Digging for Truth in Father-Daughter Relationships
September 10, 2012—"Truth is the only safe ground to stand on," asserted the 19th-century women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Few of us, including Wake Forest University professor Linda Nielsen, would disagree with that sentiment. Unfortunately, she says, the truth isn’t always easy to get at. The expectations we have for one another are often based on stereotypes, inaccurate information, and even cognitive biases—those subtle little tricks of the brain that affect our interpretation of events. This is certainly the truth in family relationships. Perhaps especially, suggests Nielsen, when it comes to the emotional barriers that have been erected in the one between fathers and daughters.
Although many people may assume that the mother-daughter relationship counts as the top concern among nuclear family ties, Nielsen believes that the father-daughter relationship offers specific benefits that have largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed by comparison. Her new textbook, Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research and Issues, isn’t an advice book; rather, it’s the step that comes before advice, a scholarly examination of contemporary research that shatters the core assumptions and myths that limit these potentially rewarding relationships.
Nielsen cites studies measuring the negative portrayals of fatherhood in popular media such as children’s books, movies and television. To that foundation she adds others that demonstrate how the brain is influenced by the expectations and beliefs that arise from these portrayals and follows up with concrete findings showing how skewed these beliefs are. Contrary to popular stereotype, says the research, women do not have some kind of special maternal instinct that makes them more suited for nurturing than men and more naturally expert at parenting and empathizing. Rather, studies find that men (like women) undergo hormonal changes before their children’s birth, and that these increase their sensitivity to infants; but these hormones aren’t the cause of nurturing behavior in either parent. Interestingly, points out Nielsen, the more experience people—male or female—have had with infants before their own baby’s birth, the greater the hormonal changes and the stronger their nurturing responses. “In short,” says Nielsen, “experience is what matters most in our nurturing responses to infants.”
Without pitting mothers and fathers against one another, she explains that the myth of maternal instinct is particularly damaging because it can disrupt the exchange of bonding hormones between fathers and children from the very beginning if it leads fathers to be more hesitant to engage, or more certain that “mother knows best.” The resulting fissure may be compounded by the mistaken belief that women are generally more understanding and communicative than men. How likely is a daughter to go to her father for advice or comfort, asks Nielsen, if she has bought into the idea that men don’t like to talk about personal issues, “that they are, quite bluntly, thunderstruck blockheads who need women to do the communicating for them.”
A common temptation in social science writing is to offer simplistic explanations for study findings, but Nielsen is careful with the research. She is quick to note that “fathering and mothering are not the only factors determining a child’s well-being.” There is no getting around the fact that there are children who thrive even when they are missing a relationship with one parent, regardless of whether the missing parent is the father or the mother. “Conversely,” she says, “there are children raised by two parents who do not fare well.” While Nielsen notes that “children are generally more advantaged when they are raised by two supportive parents rather than by only one,” she adds that “the advantages of being raised by two parents are smaller than sometimes represented and are often correlated with other factors such as the family’s income.” But, she points out, just because children can do well without one parent doesn’t mean that parent is irrelevant—and fathers have traditionally been assumed to be less relevant than mothers.
In light of this, it is fortunate that the quality (rather than necessarily the quantity) of the fathering is what matters over the long haul, and to date an impressive collection of research has focused on defining “good” fathering. In short, involved fathers do more than spend time and money on their children: they are warm, responsive, authoritative and responsible for monitoring and meeting children’s needs. They provide social capital by helping them form community, school and work connections, teaching them how to interact with others in social settings and resolve problems in the workplace or at school. And they are emotionally available.
On the other hand, says Nielsen, emotionally distant fathers can leave children with a longing that researchers call “father hunger.” “Poorly fathered girls are generally plagued with a host of problems throughout their lives,” she finds. “Moreover, the father-daughter relationship has an impact on fathers, both in terms of his well-being and development.”
Pointing to an array of social problems that could be reduced through strengthening father-daughter relationships (including teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of incarceration), Nielsen challenges her readers to take an honest look at the most unsettling and controversial questions that can be provoked by discussions of father-daughter ties. And she is not content with examining fathers and daughters only in traditional or average family contexts. Fully half of her book discusses research that has examined more complex father-daughter relationships, including those within single-father families, divorced families, families dealing with unique cultural challenges, families where fathers are incarcerated, and families involving sperm donors.
Nielsen acknowledges that the debate over how “necessary” fathers are is far from over, and it is not the aim of her book to settle the question. Rather, she is intent on exploring why some fathers succeed in empowering their daughters through meaningful, emotionally intimate relationships while others do not.