WHEN DISCUSSING THE importance of fathers, the conversation often centres around their impact on sons. Which makes sense. Boys will more explicitly model their lives on their fathers’ example of masculinity and are greatly impacted by the male-to-male mentoring they do or don’t receive.
But fathers also have an enormous impact on their daughters.
From academic achievement to physical and mental health, fathers play a significant role in shaping their daughters’ lives and futures.
Let’s take a look at five areas in which this influence works its effect:
1. Sense of Agency
Agency is the capacity to act in the world according to your desires. Agency is what allows us to shape our lives into what we want them to be. In general, men tend to have a higher sense of agency than women and are more assertive and comfortable with conflict.
Why is this the case? It’s likely a mixture of biology and socialization. Higher testosterone levels in males contribute to agentic behaviours and impulses, like the drive to explore and strive for status. Layered on top of that is the tendency of cultures to socialize men to be more competitive and independent, and to socialize women to be more cooperative and nurturing.
Having a higher sense of agency comes with a lot of benefits. It helps people stave off anxiety and depression, advance in their career, and develop healthy relationships. It’s beneficial to both men and women.
However, dads have an outsized influence on their daughters’ sense of agency. Fathers are more likely than mothers to expose their daughters to novel and risky situations. In one study, for example, fathers were more likely than mothers to allow their three- and four-year-old daughters to play on a five-foot-high catwalk or walk across a three-foot-high beam. Dads also are more likely than mothers to encourage their daughters to stand up for themselves and think independently.
So how can you help your daughter increase her sense of agency? Roughhouse with her, for starters. That’s an agency booster. But beyond that, do stuff with your daughter. Take her on errands with you. Work on projects around the house together and teach her how to use your tools. Go on dad-and-daughter adventures where you take small risks. When you experience setbacks in your own life, model what it looks like to be a high-agency individual. All these things can help your daughter to be confident and proactive.
2. Physical Health
Dads have a big influence on their daughter’s health. One study found that the fathers’ (rather than the mothers’) body fat percentage was the best predictor of whether or not a girl would gain weight as she got older. Fathers also have an outsized effect on whether their daughter plays a sport in childhood. It’s dads (in general) who encourage their daughters to take up a sport, not mums. What’s more, it’s the father’s physical activity that has the most influence on a woman’s physical activity in adulthood.
So what can you do to influence your daughter’s physical health? Again, roughhousing can help here. Encourage your daughter to get involved with sports. Take her on active activities like hiking, biking, kayaking, and so on. Help her develop a physical identity. Most importantly, model good physical health to her by moving regularly and eating right yourself.
3. Mental Health
There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately about the rise of mental health problems among teenage girls. Dads can play a big role in mitigating mental health problems in their daughters. Strong and warm father-daughter relationships have been shown to stave off depression and anxiety in teenage girls, and this effect carries over into adulthood. The influence a dad has on his daughter’s sense of agency likely plays a significant role in this.
Body image issues are a big source of depression and anxiety among young women. Research suggests that dads dampen body image issues. Daughters with close and warm relationships with their fathers are less likely to have body image issues and more likely to report being happy with their bodies compared to girls who lack this connection with their dads.
Relatedly, teenage girls with a close relationship with their fathers are less likely to experience eating disorders.
Simply being a caring presence in your daughter’s life can help mitigate the mental health issues facing young women today. Dads can provide a sense of stability and resilience to their children — the feeling that their home is a safe place where they are loved and protected. If you notice that your daughter is struggling emotionally, don’t just leave it to mum to tend to your daughter. Be proactive; lend a listening ear, and provide comfort and support.
4. Academic Success
Girls who have supportive fathers in their lives tend to thrive more academically compared to girls lacking a supportive dad. Studies show that dads tend to encourage their daughters to push and challenge themselves academically more than mums do. Moreover, when dads regularly help their daughters with their homework, those daughters are less anxious about school. Mum’s help with homework has no significant impact on academic-related anxiety.
The influence a dad has on a daughter’s academic success carries over into university. Daughters with close relationships with their fathers have higher grade point averages in university than those with poor father-daughter relationships.
Be an involved dad when it comes to your daughter’s schooling. Help her with homework. Attend parent-teacher conferences. Encourage her to push herself and praise her when she excels.
5. Romantic Relationships
Fathers also influence their daughters’ romantic lives, including dating behaviours, sexual activity, and the quality of their relationships with men. Girls who have secure and supportive relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in early sexual activity and have a lower risk of teenage pregnancy.
What’s more, daughters who have a positive relationship with their fathers are more likely to have emotionally intimate and fulfilling relationships with their boyfriends and future husbands. In fact, fathers generally have a greater impact on their daughters’ relationships with men than mothers do.
Fathers play a crucial role in shaping their daughters’ lives, influencing everything from their sense of agency to their romantic relationships as adults. If you’ve got a daughter, don’t discount your influence on her. Be a strong and loving presence in her life. Spend time with her and initiate meaningful conversations around life, school, and love. Remember, according to the research, you have a big role to play in raising a happy, cool, well-balanced adult.
Source for post: Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research and Issues by Linda Nielsen.
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