But how do we do this as fathers? One of the most important ways is to break down the old stereotypes that men are rational and logical while women are emotional. We can free our daughters from the burden of that myth by expressing our own feelings and by respecting the intelligence, decisions, and leadership abilities of women. When they see us opening up and talking, they learn to do the same and to not remain silent when something doesn’t feel right. A father’s influence can help a girl find her own strong voice. We also need to listen to our daughters more instead of trying to always impart a lesson. Listening paves the way for girls to discover what they want to say and the inner strength to say it.
The other big thing dads can do is treat women the way we would want a partner to treat our daughters. We wish that it went without saying that daughters need their fathers to reject treating women as objects through sexist jokes, stares and comments on the street, and pornography. The sexualization of girls is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of sexism in our society, and it is time for fathers to speak out about it. Haven’t we evolved beyond the beauty pageant and similar spectacles such as prom queens, debutante balls, and a swath of reality TV that undermine girls’ power? The emphasis on appearance not only robs girls of the sense of being valued for who they are, but also leads to body image distortions and self-criticism. Less obvious is the way that external praise and judgment interferes with a girl’s development of inner confidence.
Finally, as fathers, we can use our relationship with our daughters to instill in them a strong feeling of being loved and cherished for who they are. Who they really are, beyond prettiness, niceness, and cuteness. When someone says, “Your daughter is so pretty,” we can respond by saying, “Yes, and powerful too!” The world is very ready to sexualize our daughters, but as fathers we can teach them that there is a world of physical touch that isn’t sexual or aggressive. We can do this by cuddling and nurturing them as babies, roughhousing with them as children, encouraging their physical strength and athleticism as they grow older, and hugging and putting our arm around their shoulder throughout their lives.
At the same time, as hard as it is for fathers to face, we have to acknowledge that our daughters can’t stay our precious little girls forever. We have to let go of our overprotectiveness. Joe Kelly, in his book, Dads and Daughters, describes the dangers of the stereotype of the “dad on the porch with a shotgun,” protecting his daughter’s virtue. As an alternative, Kelly proposes engaging with the culture that demeans our daughters. For example, his organization has a project based on fathers speaking out—as fathers, to fathers—against the sexualization of girls. His Dads and Daughters group writes to CEO’s (who are mostly men, and mostly fathers) asking them to imagine their own daughters or granddaughters as the models in their company’s sexualized ads. Try it yourself—it’s pretty disturbing. It’s no wonder that they have had success in getting some particularly offensive ads pulled.
So it’s pretty simple: Respect women, reject objectification, speak out against over-sexualization, and above all, listen. Because girls are powerful. As fathers, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate and support that power.
Cohen, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Brookline, Mass. DeBenedet is a board-certified internist and gastroenterology fellow at the University of Michigan Health System. The views expressed are solely their own.