Dads play a critical role in their daughters' development, yet many underestimate their significance.

Research has shown that girls who share close relationships with their fathers grow up more self-assured and self-sufficient. If they lack those bonds, they may be more susceptible to ]]>depression]]> , eating disorders, and teen pregnancy.

According to psychologist Margo Maine, PhD, author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and Food , men often "feel the pressure around economics, but don't realize they have a broader role [within the family]."

Across all age groups, research shows that dads tend to pursue more interactions with sons than with daughters, since many men feel more comfortable with boys than with girls.

"Men are comfortable in relationships with parallel play, doing stuff together but not interacting," Dr. Maine explains. "Daughters demand a lot more intimacy."

Starting Early

Father-daughter closeness begins when a girl is born and can be deepened if mom encourages it.

"The mother is always the gatekeeper in any family, because of the way our culture has defined motherhood and fatherhood," says Wake Forest University psychology professor Linda Nielsen. "If the daughter's fortunate, the mother opens the gate full wide as soon as the daughter's born, [for the father] to have an equally intimate relationship with the daughter."

Some experts believe that new mothers buy into the erroneous societal perception that women are naturally superior parents. But given the chance, men are just as nurturing and good at raising children. But men's traditional responsibility of providing financial support, while important, may leave little room for interaction with children.

Studies have shown that blue-collar dads tend to spend more time with their youngsters than do their white-collar counterparts. Nielsen attributes this to the number of hours spent at the job and that both parents usually work in blue-collar homes.

"The mother is out of the way more, so dads can interact with kids," Nielsen says. "Children of both sexes are closer to their fathers when their mother has always worked full-time outside the home. Then the parenting gets shared."

Puzzling Puberty

With boys and girls, fathers' involvement decreases as children grow older. A girl's changing priorities and body during puberty may make Dad feel jilted or uncomfortable and prompt further retreat.

"Around adolescence, daughters move away a little bit and Dad distances himself," says Dr. Maine.

Comments and interactions can help or hinder how a girl accepts her body and sexuality, shaping her social interactions with males. When a father acknowledges his daughter's development, encourages romances, and paints a realistic picture of himself, these steps increase the odds of his daughter becoming self-confident.

"It's important for a girl to develop a sense of how to interact with a male world, and her father is the introduction to that," says Dr. Maine. "It's really important [that] girls get grounded in a relationship with men early on, one where they can feel respected and valued."

Developing Goals

"It's the father who teaches [his daughter] or gives her the most guidance in developing her academic and vocational success and achievements," says Nielsen, who teaches a course and is writing a book about father-daughter relationships.

Teens turn to fathers more than to mothers for education and job advice. Even in dual-career homes, dads still hold greater sway over daughters' career goals.

The National Center for Education Statistics report, "Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools," studied the correlation between fathers' participation in school activities and children's academic success. Co-author Jerry West says, "In general, we find better outcomes for students whose fathers are involved."

Being Self-Reliant

"It's also the father-daughter relationship that's most closely related to how self-reliant the daughter becomes," says Nielsen, who describes differing parenting styles. Some moms may tend to cajole and talk children into doing things, but fathers often put their foot down.

So, daughters often view dads as stern and demanding, but, from that, girls may develop strength, self-discipline, and a belief in their own power to control what happens to them. And, research shows, girls and women who feel good about themselves are less likely to put themselves second or become involved in destructive relationships.

Dads can teach assertiveness, methods for successfully dealing with male authority figures, and ways to interact on a team. These are skills necessary in the academic and business worlds.

Being Part of a Team

The importance of team participation cannot be ignored. Sports can serve as a common interest for dads and daughters, but Dr. Maine cautions that if carried to an extreme, sports can backfire if a girl participates solely to connect with dad.

"Girls so desperately want to please their fathers, [that] sometimes they feel no matter what they do in sports it's not enough, [and] they have to do more," says Dr. Maine.

Research has shown that, as girls grow older, they tend to drop out of sports, because it ceases being fun and other activities attract their attention.

Studies by the Melpomene Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, have found that physically active girls had more ]]>self-esteem]]> and that parental encouragement correlated with girls' increased participation in sports. Fathers were more likely than mothers to play, practice, or teach sport skills to daughters.

"Dads took an active role because that's what dads knew how to do," says lead author Lynn Jaffee.

What Else Can Fathers Do?

The experts make several suggestions for how fathers can bond with daughters:

  • Spend time alone with your daughter.
  • Talk to each other and express feelings.
  • Find ways to participate in your daughter's life.
  • Attend school functions.
  • Take your daughter to work.
  • Car pool or run errands together. A few minutes of informal time in the car is valuable, says Dr. Maine.
  • Encourage your daughter's pursuits, even in nontraditional roles.
  • Laud your daughter's accomplishments, rather than just her physical attributes.
  • Develop an awareness of media portrayals of women and discuss them with your children.
  • Show respect for women.