Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

When Dads Do Housework, Girls Have Higher Career Aspirations

It's not what dads say, it's what they do

A recent study led by Professor Alyssa Croft at the University of British Columbia found that girls ages 7-13 were much more likely to have higher career aspirations when their fathers did more household chores. The study’s authors suggest that it’s not enough for dads to say they support equal rights for women (thought that, too, is helpful). They need to model that value in their everyday actions. While the bad news is that the division of labor in countries like the United States and Canada is still tilted towards mothers doing a mandatory double shift and dad’s helping with cooking, cleaning and childcare when they feel like it, behaviors at home are slowly changing. It’s intriguing to think that my devoting my time as a father to domestic duties may help my daughter become one of the CEOs, entrepreneurs, politicians, or high-level scientists that we need to spark and sustain innovation.

It was also interesting that the same study showed that fathers who tell their little girls, “You can be anything you want to be,” but who are not getting down and dirty with the housework, may be setting their daughters up for failure. The gap between their words and actions tells their little girls that they can be successful at anything they want, but that that their career success will be in addition to being great mothers with full domestic duties. In other words, without actions to back up words, girls may get verbal encouragement to pursue a career, but the behaviour that is modeled tells them that their careers mustn’t come before their obligations at home. That’s a different message than telling our daughters that they can fully devote themselves to a career in much the same way that we expect their future husbands will. The takeaway here seems to be that dads should never underestimate the power of modelling. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to motivating children.

From this perfectly sensible example, let me move to the realm of fantasy. Here, too, dads have been proving their worth. When Jeremiah Heaton’s 6-year-old daughter told her father she wanted to grow up and be a princess, he used his expertise in the oil industry to locate a parcel of disputed land between Egypt and Sudan that he claimed as his kingdom. He traveled 14 hours through the desert to the desolate spot where he planted a flag, declaring himself head of state and his daughter, Emily, a sovereign monarch. The little princess was awarded her title on her 7th birthday.

Now I am fully aware that Heaton’s actions set rather high expectations for fathers everywhere. And yes, one could argue that reinforcing little Emily’s wish to be a princess rather than a CEO may be encouraging the child to aspire to a very gendered, albeit high-performing, career. Or, we could wonder if Heaton used this as an opportunity to teach Emily about her responsibilities as a princess. After all, many princesses have become great philanthropists and advocates for human rights. Or we could get more serious and hope that Emily is helped to understand the very real humanitarian challenges the people of that disputed territory experience. It could be a chance for a genuine engagement with some serious issues that children who are more privileged need to understand. Though I don't know if Heaton spoke with his daughter about any of this, I was still impressed with his gesture if only because it speaks to what most dads want to be: inspiring to their daughters (and sons). Rather than criticize Heaton, I’ll smile along with the absurdity of what he did and applaud him for giving us dads a good chuckle.

Reflecting on both news items together, however, it occurred to me that if we dads really want to impress our daughters and inspire them to make their dreams come true, we don’t have to drive a Land Rover across deserts. We just need to clean the toilet at home.

I suspect the real value to what fathers do for their daughters is that we provide clues to what they can become. Yes, mothers model opportunities too, but there is something in the cross gender dynamic which seems to cue our daughters about what they should expect of their lives as adult women, especially if they follow more stereotypical and heteronormative patterns of marriage (man, woman, child).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some housecleaning to get to.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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