Dads and Daughters

New fathers often bow out when the baby is a girl. That'’s a mistake for everyone.

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If you're expecting a baby girl—or have a brand-new one—you might find it hard to imagine her going off to school and playing sports, let alone dating, getting her first job or even choosing a husband. But those days will be here before you know it, and there are ways to give her a leg up right now.

If you're her dad, start establishing a healthy relationship with her at birth; if you're her mom, do all you can to support and encourage that bond. Here's why: Studies show that a strong father-daughter relationship helps a girl develop healthy levels of self-esteem, security, competitiveness and femininity—even competency in math and science. What's more, girls who've enjoyed good relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in early sexual behavior or to use alcohol and illegal drugs when they're young.

But that's not all. A man often serves as a role model for his daughter's opinion of men and future relationships. "You may be her only example that not all men are pigs," jokes Yoaz Bar-Sever, the Altadena, Calif., father of 11-year-old Gaila. But fathers of baby girls often feel as if they're in alien territory and retreat, deferring to the mother. These men don't realize that while what they provide may be different, they have as much to offer their daughter as her mother does.

Dads benefit as much from father-daughter relationships as their girls do. Many men admit that having a daughter changed the way they behave—for the better. Once Los Angeles firefighter John Jimenez had a daughter, he discovered the importance of the messages he gives. "Now I'm more conscious of what I say and how I behave," he says.

Seattle dad Richard Rhodes also believes that having daughters (in his case, five) has changed his perspective and behavior. "I cringe now when I hear sexist jokes," he says. "I can't watch movies that show women in vulnerable situations."

The right way? His way. A man can bond with his baby daughter right away by taking a hands-on role in her care. As she grows, the way he interacts with her will obviously change. Bar-Sever, for example, connects with Gaila through physical activities, including some that prompt Gaila's mom to beg, "Please be careful!" Rest assured that there is no right or wrong way for a man to build a healthy bond with his daughter. A man can do it his way; the important thing is that he do it.

Some of these suggestions won't apply until a child is older, but it's never too early for a man to start thinking about what he can do to be a great father to his little girl.

–24 months

  • Diaper, feed, bathe, dress and read to her.
  • Don't insist she play with so-called girls' or boys' toys.

Toddler to Preteen Years

  • Do silly things with her. Have tea parties, play Barbies.
  • Introduce her to sports, even male-dominated ones.
  • Get involved in her school activities, field trips, sports teams and projects.
  • Work together around the house. Teach her how to make and fix things.
  • Don't make gender comparisons that imply that femininity is somehow inferior, such as "You're as strong as a boy."

The Teen Years

  • Be a role model. The qualities you embody will influence your daughter's future relationships with men.
  • Discuss and come to an agreement with your partner about tough topics like sex, extreme dress, drugs and risk taking, then be prepared to talk with your daughter when these issues come up. The goal is to help her learn to make good decisions and to say no … and not just because daddy said so.
  • Don't focus only on her looks; pay attention to what your daughter says, thinks, feels and dreams. On the other hand, her appearance is one aspect of her whole person, so don't be afraid to tell her she looks pretty.
  • Don't encourage dieting. Instead, promote healthy eating and exercise.

Finally, both parents should remember that a man's most crucial ally is his daughter's mother. "I am blessed with a wife who supports my having a strong relationship with my daughters in both obvious and subtle ways," says Richard Rhodes. "She keeps encouraging me to find my own way with them, one that is different from hers."

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