In this final extract from his groundbreaking new book, the top psychologist Steve Biddulph offers tips for fathers raising daughters
There are a number of common pitfalls for dads raising daughters. The first is the scariness of puberty. Some dads get very awkward and start to withdraw their affection, for fear that it will be misunderstood as sexual. This concern is well motivated, but don’t overreact. Daughters still want to feel you care about them. Your daughter may want more privacy, but don’t pull back if she seeks your warmth — she is the same girl and still needs to know you love her.
The second pitfall is what I call the “provider tragedy”. Often we dads show our love by working hard at our jobs, but we are out of sight when we do this, so our love doesn’t come through. Often a girl would much prefer to have fewer gifts or less money, but more of you being interested in talking to and doing things with her.
STRATEGIES FOR BEING A GOOD FATHER
Go on “dad dates”
One of the simplest and most powerful strategies for fathers to connect to their children is to go out on regular “dad dates”. If a dad bothers to spend time with each child, one-on-one, it generates an enormous feeling of worth. It could be dinner somewhere the kid chooses, or a movie. But a cautionary note: if you think dad dates are an opportunity to “sort the kids out”, you are wrong. If you do that, the kids will always avoid these dates. They only work if dads listen and ask them about their friends and what they are enjoying or finding hard at school. If it becomes an inquisition, it won’t work. Make it light and friendly. Only go deep emotionally if your child takes it there.
It’s amazing how often men use work as an excuse for not spending time with their children, but it is possible to be creative about making time. Some men finish work early one day a week and take their kids for an ice cream. It is also important to come home and have dinner with the kids and turn the television off during that time. Research shows that families who eat together four nights a week or more reduce the risk of substance abuse in their children by half.
Find what makes her special
Every child is special and once they realise this, all sorts of things happen. They don’t need to put other kids down (they are free to appreciate how special other children are). To help kids understand their specialness, you need to appreciate what it is about each of your children that is unique. It may be their personality, their talents, the way they show kindness, interesting things that they have done. It is much more effective to identify those specific things than to use empty phrases such as, “You are awesome” — kids spot that sort of hollowness very quickly.
UNDERAGE DRUG USE
- 20% of 15-year-olds say they have tried cannabis; 7% say they have tried class A drugs (Mentor UK, 2017)
Help each of your children to realise that they have a special future, too. They will probably never be famous, they don’t need to be in the top team or get into medical school, but they have a unique and wonderful future that will be a gift to the world and you are looking forward to seeing it.
Another way to help them feel special is to seek and value their opinions. Ask them what they think about holiday choices or topics in the news. Importantly, avoid comparing any of your children to any other children inside the family or outside.
It is hard for us dads to resist the urge to jump in and solve the problems our kids have, to tell them what they should do or to criticise them. Often that comes out of a feeling of love for them — we are afraid that they will do the wrong thing, so we want to fix it. But this approach almost never works.
As a result, kids — especially teenagers — stop telling their dads stuff because they are afraid of the lecture they are about to get. Here are two useful strategies that an Australian charity, the Fathering Project, suggests. First, avoid being the plumber or the policeman. The plumber fixes things — you don’t need to do that. The policeman makes judgments and arrests — avoid being judgmental and critical.
Second, remember the word “boomerang”. Most people in conversation boomerang the conversation back to themselves. It is important to discuss your experience at some stage, but vastly more effective to continue to stick with what the child wants to say.
Establish good values
Our kids are subjected to an enormous amount of pressure from television, films, magazines and peers to adopt a series of values that are different from ours. Fathers are very powerful in establishing values in children, including those on sexuality, but if we don’t discuss and model a different set of values, we leave the kids vulnerable to those pressures.
Be specific with them about concepts such as trust, honesty, integrity, showing respect to others and generosity to the poor. The best way is to model those values yourself in your attitude to others. They will be watching you — and it will influence whether they become bullies or not.
When it comes to talking about sex, of course the kids are embarrassed, and they say they know it all already, but wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you knew that your father was going to talk to you about sex?
Try saying to the kids, “I know you know it all already, but I read in a fathering book that I need to do this and I’ll feel really bad if I don’t, so can you please humour me on this?” It works a treat.
And remember: it’s not just about the plumbing. With teens, there are other things to consider. The importance of consent. Knowing the person well enough to be able to trust them. Of not hurting people. Of being safe about disease and pregnancy. Of having sex only when you feel totally right about it, and not when drunk or because of pressure to please someone else. Your kids may not always take this advice, but they will have to think about it.
Talk about drugs
Every parent is frightened of their kids falling victim to substance abuse. Be aware of what drugs are around and identify the risks each of them poses. Find out from your kids what social and personal rewards they or their friends receive when they take drugs: ie, acknowledge that there are reasons why people take drugs. Talk to them about peer pressure. When you talk to them, make sure you also listen to what they have to say. It’s even more helpful if you can welcome their friends over to your house and get to know them. One helpful trick is to teach children handy phrases to use when drugs are being pushed at parties. Tell them to avoid being confrontational with comments like, “Drugs are bad for you.” What is more helpful is being able to “pass”. “Sorry, I have to play football/netball tomorrow”, or “Sorry, I have to work tomorrow”, works much better.
Research suggests that the most common factor related to substance abuse is not the absence of a father, but the presence of an overcritical, overdisciplinarian father who makes a child feel worthless rather than worthwhile. If you do discover that your child has taken drugs, don’t blow a fuse.
The Fathering Project promotes a phrase to use when disciplining children that has been very effective: “I am disappointed, but I do believe in you and I know that you are better than that, and we will work through this together.” It strengthens rather than diminishes the child’s sense of self.
Be involved in her education
Both boys and girls need to know that you value their education. Sit with your kids while they do their homework and help them work through it. Stimulate their curiosity from a young age by taking them on visits to places such as museums and public libraries.
Critical to kids’ attitude to education is your attitude to the school. Dads who get involved build a bridge and make it easier for their kids to enjoy school.
Treat her with respect
Daughters get signals from their dads about how they can expect to be treated by men. If Dad treats her with respect, her bar of respect will be set high and she won’t put up with crap from men — if he doesn’t, then she is vulnerable. Fathers have a profound effect on the likelihood that a girl will grow up and have a successful long-term relationship with a man. The No 1 factor that determines the level of confidence a woman carries into her adult life is the relationship that woman had with her father. That he loved spending time with her, listened to her and talked softly and respectfully around her and around her mum.
If your dad wasn’t much good, choose to break the cycle. Many men have not had good role models. So it is tempting for dads to give up and leave the parenting to mum and just become a provider and protector. That does not work. You have to choose to break that cycle and become a good dad yourself.
Help her deal with bullying
Research shows that, while boys use more physical bullying — hitting, grabbing and so on — girls mostly exercise “relational bullying”: excluding a girl from the group, calling names, being sarcastic, spreading rumours. And, of course, the internet and social media really amplify this. Relational bullying can do just as much harm to health and happiness. It can lead to self-harm, or even suicide in extreme cases.
It’s natural and appropriate to feel both protective and angry when your child is bullied. But be watchful of how much your own buttons are being pressed. You may easily find yourself becoming too emotional (and in danger of making matters worse).
There is a bigger reason why things have become so nasty in girl-land. It’s about the values around us. If life is all a competition — to be the prettiest, hottest, most popular, or the smartest — it’s a miserable world for our daughters. Remind her often that happy people aren’t worried about competition. They enjoy being who they want to be, and making friends and having fun.
Same-aged peer groups are not a natural phenomenon, so they are often dysfunctional. We need more aunties, older kids, cross-age friendships, and more child-adult connection so that the peer-group influence is less important. There is a rule in family therapy that a young person who is too influenced by the peer group is often the one who is not close to their same-sex parent. Staying close to our daughters (mums and dads) means that they have safe harbours. Activities where people of different ages unite around interests and activities can be a wonderful broadener of her sense of uniqueness and worth.