The Star Late Edition
Strong dads make strong daughters
A fathers’ forum at a local school prompts Noor-jehan Yoro Badat to look at dads’ roles in their daughters’ lives. Psychologists and paediatricians say – for good or bad – they leave an indelible imprint on their female children
WHEN I was teenager I remember sobbing in my bedroom as my mother raged about the hefty telephone bill I had racked up calling an old flame in the US.
In the middle of her rants, my father came to my room. I expected him to give me a stern lecture, but instead my father – who rarely showed emotion – gave me a hug and asked if I was okay.
That moment made up for all the times I hardly saw him, as he spent most of his time working. It would shape my relationship with him for ever. I hung on his every word and sought out his company.
The most important person in a young girl’s life is her father, says Dr Meg Meeker, a paediatrician and the US’S leading authority on parenting, teens and children’s health.
Meeker, author of six books including Strong Fathers, Strong
Daughters, writes a daughter’s world is smaller than her father’s, not just physically, but emotionally as well. It’s more fragile and tender because her character is being “kneaded as bread dough on a cutting board”.
Meeker says that every day the daughter awakens, “your hands pick her up and plop her back down on the board to begin the massage. How you knead, every single day, will change who she is.”
Dads are more powerful than they think and, more than anyone else, set the course for a daughter’s life, she writes. Yet fathers don’t fully understand the deep-seated impact they have on their little girls.
If fathers fully understood just how profoundly they can influence their daughters’ lives, they would “be terrified, overwhelmed, or both”, says Meeker.
“Boyfriends, brothers, even husbands can’t shape her character the way you do. You will influence her entire life because she gives you an authority she gives no other man.”
That’s what clinical psychologist David Lipschitz shared at a recent talk at Roedean School, which was attended by 80 fathers on a weekday morning.
Lipschitz was surprised at the turnout for his talk, which delved into the role fathers play in their daughters’ lives. It indicated a “need among dads to become more engaged with their daughters”.
The talk would spin off into a forum for fathers to share parenting ideas.
The school gave the fathers reading resources, organised adventure camps and father-and-daughter cooking sessions at The Star’s Angela Day Kitchen.
Jan Mallen, the headmistress of Roedean’s Junior School, says the dads-and-daughters initiative stemmed from parent forum discussions, held each term, and a similar momsand-daughters workshop that started two years ago.
This initiative enabled moms to explore how they’d been parented and how to effectively parent their daughters.
Mallen says facilitating such a discussion for fathers provides “a support system for them to better understand their daughters”.
“It’s a very important aspect of parenting that can, in the business of life, be overlooked.”
Developing the strength of this relationship in adolescence and beyond can give a young girl an enormous capacity in coping with the world and relationships.
Lipschitz says while mothers act as role models for daughters, fathers help their daughter establish a clear sense of self. Dads can help model the sorts of relationships that are healthy, and what their daughters will look for in a man.
“We have the unique ability to inspire our daughters as we are usually the first men they experience in their lives.”
A South African Institute of Race Relations report, First Steps to Heal
ing the South African Family, published in 2011, found girls who grow up with their fathers are more likely to have higher self-esteem, lower levels of risky sexual behaviour, and fewer difficulties in forming and maintaining romantic relationships later in life.
They are also less likely to have an early pregnancy, bearing children outside marriage, marrying early, or getting divorced.
Lipschitz says numerous studies indicate the more engaged a father is in the formative years of his daughter, the better adjusted she will be as a child and adult. He says daughters will tend to: Achieve greater academic and career success.
Create more loving and trusting relationships with other men.
Develop a healthier, more functional sense of self, including confidence, self-esteem, self-nurturing and independence.
Be more likely to attempt new things, and accept challenges.
Express emotions – especially anger – more comfortably and confidently, especially with men.
He also finds it fascinating this has less to do with how much time dad spends with his daughter, and more to do with quality time they spend together.
Antonio Obregon, who is on a sabbatical doing research for his doctorate at Wits University, was grateful when he was given the opportunity two years ago to spend quality time with his three daughters.
He admits that before his sabbatical he was far too busy working for high-profile institutions, such as the European Commission. But now, he relishes the time he spends with his girls, particularly his youngest daughter, Marina, who had been going through a phase where “some of the silly things she was doing at that time were a call for attention”.
Quality moments with her made him realise, to his surprise, she wanted more time with him and to listen to his opinions. He found even shopping with his daughters became an enjoyable experience.
“I thought that by listening to my daughters I was learning a lot.”
Lipschitz feels the same way. The quality time he has spent with his daughter, Raffy, 10, has developed a deep connection between them. They share a lot of fun times, laughter and a love for music.
“I am learning a great way for dads to spend time with their daughters is to engage in activities that are stereotypically in the male domain, such as DIY, fixing cars, watching and playing sports together.”
Yet his fiercely competitive and sporty daughter is also quick to tell him when he gets over-invested in her activities, particularly soccer.
But he admits her teen years are a period he dreads. Already he is faced with hints of adolescence.
“We are witnessing fiery tempers, and complicated social dynamics with friends. I fear lots of fighting between Mom and Raffy during this time, as they are so similar. I think I will go live somewhere else for 10 years, and someone must let me know when this phase has passed so that I can return safely.”
Reading up on more parenting information has helped Obregon understand the challenges of being a good father.
He tries to be flexible and positive when offering his daughters guidance on their future.
He and his wife also try to make them understand that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Love is the pre-condition for discipline. In fact it’s “the medicine” his father applied with him.
“And it worked. But it’s also true that discipline doesn’t work without communication and good understanding on both sides.”
Lipschitz says it is problematic that the role of men in general and dads in particular is not as defined as it used to be.
More and more, moms are playing the role of provider. And there’s an expectation dads will play more the role of a nurturer.
“This is a big shift, and we don’t really have role models before us that have successfully negotiated through this.”
Creating a good balance between raising a well-adjusted daughter and protecting her from the harsh realities of life is a struggle many fathers face, Lipschitz says.
“Typically, we feel it’s our role and right to protect our daughters – our sons may learn to protect themselves.”
But he’s learning that the more he trusts his daughter to sort things out by herself, the more she feels capable of succeeding.
“The message I send when I intervene is that she’s not capable, and has to rely on a man to sort things out.”
Meeker says many fathers, particularly of teenage girls, assume they have little influence over their daughters – certainly less influence than their daughters’ peers or pop culture.
Fathers think their daughters need to figure out life on their own.
“But your daughter faces a world markedly different from the one you did growing up – it’s less friendly, morally unmoored, and even outright dangerous.”
Daughters need the support only fathers can provide – and if you are willing to guide your daughter, to stand between her and a toxic culture, to take her to a healthier place, your rewards will be unmatched, says Meeker.
“You will experience the love and adoration that can come only from a daughter. You will feel a pride, satisfaction and joy you can know nowhere else.”