiety. In another study, the University of Newcastle discovered that girls like rough play.

These are challenging facts for a father. These little girls ARE our princesses: how can we not treat them that way?

When daughters come into your life, your every instinct says you must protect them, that they are extra-vulnerable and need to be shielded from the dangers of life. And not just the dangers of “rough play” — we know there are a thousand ways that the world is a dangerous place for girls, and it’s pretty hard to shut that out when you’re parenting.

Of course, the dilemma is that we know that one of those thousand dangers is the very fact that girls are more prone to anxiety because of overprotective fathers.

It seems we can’t win — either we expose our girls to danger by not protecting them, or we expose them to danger by protecting them too much.

It’s no wonder we end up making declarations like “as a father of daughters…” — the inner turmoil that daughters bring changes your whole worldview, and feeling special is the compensation for all the worry.

How do you protect your daughter, without protecting her too much? How do you raise her to withstand the slings and arrows of life, without making her afraid of them? How do you send the message that her gender is no obstacle while simultaneously helping her deal with the fact that there are people in the future who are going to try to make it one?

There are no guarantees in fatherhood, no simple answers. But the overriding principle has to be the basic one: as a father of daughters, I am a father of people.

Every person grows up in this world with different likes and dislikes, interests and passions, challenges and concerns. Every person, of every gender, faces life in their own unique way. Every child you have, son or daughter, introduces you to a brand new human being, and every child needs to be treated like the individual they are.

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the particular issues that affect girls more than boys — or for that matter, that affect boys more than girls. But taking joy in who your daughters are, as people first, should be the starting point.

The challenges that arise throughout the years you can take as they come, and handle with as much wisdom as you can muster, knowing your priority is not to act “as a father of a daughter”, but as a father of THIS daughter.

Knowing who your daughter is, and embracing everything about her, princess or not — that’s how you give yourself the best shot at good fathering.

And remember to enjoy it. As a father of daughters, the most important thing I’ve found is: it’s absolutely wonderful. You’re going to love it.

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