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Well-Fathered Daughters

A father's unique and irreplaceable role in empowering a daughter.

Key points

  • A dad's supportive presence empowers his daughter in the world.
  • The definition of father and family may be changing, however what matters is how engaged and involved a father may be.
  • Dad gives his daughter a unique perspective that rounds out her life skills.

The unpredicted and stunning success of teenager Leylah Fernandez at the 2021 US Open thus far has stirred astonished commentators to highlight her seemingly unwavering “belief” in herself. It’s been her belief in herself and her game that has carried her past world-ranked, savvy, and more experienced players like Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, and Elina Svitolina. Talent, youth, self-belief, and a Zen-like-present-moment-focus brought her out a winner in those matches.

As a clinician and a tennis follower for decades, I see another defining ingredient in Leylah’s success. It comes through her testimonials to the unwavering support of a particular person in her life – her father, Jorge Fernandez. Like other great female tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, Chris Evert, and Steffi Graf, Leylah has had the gift of her father Jorge’s seemingly sustained attention, coaching, and perspective on life, sport, and the great wide world.

While there has been an almost singular focus on the role of mothers in their daughters’ lives, research on the roles of fathers has been less available. Societally, fathers for a very long time have been delegated the roles of breadwinner, disciplinarian, mom’s backup, or more disparagingly, the Disney Land dad. These roles left fathers characterized as detached, to be feared, enigmatic, and/or occasionally aimlessly fun for their children. Particularly their daughters.

What we do know through research is that mothers and fathers generally have different parenting styles. Mothers broadly tend to focus on care, emotional responsiveness, and nurture – emphasizing the importance of relationships and security. Fathers broadly tend to foster ease with competition, rough-and-tumble play, and risk-taking in the greater world – emphasizing independence and agency. In combination, each style offers a daughter well-rounded skills to navigate the world.

Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels
Learning new skills
Source: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

With traditionally married households declining in recent years, our idea of “family” is becoming much less cookie-cutter and more layered and complex. Within that shift, what constitutes “family” and parental roles is open to broader terms. This evolution now sees fathers who may be traditionally married, single, divorced, gay, straight, adoptive, or step-dads. Yet, even with everything changing in how we view family, what matters most is if dad is involved with the children.

To be clear, the kind of involvement I’m talking about is not pushing a daughter towards exceptional achievement. I am talking about the everyday interactions between father and daughter that show dad’s availability for caregiving, concern for her well-being, and making sure her needs are met. As she grows and evolves, it means showing interest in her perspective and goals, respecting her thoughts and emotions, encouraging her to take risks and make allowances for mistakes, and offering alternative solutions to dilemmas.

Shared interest!
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

I have been honored to observe among my clients many fathers with young daughters. In their interactions with their daughters, I see men genuinely interested in what their daughters bring to them. No task or ask or achievement is too big or too small to elicit the attention these fathers bring. These fathers follow their daughters’ lead, delighting in their interests and supporting their risk-taking. One dad is cheering because his daughter just got into advanced math. Another dad is assiduously fixing his daughter’s crazy green Halloween hair.

What this kind of involvement brings to a daughter is the assurance that she’s safe in her freedom to explore her talents, relationships, and limits. Supportively involved fathers affirm and empower their daughters:

  • To take risks
  • To take up space, and their rightful place, in the world
  • To not fear defeat, but to learn, grow and expand from it
  • To pursue the depth and breadth of their interests, abilities, and talents
  • To speak up freely with the expectation they will be heard and respected
  • To know in adulthood what it is to be in a supportive and respectful relationship with a partner

Few daughters will choose to follow the path to being super-elite athletes. However, every daughter and society will benefit beyond measure when a girl grows into a woman with the strength, independence, and self-regard a well-fathered daughter can carry with her.

If you’re a father interested in knowing more about connecting with and supporting your daughter, go here for information to understand the hugely important role you play and ideas to build your relationship with your daughter.