What kind of future does your daughter see at home? We want our daughters to believe they will be able to “have it all” as they grow up, finding fulfilling work, contributing to the world, and above all, enjoying healthy relationships. Yet in the everyday world of parenting, it’s easy to fall into the familiar, stereotypical roles where moms shoulder the majority of day-to-day child-related tasks as well as become the family’s emotional switchboard. Modeling healthy relationships for girls as parents is the most powerful influence on a girl’s goals and expectations, says John Badalament, author of The Modern Dads Handbook (Cole Valley Mill, 2007) and the film “Gender Traps: How Marriage Problems Start in Kindergarten.” We can take steps today to transform the examples we set for our girls (and boys) into healthier, happier ways to live.
Transitions for dads
The job description for being a father has radically changed in a short time. For example, my dad, who was born in 1940, saw home as a place to rest or recharge. He came and went as he pleased, spending most of his time working or socializing. Beyond breadwinning, the majority of the day-to-day parenting—setting limits, communicating with school, nurturing, cooking, and so forth—was left to my mother. His lack of involvement was not atypical for dads of his generation.
Like most modern dads, not only is more expected of me as a parent, but I want to be more of a presence in my children’s life than my father was in mine. In my work with dads, I describe what I mean by presence. It means getting involved in the “everydayness” of family life at home—no matter what your family structure is—from hands-on parenting to helping with homework to putting away the dishes. It means doing what sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes in her book The Second Shift (Penguin, 2003): doing your share of the second job of housework and childcare that most working women are left to do when they come home at night. Modern dads who share the second shift teach daughters an expanded view of gender roles. Men don’t simply “help out” or “opt out”—they are full participants in all aspects of home life.
Dads who are not a presence—they let their child’s mother (or their partner) do everything or select only the role of “fun dad”—are what’s been referred to as TPFA dads (Technically Present, but Functionally Absent). Given how radically gender roles have shifted in the last generation, most modern dads have a bit of the TPFA dad in us. A good way to prevent becoming a full-blown TPFA dad is to remember the old adage: our children learn what they live. If we don’t want our daughters to grow up expecting to do everything at home or our sons to grow up with the idea that participation in family life is optional, then we need to model presence.
The author and activist James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I say to dads: Just as you have probably taken on some of the characteristics of your own parents, your daughter will likely imitate you as well. Specifically, how you behave in relationships at home becomes a blueprint for her to follow, for better and for worse. You set the standard for what she will expect from the boys and men in her life. And how you treat your daughter’s mother is perhaps the most important of all. The quality of that relationship, whether you are currently with your children’s mother or not, is a key factor in helping your daughter become a healthy, happy adult.
Healthy changes for moms
One great way moms can encourage dads to be more involved is to recognize when to step back or let go. Dad may have a different way of doing things and—within reason—that has to be acceptable. For example, a mother told me how she wanted her husband to connect more with their daughter. So the dad brought her to a book reading at the local bookstore. Was that what the mother meant by “connecting”? Not at all. After much discussion, the mom was able to let go and acknowledge that his way of connecting was different, but valid.
I also encourage all parents to seek some balance when it comes to managing the child-related tasks, such as doing laundry, buying clothes, coordinating school and social events, and the countless other acts of caretaking. Unfortunately, many parents use divide and conquer; i.e., Mom is involved at school and Dad is not, but in his eyes it’s covered. It’s fine to divvy up things day to day, but it’s important for both parents—even if not living under the same roof—to be knowledgeable about the many facets of parenting.
The first step in working towards a better balance is for parents to be explicit about who does what. In my book, there’s an exercise to help evaluate exactly how much time each parent spends on childcare and household duties. I’ve found that often dads are unaware of how much time and mental effort is involved in things such as “keeping up with doctor and dentist appointments” or “buying gifts and sending thank-you notes.” Even if one parent stays at home, it’s important to talk about these issues and model some degree of equality.
These days, most all moms have workplace experience and know very well the pressures of trying to balance work and family. Now that more dads are feeling the same pressure, this issue can be an ideal common ground for couples to work with each other to live more balanced lives. This will improve your relationship—recent research by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, founders of The Gottman Institute, found that when men did more parenting and household work, their partners were more attracted to them.
Payoff for daughters at home and beyond
A great way dads can both model and teach their daughters about healthy relationships is to have what I call a “regular heart-to-heart.” In my book, the Modern Dads Relationship Inventory offers questions designed to initiate and encourage ongoing dialogue between dad and daughter (and son, too). Separately, each responds to questions such as “Something I could do to improve our relationship is…” or “A subject I find difficult to talk about with you is…” Then, together, dad and daughter share their responses. By doing this simple activity regularly, dads show their daughters that dialogue is essential to healthy relationships. By listening to her point of view, addressing conflict directly, and sharing openly, dads teach daughters to insist on being treated respectfully by others throughout her life.
Girls will also learn to expect respectful treatment from others when they see it modeled between parents. We can show respect to her mother by following through on the commitments we make—big or small. We can show respect by managing conflict with her mother, not by pretending it doesn’t exist or using anger to intimidate. We can show respect by being emotionally as well as physically present in our relationships.
Girls—both our own daughters and daughters everywhere—also benefit when we dads (and moms) challenge destructive gender stereotypes and beliefs. When we pay attention to what our children learn about gender from other family members, their peers, the media, coaches, and teachers, we can let others know we’d like our daughters treated fairly. For example, I began noticing how often friends and family members referred to my young daughter as “pretty,” giving her the unhealthy message that her appearance was of primary importance. I encouraged them to acknowledge as well her other wonderful attributes, such as her intelligence and strength. We can respectfully intervene and suggest healthier alternatives to such situations. Also, as men, we must let others know we won’t tolerate sexist jokes or degrading comments about girls and women.
Finally, we can make a point to talk with our daughters (and sons) about gender stereotypes and the pressures they feel to act a certain way based on those expectations. Don’t forget to share stores with your child about your childhood. And perhaps most importantly for dads, let her know that being her parent is the most important thing in the world to you and that you love her not for what she does, but for who she is. Sharing some of our journey is a cornerstone of our important work of nurturing her along her own journey to “be all she can be.”
Five steps to better role-modeling
Transforming your role as a father, partner, and household member is a practice, with specific skills and activities that will help you be the dad you want to be. You practice it just like you practice being healthy by going to the gym and paying attention to what you eat. Here are five foundation practices.
Create a vision for fatherhood. Just as a company has a mission, dads need a Dad’s Vision Statement. Twenty years from now, what do you hope your daughter says—and doesn’t say—about your relationship? By answering this question, you can be more deliberate in deciding how you choose to spend your time, what skills you need to learn, and what behaviors you want to model.
Look back. A modern dad has to sort through his family legacy, particularly the relationship with own dad, to determine the gifts he wants to pass on to his own children, as well as the liabilities to avoid.
Establish ritual dad time. This is a great way to make sure you’re spending quality time with her—special, once-per-month, one-on-one time with dad. This shouldn’t replace other daily family rituals like sharing meals, walking to school, doing activities, and reading together. Your daughter will love any kind of dad-daughter time, but Ritual Dad Time is the father-child equivalent of a couple’s “date night.”
Know your daughter. By knowing her—becoming an expert about her life—you send her a clear message that she is important, and in the process deepen your bond. Knowing requires you to be an active listener and to resist the urge to be a “fix-it” listener.
Be known by your daughter. Share more about who you are as a man—not just as “dad”—with your daughter. Tell stories about yourself at her age: the pressures you faced, what you did for fun, challenges you overcame, who you had a crush on, or whatever else might interest her. Letting her know more about what you think and feel on a regular basis is essential to building a healthy connection.
John Badalament, Ed.M. (www.johnbadalament.com), is the author of the Modern Dads Handbook and director of the PBS documentary All Men Are Sons: Exploring the Legacy of Fatherhood. He consults with schools, parent groups, and organizations about fatherhood. John is a husband and a father.