Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Daughters Too Benefit from Influence of Good Dads

Dads model masculine traits for daughters and sons

Posted Dec 20, 2012

My daughter worked six days a week as an intern in her father's company before she departed for  her freshman year in college.  She assembled press packets and gift bags; coordinated publicity events and sent celebrity photos to stores three days a week; and on the other 3 worked on the sales floor and in the stockroom unpacking cartons and unfolding and, painstakingly and in a highly specific way, refolded clothes for display.

The work was seldom glamorous, with the exception of one day when she got to meet Tom Cruise at a photo shoot; that was huge. But for the rest of what was an exceptionally hot summer, she worked long hours for low pay in her father's world, watching what he does and how he does it, discovering and testing her own mettle according to his example.

As I have watched her grow over the years from winsome little girl into vulnerable adolescent and now into competent adult, it has become clear that if mother love grants you safe harbor and shelter from the storm, father love provides ballast for the vessel of the self and a sextant to help it navigate the world.

The more I saw how my daughter evolved and flourished under my husband's guidance, the more determined I became to explore the complex dynamics between daughters and fathers. And the more I have found out, the more curious I have become.

Why, for example, do some child placement agencies set greater store in having a father in the family when placing a boy than when placing a girl? One agency official told me that when foster home placement or adoption of a boy by a single mother was considered, the agency always made sure she had arranged for the child to be exposed to a male role model. Why, then, wasn't the agency concerned about a girl growing up without a male role model? Because, the official told me, there is "probably a bias that it's not as important [for a girl to grow up with a father as it is for a boy], frankly, when it is."

Since then, data have begun to replace the anecdotal conjectures. In one 2009 study, biologist Anna Katharina Braun, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, released preliminary findings from a study they are conducting on infant degus (small, highly social rodents typically raised by two parents). In the experiment, the degu dads are removed from the cage shortly after the litter is born and the pups are left to grow to maturity--which takes about 90 days--with their mothers. 

The preliminary results are astonishing: Not only did the father-deprived pups exhibit more impulsive and aggressive behaviors than the pups with fathers, their brains also were developing differently. Neurons in the brains of the father-deprived pups were slower-growing, and in some cases shorter, dendrites (twig-like extensions that conduct electrical impulses between neurons). Moreover, these dendritic differences were found to occur in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for, among other things, modulating emotional responses. Braun's team concluded that being deprived of a father delays and may also inhibit the development of brain circuitry.

While it is too soon to draw conclusions about how the physical and psychological development of small fatherless rodents may apply to that of small fatherless human beings, there is ample evidence to anticipate a connection.

We take as gospel the notion that mother love can make or break a child's self-concept, self-esteem and psychological well-being while glossing over the father's contributions to these basic elements of personal development. When we do acknowledge the importance of a father to his child, we almost always seem to picture the child as a boy.

Common wisdom has it, a father provides his son with a model of virility, competency, power and strength, but I have found, not only from watching my daughter evolve but through clinical research of  75 women over a five year period, that the father also provides a model of so-called masculine traits for his daughter as well. The model of masculinity a dad provides for his daughter is adapted  and assimilated to his daughter’s own needs and into her own life as a girl and a woman.

Increasingly dads are showing their daughters how to be strong and effective navigators of their lives much as they have always done with their sons.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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