Say goodbye to Daddy’s Little Girl — the dependent, passively feminine daughters we used to know. In their place, we’re seeing an updated, fully re-designed model of the young female — ambitious, educated, worldly and in need of nobody’s protection. Women, for the first time, make up more than 50 percent of the American workforce.
Dads play a key role in this shift. Instead of sheltering daughters or preparing them for the time-honored matrimonial hand-off, fathers today have a hand in raising powerful women who are fully capable of making their way in a competitive world where, by the way, the competitors don’t always play nice. Dads who once might have defined their roles as helping daughters prepare to be good wives now see it as preparing them to make and manage money, compete for jobs and handle relationships in a life that may or may not include a husband. They’re preparing their daughters to be independent, strong-willed and tough.
This is showing up in how dads relate to, and interact with, their daughters early on. More and more fathers are treating their little girls like they might have treated sons in the past: teaching them to fish, taking them camping, familiarizing them with things like car parts and power tools, and encouraging them to pursue careers in male-dominated fields. Like Sarah, a young lawyer whose father coached her, at 9, to become one of the best players in the neighborhood’s all-boy whiffle ball league. And Margaret, whose dad taught her how to bargain for the best price on plastic bugs during their regular father-daughter flea market outings. By changing up some long-held assumptions about parental roles and responsibilities, fathers and daughters are moving quickly to a whole new kind of connection. It’s a connection that is increasingly, and very healthily, gender-neutral.
That’s not to say it’s not an even swap: Daughters aren’t exactly becoming the new sons. It’s a misconception that once girls flood the playing fields, the halls of higher education and the workplace, the relationship between fathers and daughters simply recalibrates to the one enjoyed by fathers and sons — maybe even better in the absence of testosterone-fueled competition. In fact, the new father-daughter relationship is filled with just as many differing dynamics as the old one or, for that matter, as any parent-child relationship.
One challenge I’ve seen come up through my work with families is that often even the most involved fathers aren’t as physically present as daughters would like, and dads often aren’t in tune to see how this may affect their little girls. A report from a 13-nation team of psychologists revealed that daughters may experience “rejection” from one parent, but most typically her father, in a far more dramatic way than she experiences similar rejection from the other parent. The parent with the power to reject is often the one she perceives as more powerful; that is, if a daughter perceives her father as having higher prestige than her mother, he may be the more influential in her life. In this way, science tells us that fatherly love and affection is critical to a daughter’s development and perception of her own value.
At times, I saw this play out firsthand. While our daughter was growing up, my husband’s BlackBerry often drew him into an alternate universe where the rest of us were not necessarily welcome. His work frequently preoccupied him and took him far from home for long stretches, and at one point he lived in New York while we stayed in California. Weekends when he returned home were always highly anticipated by our daughter. One Friday afternoon, it fell to me to pick her up from school and break the bad news: There’d been a change in plans. He hadn’t thought to call and tell her himself. She started to cry.
There are benefits, however, to this new closeness: Traditionally, fathers and daughters have struggled to regain the connection they shared when the girl was very young: the time of shoulder rides and tickle attacks. Idealized fathers live best in memory, and as daughters grew up, there was less and less to bond father and daughter beyond the love they had for each other. Today, though, fathers and daughters have much to talk about, worlds to share. Learning to hit a curve ball or make the smart career move — once largely the arena of fathers and sons — is now fully and joyfully open to fathers and daughters.
Even better, this evolving relationship isn’t limited to what’s happening at home. Each election year, I wonder: Who will be the best candidate for women? Whom can I entrust to the job of creating a world where my daughter will thrive? The surprising answer is that it’s not necessarily a fellow female. A study sponsored by Yale University and the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that male lawmakers with daughters are more likely to support women’s issues than those without them. It is a political application that mirrors previous research showing that, just as fathers change daughters, daughters change dads. In his book Fatherneed, Kyle D. Pruett M.D., the father of daughters, wrote that daughters make fathers think differently about the world and the future it offers. And, of course, in the four years he’s served, President Obama has found occasion to reference his daughters, Sasha and Malia, as reasons for supporting or opposing certain issues or policies. In the Obamas we’ve had a real-life example of the changing relationship between daughters and fathers everywhere.
At last, it’s looking like we might put away some myths and reconfigure some truths: that girls marry their father; that the connection with little girls must change when they become big girls; that father is the hammer and mother is the unconditional love. For fathers, breaking free of assumptions about who and what they are in the parental mix means the joy and satisfaction of more — and continuing — participation in shaping their daughters’ lives. And for daughters, it is the opportunity to tap in much more directly and deeply to a reservoir of experience, perspective, and support than might have been possible in a world where the father’s role was more strictly and narrowly defined. It’s a win for everyone.
Dr. Drexler is a Ph.D. research psychologist, professor of psychology at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College, former gender scholar at Stanford University, and mother of two; she has spent her career studying sex and gender at work, at home, and in the world at large. Author of two books about gender and family: Raising Boys Without Men, which introduced readers to boys in single and two-mother families, and Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family, about the father-daughter bond in a time of unbridled female opportunity. She has written for a wide range of national and international media, including The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, Forbes.com, Huffington Post, DuJour, USA Today, and Psychology Today, and is currently working on a book about the evolving role of women in the workplace and the new challenges they face. She is a frequent guest expert for such outlets as Bloomberg, Today, GMA, Katie, and NPR. Dr. Drexler can be reached through her website,peggydrexler.com