Dads and daughters in the 21st century

One of the best and most significant cultural changes in the last 20 years, has been the shift around fathering.

Rather than seeing parenting as fundamentally the work of women, dads (and other father figures, grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers, etc.) are stepping up and sharing in ways that were frowned upon 60 to 70 years ago.

There was a time when Dads did not share the challenges of parenting with other dads – things like sleep deprivation, fussy eating, meltdowns and tantrums, or the dramas that can happen when a ‘poonami’ or ‘shituation’ happen! Now there are fathers’ groups, some walking with prams, some just meeting for coffee and there are some great podcasts too.

Men are speaking about these things… I remember listening to an episode of DadPod with Charlie Clausen and Osher Günsberg where they explored the most effective way to freeze breastmilk without getting it all mixed up! Seriously, this podcast explores many of the topics that I explore in Parental as Anything however with a uniquely male/dad perspective.

Over the years I have been asked to speak to groups of men in shearing sheds, to FIFO dads in the Pilbara, and at bowls clubs and community centres because somehow or other, I can do ‘bloke talk’ – sharing vital information without too much talking, quite a lot of humour and refreshments. I have taken this role very seriously and have been heartened by the depth of emotion and raw honesty that men have shown. There is no question that most of the areas of concern that come out of my evenings with ‘dads only’, are around their relationship with their daughters.

I guess in a way it’s the reverse of my work on mothering sons and one of the main reasons I wrote the book, Mothering Our Boys was to help women better understand the boys they are raising. The more we are able to understand the unique differences across the gender divide —which has been conditioned or imprinted into us, as a consequence of our own childhood — the better we are able to create warm, loving relationships with our children.

When I first began running parenting seminars, around 95% of the attendees were women. Gradually over time dads began turning up and there are times when I have had up to 10 men show up together at a seminar. A number of men have told me the reasons they didn’t come initially, was because they didn’t want to be told what they were doing wrong or to feel more inadequate than they already felt at times.

The real impact of a dad-daughter relationship

I have an enormous respect and fondness for Dr. Bruce Robinson, the West Australian lung physician who became concerned with how many men he spoke to as they approached the end of their lives, who expressed deep and profound regret with their relationship with their daughters.

After interviewing more than 400 men from 15 countries, he wrote the book Daughters and their Dads. Bruce discovered that the girls who had a strong, warm, predictable relationship with their father had a few interesting experiences in common. They tended to menstruate later, became sexually active later, and developed a stronger sense of self-confidence. These girls who felt loved by their fathers also did not tend to look for love elsewhere until they were much more mature and older.

I was such a lucky girl and I experienced these things. My dad never actually told me he loved me, however, there was no question in my mind that he did because of the fun times we had especially going around the farm, singing endless Seekers songs while in the truck or the tractor, and sharing stories and terrible dad jokes!

In my latest book Girlhood I wrote:

“In a way, a little girl’s first love is her daddy, if he is a safe man. He’s the man who models how to be a partner and a protector.”

Remember this doesn’t relate exclusively to biological fathers… other father figures can model these things too.

Over the years, fathers have shared with me some of their most concerning questions and concerns and many of them have been based on cultural norms around gender. One father of a five-year-old girl, who always called his little one ‘my Princess’ was a little confused and bemused when she attended her first book week dressed as a Princess. Apparently, another little girl in her class also came as a Princess, and his daughter pushed her over and yelled at her, that she couldn’t be a Princess because her daddy said she was the Princess!

The fixer…

Many dads have expressed how distinctly uncomfortable they feel when their daughters experience big emotional moments. Often this is because they feel unable to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’ their daughters from their distress.

Given the strong biological drive that still exists within most men about being the defenders and protectors of the children, they can feel they are failing them – especially their daughters. Many dads have expressed to me that the vulnerability of being unable to help their daughters has triggered their anger and afterward, they feel even worse.

Using the metaphor of the glitter jar and my simple parental pause technique, dads can learn new ways of navigating this very normal developmental response from our girls.

Holding a safe non-judgemental space for our daughters is incredibly important. One thing we definitely want our girls to know is that they can turn to either of their parents, anytime in life when bad stuff happens.

They certainly don’t want to fear their dad getting angry at them when they are really upset. Once we accept the reality that generally girls tend to have a higher emotional intensity than boys, we can change the lens with which we view those big, emotional hot moments.

Sometimes our girls’ intensity around wanting to talk lots, or to sing lots, or to put on shows that can take ages, can also be a source of frustration for dads as most young boys talk less and play quite differently.

Once dads realise how important these things are for their girls, making time to listen to them while encouraging them to feel heard, can be life-changing for both of you. I have incredibly strong memories of my dad listening intently to me as we drove around the farm in the ute. It has taken me years to realise that he showed his love for me by giving me the gift of undiluted presence.

Generally, girls have brilliant memories. Yes, they will remember everything that you’ve done that may have caused them angst or distress, however, they will also remember the rituals and enjoyable experiences that they shared with their dad.

Watching stars, talking to the full moon, gardening together, beach excursions together, reading stories together, fixing cars together, watching sport on TV together, and having dad dates will fill her memory bank with memories she can draw on for the rest of her life.

I can still remember some of my dad’s quirky sayings quite vividly and I’m sure my sense of humour definitely comes from my dad!

Take some time to create the memories that really matter, and let go of the moments when you are not the dad you really want to be. If you can, remember the power of the repair.

Dealing with big feelings

If you have got angry with her because her big feelings have frightened you or annoyed you, once the glitter has settled, either write her a note of apology or quietly come alongside her and say you are sorry you were unable to stay calm and be the daddy you wanted to be. Tell her you will try better next time!

NOTE: Importantly, I should emphasise I am NOT talking about violence or abuse here… I’m talking about moments of expressing normal anger or frustration. If you find you are regularly losing your temper and that your anger is impacting your family and you, please talk to someone… Excessive anger can be a sign of stress and it can affect your wellbeing and your family’s. There is lots of help out there.

Given that our girls have these incredible memories, from an early age encourage her to help you remember things – even bin night. One of my sons started to do this with his daughter especially if he needed to get things from the supermarket. He was astounded that she seldom forgot anything and over time she even noticed things that dad did not notice needed replacing. She also kept reminding him when his car needed to be refueled! Not only is this helpful for dads, it helps our girls feel responsible and helpful.

Steve Biddulph, who has sold millions of parenting books around the world in many different languages, has been my main guide as a parent and as an author. I have had the absolute honour and privilege of working with Steve in conferences that we have run together, and as part of the ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast, and we’ve also presented some online masterclasses together, including one on Raising Mighty Girls.

Steve often talks to the dads in his audience about the importance of making time to spend with their daughters.

I write about this in Girlhood, that:

“If dads are always too busy, [Steve] believes many girls choose to believe this is because they are boring or not worth it. Steve says he notices that many women in the audience start shedding tears, and they are either happy tears because their dad did make time for them, or they are sad tears because they missed out and are grieving.”

The trouble with teasing

Another area of confusion and concern that has come up at my seminars has been around teasing. Teasing, friendly banter, and ‘taking the mickey’ is a really common thing in the male world and it is intended to build connection rather than the opposite.

Physicality is another way that many boys try to share their affection for other boys including their siblings.

Yes, the slapping, shoving, wrestling, and jumping on top of each other often have a benign and loving intention, even though sometimes it goes wrong.

When dads tease their daughters they don’t realise that it can have the absolute opposite effect. Not only can it make them feel unsafe, and harshly and unkindly judged, it can trigger shame that can be incredibly long-lasting, because they don’t forget anything!

The same goes when you are behaving like a tickle monster, if she starts to pull away and asks you to stop, please do so. Your intention was not to cause harm, however, it can.

I have worked with so many tween and teenage girls who have incredible self-hatred and self-loathing, and much of it came from their dad through teasing and jesting. Even though the dad’s intention was completely different to the outcome, teasing and making fun of your daughter can quite simply break her heart.

So many dads have told me how fabulous the ABC kids cartoon Bluey has been for them to understand how girls like to play. There is an excellent episode about teasing that captures exactly what I have explained.

Even though I have gone really serious about the potential negative impact that teasing can have on girls I have great news about rough-and-tumble play. This really does matter!

Dads and father figures tend to be the ones who throw their kids into the air higher, who give them bigger frights, and who tackle more strongly, and all our kids including our girls need to experience this because it helps them develop bravery and courage as well as emotional and social competence. If that sort of behaviour was only reserved for boys, what would we unintentionally be teaching our girls?

This message from a parent below came from the survey I conducted for Girlhood:

Her dad told her that he was ‘off fast food and ice cream’. I asked her if she was going to do the same, knowing full well that she loves ice cream. She said, ‘Oh no, I’m off onion.’ Six months later, we still haven’t had any onion.

I know of a few mammas whose beloved husbands died suddenly and unexpectedly and whose mates stepped forward to be their precious children’s father figures. They did not just do this for a short time, some have been there right through until adulthood. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. That is beyond true mateship and is a powerful act of love.

Dads and father figures can be incredibly important in our girls’ lives from birth to adulthood.

The good news is you don’t have to be a perfect dad – you just have to be a connected dad.

Show her that you are capable of loving her fiercely and unconditionally even when she fails, she disappoints herself or she struggles with who she is. Reassure her that you have her back no matter what, no matter when. Always.


Image credit: ©️ shalamov / Deposit Photos


Maggie’s new book, Girlhood: Raising Our Little Girls to be Healthy, Happy and Heard is out now. Order on ebook, audiobook or in print. Get all the details here.You might also be interested in catching the replays of her masterclasses with Steve Biddulph on Raising Mighty Girls, or her masterclass about tween/teen girls with Michelle Mitchell, Understanding Our Gorgeous, Confused Girls.