Daddy’s little girl

•Building father-daughter bonds that last a lifetime


Meg Shreve and Susy Schultz


Often, when we think of daddies and daughters, the images are stereotypical: the “daddy’s little girl,” the toddler in pink standing on her father’s feet as he teaches her to dance, the bride being walked down the aisle by a father who will “give her away” to the groom.

But the bond between father and daughter is much more than those Hallmark moments. Because from birth through the teenage years, a father sets the standard for every other man who follows in his daughter’s life.

Both parents are important to a child, but as Father’s Day rolls around, it is time to celebrate and examine the role of the dad in a girl’s life. We already know that the presence of a father can change a girl’s or a boy’s life and the absence of a father can leave a child more vulnerable to dangerous behaviors such as lower grades, lower aspirations, poverty, disruptive classroom behavior, drugs and alcohol, according to statistics collected by the nonprofit National Fatherhood Initiative. 

For a girl, though, a father plays a key role in helping her define relationships, manhood and womanhood.

“To say that this relationship is crucial is right on the money—this is supposed to be our first true love,” says Melba Beaty, 33, who lives in Alsip and is the mother of 20-month-old Zora. She is also the author of My Soul to His Sprit: Soulful Expressions from Black Daughters to Their Fathers.

And it doesn’t matter whether the father is custodial or if he is the one at home taking care of the children. A father is a key figure in his daughter’s life. And whatever the living and care situation, daughters will learn from their dads.

Anne Parry, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Office of Violence Prevention, says a little girl learns from her father “a definition of love that could set her up for good or for ill.”

As a girl gets older, the stakes become even higher. Her dad’s behavior toward her and toward other women “can set the tone for how the girl feels about herself as a woman,” Parry says. 

Or as Roland Warren, president of the nonprofit National Fatherhood Initiative, puts it: “Fathers are the first guys to pursue their daughters’ hearts.”

Critical influence

And girls need their dads now more than ever. “It is a precarious time for young girls,” says Parry. “Especially if you look at the increase in date rape and in child abuse. Girls are vulnerable and a father’s influence can help.

Jay Rehak of Chicago, dad to Hope, 15, and Hannah, 12, says he talked with his daughters at a very early age about the importance of respecting people. He has told them that in the event they find themselves in an abusive situation, they need to get out of there as fast as possible.

“It’s why we gave [them] a cell [phone],” Rehak says. “I can’t even say the words ‘date rape.’ It scares the hell out of me. Hopefully, they will see in my own relationship with my wife that there is no violence in the house. We treat everyone with respect.”

Parry says that’s the key. A little girl absorbs how her father treats her and learns from how he treats the other women in his life as well. “It’s just like that John Mayer song, ‘Fathers be good to your daughters, Daughters will love like you do,’ ” says Parry. “Isn’t that a great line?”

The way a father treats his daughter at an early age will teach her how to judge other relationships later on in life. A girl who has a positive relationship with her father will replicate that role with future partners, Warren says.

Conversely, when there is no dad to guide her, a girl may start looking elsewhere for a father figure, he says.

Beaty’s father lived with her family when she was growing up. “Physically, he was in the home, but emotionally, he was not available,” she says. And she believes that while a father’s absence affects all races, she sees the serious affect it has on black women, which led her to pull together her new book.

“We often are stigmatized as being hard to please,” says Beaty. “We give the impression that we don’t need a man. [But] it is the wall we build when we don’t have a healthy relationship with our fathers and it manifests itself in the relationships we have with our sons and with our husbands.” 

That father-daughter relationship is crucial, agrees Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women: “Relationships really are about the fundamental issues. Beyond love and trust, it’s about accountability, responsibility, give and take and just being there to guide a girl. When the things that a little girl needs are not there, it adds up. Eventually, it catches up and that’s when those dangerous behaviors spiral out of control.”

Counteracting culture

In today’s world, girls are bombarded with negative media images that portray girls as makeup-obsessed, empty-headed, boy-crazy machines. It can be hard sometimes to find a truly girl-empowering message in pop culture.

“As the first man in her life, we have the leverage to blast those messages,” says Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters, a nonprofit national advocacy group based in Duluth, Minn., and father of 24-year-old twin daughters. “We set the standard of what to expect.”

Bennie Currie of Hyde Park says he and his wife, Celeste Garrett, encourage their daughter, Elizabeth, 9, to ignore those societal messages about body image. “We spend a lot of time trying to encourage a healthy lifestyle. We don’t make a big deal out of talking about such things, positively or negatively. My daughter has feet like me—big. We try to play it up as a point of pride—we have things in common.”

Rehak says he is keenly aware of the messages he sends to his daughters as well. He makes sure to tell them they’re beautiful—especially when they go out sans makeup—but also makes a point not to suggest that someone else is not beautiful.

“My daughters may change their shape. If I tell them they’re beautiful now, but they gain 15 pounds, I wouldn’t want them to think they’re not beautiful anymore,” he says.

Rehak understands that his messages can easily be lost in the media quagmire. But, he says, “You plant the idea and it bounces back. Then it’s deep in their mind that they know a man who knew them before all of their friends, before they watched television, who knew they were beautiful unto themselves. Unless they have that, they could be pushed aside while hearing all those other messages.”

“From the time that girl comes from the womb, a father needs to shower her with unconditional love,” says Beaty, who believes a father and a mother have to work together to show examples to their children. “And a mother needs to hold their daughter’s father responsible for teaching girls what it is to be a man.”

Spend time with her 

Ron Spaulding of Plainfield says he and his 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, have been close since she was born. Often they spend time playing video games, working on art projects or talking about music, since Elizabeth is in band at school and Ron is a musician. When he hasn’t seen her during the day, Spaulding makes a point of giving his daughter a hug and asking how her day went.

When Elizabeth was 4, she was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called alopecia areata. It caused her to lose her hair. Spaulding shaved his head in solidarity.

Other fathers find time to share with daughters in the mundane activities of every day. Rehak, a teacher at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, drives Hope, 15, to school.

“[I like] checking in to see how she’s doing,” Rehak says. He and Hope talk about how school is going and the school plays she’s active in. Rehak and his other daughter, Hannah, spend time together redesigning the family’s backyard and playing sports, where he coaches her in basketball and baseball.

Other fathers look to special activities designed specifically for fathers and daughters, such as father-daughter dances. Joe Derezinski, a Hinsdale dad of 6-year-old twins, Becca and Eme, goes on camping trips with his daughters through Indian Princesses. Derezinski likes the program not only because he gets to spend time with his girls, but because the activities encourage his girls to be independent and the trips build their confidence.

“They’ve seemed to come into their own,” Derezinski says of his daughters.

Talk to her

Regardless of the activity, communication should be the goal. Fathers who don’t talk to their daughters won’t be able to understand what’s going on in their lives.

“The biggest tip is you’ve got to engage your daughter,” Warren says. “You’ve got to stretch yourself to connect with your daughter.” 

For Currie and Elizabeth, soccer offers the connection—he coaches, she plays. And, he says, putting her to bed at night gives them time to talk one-on-one. Elizabeth is a bit on the shy side, Currie says. Since he, too, was shy at her age, he often talks to her about it. He encourages her to be assertive and speak up in class.

Currie likes to make sure his daughter knows she can confide in him. He believes that his wife doesn’t have to be the only one dealing with the children on a daily basis. “Fathers need to realize they have a role, too,” he says.

It’s the gift of presence. Being there. What’s important is that a father learns to let his daughter just talk, and that he really listens.

“Listen to what they have to say,” says Spaulding. “Try to remember that she’s young and she wants to express herself and it is Dad’s job to be there when she wants to do it.”

Rehak says it’s important to remember that just because your daughter is upset, she may not be angry with you—it may be about something else going on her in life. Giving her space to talk gives you a chance to get to the root of what is upsetting her.

“I think everybody wants to be heard,” Rehak says. “Kids will vent a little bit on you.”

Be there

As girls move into the teenage years, Kelly says it can be difficult for fathers if a strong relationship starts to sag under the strain of one more slamming door. Girls may shy away from talking about relationships with their fathers and fathers may feel they lack importance in their daughters’ lives. They may see it as a time for Mom to step in as their daughters move into womanhood.

“A lot of dads move away physically and emotionally because they feel lost and they’re not sure if they still matter,” says Kelly.

He suggests fathers turn to each other. Talking about fatherhood gives men a chance to draw upon one another’s experiences, share and give advice. This is a time to prove your loyalty to your daughter by being there when she needs you.

A father has good reason to be confused about his role and his daughter. After all, a teenage girl is going through dramatic changes. Some days he is father to a little girl. Other days he is father to a young woman.

Parry, from the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, remembers the dance her husband and daughter did when Tabitha turned 14.

“She and her father had the biggest falling out of all time,” Parry says. “He wanted to keep her a little girl. He wanted to control her and restrict her growth. He was scared. And she wanted to be respected and for him to let go.

“I remember, she just yelled at him, ‘I am growing up.’ And he realized he had to change.”

When a girl pushes her father away, it is crucial for him to stay in touch and remember she is absorbing everything, says Parry, especially criticism. So whether it is about her looks, her dress, her weight or her clothes, Parry suggests thinking before speaking. 

“You have to think: Whatever is about to come out of my mouth, is it going to leave my daughter stronger or leave her more vulnerable because of the way it makes her feel about herself?” Parry says.

“It’s all about trust,” says Rosenthal, of the Chicago Foundation for Women. “If dads and daughters develop trust early in life, then it informs the relationship building for the rest of the girl’s life.”

It is important for a father to continue to validate his daughter by encouraging her aspirations and reinforcing positive body images. It’s also important to stay in touch, keep listening and spend time together.

In the end, even through the most difficult teenage years, a father’s biggest contribution is to be there for his daughter.

“Our job is to hang in there,” says Kelly. 

Meg Shreve is a student at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and a former Chicago Parent intern. Susy Schultz is editor and associate publisher of Chicago Parent.

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