By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
The research on the importance of fathers grows every day; the role we play in helping our children develop social skills, better test grades, and future career success. But I want to take a moment to talk about the special impact fathers have on their daughters, their little girls.
According to research from the United States and New Zealand, countries with the highest teen pregnancy rates in industrialized societies, fathers play a vital role in when their daughters engage in sexual activity. A study by Dr. Bruce Ellis of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand found that young women who have a close and positive relationship with their fathers are less likely to become pregnant or engage in teenage sexual activity. Let me rephrase that for you; girls who feel they have a close relationship with their fathers wait longer to have sex and are less likely to get pregnant at a young age. It is not an issue of poverty or race or divorce, though those things may play a role, but it is the relationship with their father that can truly make a difference for young women when it comes to deciding when to engage in sexual activity.
The second piece of research I want to discuss is also from Dr. Ellis. This one is even more incredible to think about. Dr. Ellis found that girls who have a close, positive relationship with their fathers actually menstruate for the first time later than those without a positive relationship with their father. Considering that the average age for menstruation was 17 in the 1830s, but is now 13, anything we can do to help delay that is beneficial. As Dr. Bruce Ellis said about girls and early menstruation in an interview with Australia television, “They have a souped up car but they don’t have the skills to drive it.”
As you can probably see, these two findings are not separate. If girls start menstruating later and engage in sex later, then they are less likely to get pregnant. On the one hand, many fathers may find this information a bit overwhelming. I know I did at first. But on the other hand, this is exactly the information we, as fathers, need to know. We do have enormous influence on our children, not just by how and what we teach them, which was what our role has historically been. More importantly we have influence by the kind of relationship we develop with them. The stronger, the more positive, the more open and honest relationship we develop with our daughters, the better chance we are giving them to be free to be who they want to be, rather than succumb to societal pressures and the needs of the boys in their lives. Our relationship with our daughters gives them confidence, a sense of reassurance, of security, of stability that allows them to say “no” when they want to and to not need to get those attributes from somewhere or someone else.
The most important way to continue strengthening your relationship with your daughter is time. Spend time with her. It doesn’t matter how old she is. If she is a baby, hold her to your chest, hug her, kiss her. If she is a toddler, hug her, kiss her, read to her, talk to her, sing to her, play with her on the floor. If she is in preschool, hug her, kiss her, learn with her, read to her, ask her about her day and listen to what she says, play outside with her, start teaching her sports. As she gets older, all of these things still apply – especially the affection. Ask her what music she likes and listen to it with her. Try the same with movies and books and games. Get to know her and let her get to know you. You mean the world to her (whether you feel like it or not) and everything you do with her, everything you say to her makes a difference.
Now, stop reading this and go find your little girl and give her a hug, ask her how her day was and enjoy listening to her excitement in telling you.