Fathers and daughters

Education professor Linda Nielsen looks at broken ties — and how they can be restored

By Kim McGrath
Office of Creative Services

Fathers and daughters often don’t have the close ties mothers and daughters have, but in her new book, “Between Fathers & Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding your Adult Relationship” (Cumberland House Publishing, 2008), Professor of Education Linda Nielsen argues that it’s never too late to strengthen the father-daughter bond. Nielsen has been researching father-daughter relationships for more than 30 years, and says that her “Fathers & Daughters” course is the only college course in the country that focuses exclusively on father-daughter relationships. She is also the author of “Embracing Your Father,” “Adolescence: A Contemporary View,” and “How to Motivate Adolescents.”

Why a book about father-daughter relationships?

My dad died when I was 40 and we didn’t know each other well. We had trouble communicating when I was a young woman and we never felt completely relaxed around each other when we were by ourselves without mom there to keep the conversation going. I also married a divorced dad with a teenage daughter and watched him struggle to be treated like an equal parent. Finally, as a psychologist I was upset that not one book had been written for dads or adult daughters about their relationship although there were many books about mother-daughter relationships.

Why is it important for a father to be actively involved in his daughter’s life?

A well-fathered daughter benefits from a meaningful relationship with her dad in terms of her academic and career achievements; relationships with men; self-reliance and self-confidence; and mental health. She’s less likely than poorly fathered daughters to become depressed, develop an eating disorder, have a teenage pregnancy, abuse drugs or alcohol, or become a juvenile delinquent.

What’s the typical father-daughter relationship like?

They love each other, get along fairly well, and say they’re close and have a good relationship. But, most are not comfortable talking about personal things and admit that they don’t know each other nearly as well as mother and daughter do. Fathers and adult daughters rarely spend time alone — or talk privately by phone or e-mail. And most feel they could be getting more out of their relationship but don’t know how.

But not being able to talk easily with each other doesn’t mean they don’t love each other, right?

There’s a big difference between loving someone and knowing them. You can love your dad or your daughter a lot, but still not know him or her very well. Throughout their lifetimes, daughters spend far less private time with their fathers than with their mothers and often have more regrets and guilt when their fathers die because they feel they should have gotten to know him better.

What might a good father-daughter relationship be like?

Fathers and daughters, like mothers and daughters, need to be able to talk comfortably about personal or meaningful things. There’s no reason that fathers and daughters shouldn’t be able to trust and confide in each other, feel as relaxed together, and get to know one another as well as mothers and daughters.

How have fathers’ roles changed?

Fathers are spending more time with their daughters, especially when their daughters are younger and engaged in sports. What has not changed is that once his daughter becomes a teenager, most dads back off. Our society tells dads to be more involved in their daughters’ lives, yet the media continues to create negative stereotypes about dads — especially divorced dads. Dad is presented in many television shows and commercials as a blockhead when it comes to childrearing — especially with his daughter. Mom is the expert and dad is her clueless sidekick.

So fathers face an uphill battle in maintaining a relationship with their daughters as they get older?

Too many women have been brought up to believe that dads and daughters aren’t supposed to talk about personal, meaningful things or spend private time with each other. Worse yet, too many young women are taught that dad doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to insights or wisdom about dating, love, friendship, or depression. We give dad permission to be there to fix his daughter’s broken car, but not to fix her broken heart. We also put too much emphasis on what dad provides financially and too little emphasis on what he can provide emotionally.

Should fathers and daughters talk about dating?

Sure. Why shouldn’t a daughter profit from her dad’s wisdom when it comes to dating and romance? After all, he’s a guy and he’s made mistakes that he can share with her so that she’s less likely to make them too. What a loving gift for a dad to give his daughter. I’m not saying that dads or daughters should disclose the details of their romantic lives to each other. That’s an invasion of privacy, and we all need and deserve privacy. But privacy isn’t the same as secrecy and deception. It hurts the father-daughter relationship when an adult daughter is constantly lying to him about her personal lifestyle. When the daughter starts dating, our society tells dad to back away and let mom take over as the advisor. Dad is seen as the “cop” who disapproves of every boyfriend and who doesn’t want his daughter to be a sexual person — not now, not ever. That’s unfair and unkind. And it’s damaging because this belief makes many daughters feel afraid to talk to their dads about boys or dating — not just as teenagers but also as women. And that’s a great loss — for both dads and daughters.

What can be done to change this?

Eliminate sexist assumptions from parenting. Dads and daughters need equal opportunities to get to know one another. They need to spend time alone with each other – during adolescence and the college years, until death do they part. Fathers and daughters must learn to ask each other personal and meaningful questions when they’re together. I list dozens of these in my book. For example: Dad, what are three lessons you had to learn the hard way? Daughter, what are two things that are worrying you about this coming year in school, and how could I help you worry less?

What advice would you give to fathers to help their daughters during college?

First, spend as much time alone with her as possible so that you can have private conversations and strengthen your bond in your own ways. Send e-mails or make phone calls just to her. Go on a long walk or out to lunch — just the two of you. Second, make a financial agreement (a written one) about what each of your responsibilities is going to be. This helps reduce the inevitable stress over who pays for what. Third, rather than giving your daughter advice about what she ought to be doing, tell her about your college and young adult experiences — the mistakes you made, the things you wish you had done differently, your regrets, your embarrassments, the lessons that you had to learn the hard way. Doing this lets you give her advice in a way that isn’t as likely to aggravate her. She probably won’t listen when you’re trying to talk directly about her life. But she’ll be all ears if you start telling her honestly about your college years. Remember though, these should be private conversations, not family ones.

Categories: Faculty