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When The Fathering Project founder, author and scientist Bruce Robinson was writing his book Daughters and their Dads, he asked his hairdresser mid-haircut what she thought about the importance of dads for daughters. The hairdresser prefaced her response by telling Robinson her dad was a fantastic dad – to her brother. She went on to describe how she had longed to be invited to do the outdoors things her brother and dad did together.
When I spoke to Damian Posthuma, father to Libbie, Sophie and Billie, he echoed a similar struggle, albeit from a very different perspective.
In Posthuma’s Christian culture, he has encountered a huge emphasis on the relationship between a dad and son. However, with three daughters, Posthuma has struggled to feel his relationship with his girls affirmed within this culture. He says quite often church events organised for fathers and their children cater solely for dads and sons.
While, perhaps, this is not deliberate, it has created an expectation that a father’s role resides with raising sons. This thinking certainly isn’t exclusive to Christian culture.
For Posthuma, the Fathering Project has provided reassurance that a father’s role is just as necessary in raising a daughter as it is in raising a son, and that it is more significant than we appreciate.
Founded in Western Australia, The Fathering Project is a non-for-profit organisation that takes a research-backed approach to inspire and equip men to be better fathers.
The organisation provides educational resources to fathers, coordinates community events and supports schools to establish Dad’s Groups.
After director of Health Promotion Solutions Dr Stacey Waters and senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia Dr Leanne Lester undertook a review of Australian evidence on the impact of fathering, using the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, they summarised their main finding simply: Fathers matter. Conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the government-backed longitudinal study is following 10,000 children and families from all around Australia.
Active father-daughter relationships are a minority, but research indicates they are definitely worth dwelling on and it is certainly worth ensuring the narrative doesn’t continue this way. If it does, many young women will continue to be denied the profound positive impact a father can have in almost all areas of their life; academic, social and emotional. So why does a father really matter to a daughter and are fathers aware of their impact?
Journalist and author of Fathers and Daughters Madonna King says every piece of research and all my interviews, points to the importance of a father figure for a daughter.
Underestimating the role of fathers
King interviewed 1300 girls and 400 fathers for her 2018 book. When she began, it didn’t take long for her to realise even she had underestimated just how different, but equally significant, a father’s relationship was with their daughter was from a mother’s. Speaking with King, her passion for communicating this message is obvious.
“We put dads into this category of that they can teach [daughters] to spot a storm, change a tyre and do things like that. Of course, they can do things like that, but they’re such low-grade things in the big scheme of things,” she says.
According to King, beyond these limiting stereotypical roles of a father is a man with a profound ability to teach his daughter rational judgement, alternative thinking, how to critically assess, to negotiate and to develop clarity in arguments. Dads are generally better than mothers at teaching these skills, she says.
Chief executive of The Fathering Project Káti Gapaillard says it’s taking time for fathers to realise how significant their role is because there has been a lot of research conducted concerning how a mother contributes to a child’s development, but not as much into how a father contributes to child development.
“It’s not a lack of motivation. It’s probably a lack of awareness, and a lack of knowledge,” she says.
My father: the ‘provider’
In speaking to over a thousand girls, King uncovered an overwhelming proportion of girls still saw their dads more as providers than parents.
“They were there at the barbecue with the tongs, but they weren’t an instrumental part of their life and I think that’s kind of something were all missing out on,” she says.
While domestic gender roles have undergone dramatic transformation, King’s research is a pertinent reminder that traditional pre-industrial gender roles are far from completely shaken. The ‘breadwinner’ and ‘disciplinarian’ ideology still lingers, and when it does, daughters certainly feel it.
Where dad goes wrong
I ask King about the most common mistakes that fathers make. I expect a complicated answer. She responds confidently and quickly. There are two stand out ones: The first is when the girl is 11 or 12, fathers take a step back because they feel they have to give their daughter privacy, when in fact he needs him to do the opposite. He needs to stay in her face and make her know he’s not taking a step back from her. Dads who fail to do so find it much harder to reconnect in the following years.
The second mistake relates to her engagement with debating and public speaking. King says she found dads absolutely loved witnessing their girls prosecute an argument in public, but were quick to crush her views and arguments when she took them home with her. She says fathers need to realise daughters are simply trying to take them on intellectually and that they need to attack the argument rather than the girl.
One girl told King: “Dad just says I’m wrong when I try to say what I think. So I don’t bother anymore.
“I just go quiet. I try and say something — like on refugees — and he just slaps my argument down.”
Lead dad of the Fathering Project at Applecross Senior High School Robert Butler says the program has really reinforced the importance of simply listening to his daughter without imposing his views. He tries to implement this by going on what the project calls ‘dad dates’. He tells me on the weekend just passed he and his 13-year-old daughter Abbey stopped by a café to have a drink and some one-on-one time before heading back to the family. They sat and discussed her football game. Butler simply listened.
“I let her talk and once she gets going, she’s a great talker, talks about all sorts of things. That was a special little moment,” he says.
The many capes dad wears
Another major role fathers play in daughters’ development is fostering resilience, rational thinking, and engaging their conflict resolution and negotiation skills, says King.
“The ability of dad to provide alternatives, and not be too emotionally invested in his daughter’s life is a huge asset.”
Gapaillard adds fathers are also more likely to support their daughters through considering risks than mothers are. She says this increased engagement in discussing risk translates to increased resilience, better risk-assessment and decreased likelihood of engaging in delinquent behaviour.
She explains that mothers affect a child’s life more through emotional factors, while a father is a daughter’s window into the outside world. Therefore, so the way a father conducts himself in the presence of the child affects how the child learns to behave in the outside world.
Evidence has also revealed positive fathering contributes to better academic progress. In particular, a father’s self-efficacy or confidence, and a warm, supportive parenting style translates to better educational outcomes.
King says the most contemporarily-relevant role fathers need to recognise they have is their profound influence in the arena of consent. A father sets the bar of what his daughter will later accept from men via his interactions particularly with his partner, his mother and his sisters.
Every interaction, like the stroke of a paintbrush, paints a picture of how his daughter will later judge any man who walks into her life. It’s a power, King says, she doesn’t think many fathers truly realise they have.
Gapaillard says: “From the moment she’s born, and all throughout her life, she will look to her father as a role model. This is the first relationship she has with a man and it sets the tone for the rest of her life. She will also learn by watching how her father treats her mother and so learns how to be respected by a man.”
Posthuma says the project has really reaffirmed this basic principle for him. He pauses – then he stumbles. He tells me having daughters made him reflect and recognise he hadn’t treated women all that well during his life. He realised this wasn’t okay and that he didn’t want this for his girls, so he began recording these mistakes and reflecting on them.
“The mistakes you’ve made become all the more raw.”
It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been good for him, he tells me.
In the first of its kind, Renee Goodwin and Thomas Styron conducted a study published in the The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 2012 on the association between perceived quality of paternal relationships and psychopathology among adults. The study looked at the long-term affect these adults’ parents had on them. It revealed poor quality of perceived paternal relationships was associated with a significantly decreased likelihood of secure attachment styles and significantly increased odds of avoidant and dependent styles. These attachment styles are formed as a child. Developing the latter styles can lead to difficulties forming close relationships as an adult.
The way forward?
While research has illuminated the significance of a father in a daughter’s life and programs such as The Fathering Project are helping fathers to harness their impact positively, many barriers still stand in a father’s path.
King says schools need to be more open to dads entering school yards, as mums do. Two fathers she spoke to said they were asked if they had permission to enter their daughters’ school yard.
The Fathering Project helps to combat this through fostering a father-inclusive school practice, by creating opportunities for fathers to come to schools. The activities are generally run once a term.
Gapaillard says principals commonly report not having seen 80 per cent of these dads prior to the project activities in the school.
King agrees fathering programs are fantastic, but that we’re only just at the beginning of the process of properly integrating fathers into the parental sphere. “I think a lot of schools have father-daughter dances and a father-daughter breakfast. To me, that’s a little bit of tokenism. They have one month a year or one Friday a month where dads are on tuckshop. Really? So the other four days it’s mums? So, it’s got to stop being tokenistic and it’s got to be real and genuine.”
King also sees workplace dynamics as impinging on a father’s ability to assert himself in his daughter’s life. “Workplaces see a male as a worker first and as a dad second, but they see women as a mother first and a worker second.”
Workplaces have to see both fathers and mothers as parents and as equals. Until they are seen simply as parents, not as different and one with more impact than the other, it is going to make things difficult, she says.
Asked for her thoughts on how new Australian fathers will shape up, she says: “I would say there is a new breed of dads coming through that are going to be sensational fathers.”
She says that now when she delivers parenting talks, she sees dads treating their unborn daughters as a “project management job,” where they’re really passionate about planning to provide their daughters with the best opportunities they possibly can.
Gapaillard agrees: “Things are changing. Definitely, things are changing.”