How dads can protect their daughters from loneliness and self-doubt

Ben Pobjie discovers that what he is “protecting” his daughters from is not what he first thought.

dad and daughter eat cake

I hate it whenever I hear that research shows that fathers have significant impact on something.

I know I should be glad that as a dad I am important, that I am capable of having a profound influence on someone’s life, but for me the feeling is a lot like standing at slip in a cricket match: I know it’ll be brilliant if I can pull off a catch, but I’m praying the ball doesn’t come to me, because I strongly doubt my ability to handle it.

This is the feeling that comes over me when I read that research indicates that girls with strong relationships with their fathers experience less loneliness.

Suddenly my two daughters are hurtling off the outside edge and if I can’t reach out and pluck them out of the air, one in each hand, they will fly away to the boundary, lonely and neglected.

Fathering girls is different to fathering boys, even if that’s only because of the different way society views the job.

When I started down the parenting path, to be honest I found the idea of fathering girls less daunting, because I believed there was less pressure on a dad with a daughter compared to the expectations of providing a role model for a son.

Reality so often breaks in to irritatingly shatter the preconceptions that we had found so comforting.

You soon realise that neither sons nor daughters are gender archetypes that you can follow a script with: raising a boy isn’t just a matter of kicking the footy around and puffing your manly chest out; raising a girl isn’t a matter of calling her princess and hugging her every day. Or, indeed, vice versa.

Sometime I think parents can get too obsessed with role modelling. We naturally want to set a good example for our kids, and that can assume overwhelming importance, so that we end up treading on eggshells for fear of setting the wrong example.

If we’re confident that we are always trying to be decent human beings — which hopefully we are regardless of parenting considerations — then a good example will naturally be set.

As the aforementioned study shows, what’s crucial is not just the model you present for your kids to emulate, but the way you interact with them.

Study co-author Xin Feng says, “We found that closeness between fathers and daughters tends to protect daughters and help them transition out of loneliness faster”.

The word “protect” is the one that stands out for me there, because in fathering daughters, protection is the idea that buzzes in the brain like a fire alarm.

Dads are protectors, girls need to be protected: these messages are deeply ingrained in us from an early age along with all the other gender stereotypes and mad ideas about what families are that screw us up for all time.

In this case the messages happen to be true — just not always in the way you expect.

We anticipate our daughters needing protection from scoundrel boyfriends and creepy men, and for these threats we stand ready.

When they come along though, it turns out what they need protection from is loneliness, and self-doubt, and insecurity.

That freaks me out a little, because I still don’t know how to protect myself from any of those, let alone anyone else.

But one of the greatest responsibilities of a father, as I’ve discovered, is finding the will to help others do things that you’ve never been able to do yourself. That’s how I helped my son learn to ride a bike, too.

“Raising a girl isn’t a matter of calling her princess and hugging her every day.”

As the studies indicate, a big part of the way a dad protects his daughters from the worst the world has to offer is simply by, well, being there.

Keeping the relationship close, it turns out, correlates with better emotional outcomes for girls. Daughters who stay engaged with their dads seem to be happier — who knew?

And this is where, despite the fear that comes upon me when I’m stationed at slip praying that important fathering tasks don’t call my reflexes into question, I see it as wonderful news.

Because I want a close relationship with my daughters. I would hate to think that as my kids grow older, my relationships with them split into the standard tight-knit father-son bond, and a more arm’s-length approach to my daughters.

I’d hate to be a dad who acts as a supervisor to his daughters, and doesn’t remain a big part of their lives at all times.

In her book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, Dr Margaret J Meeker imparts her wisdom as to how important dads are to their daughters.

She writes that a father’s affection is the best predictor of his daughter’s self-esteem, that six-month-olds with involved dads scored higher on mental development tests while toddlers with secure attachments to their fathers are better at problem-solving, and that girls who feel connected to their father are less likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and self-harm.

These are pretty big issues, and a lot of pressure on a dad. It’s enough to make a guy wish he could just take the boys down the park for kick-to-kick.

But it’s one of the best kinds of pressures to have, because unlike many of the scary pressures that assail us in adulthood, this is pressure to do something that is actually incredibly enjoyable: love our daughters, squeeze them tight and spend as much time as we can with them. It’s not a complex formula: just do your best every day to let your little girl know you’ll always be there. It’s a real win-win situation.

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