11 ways dads can help raise strong daughters

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

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Six nights out of seven, our oldest daughter, now a very proud “five and three quarters,” will fall asleep with a book on her chest. The book often changes—sometimes it’s about Christmas carollers, sometimes it’s a book about Barbie becoming a doctor. Sometimes she reads the same books about animals that I read when I was growing up and sometimes she reads stories she’s helped write herself.

Her mind, at this point, is incredibly fertile, and it’s an amazing privilege for us to be able to watch the many plants start to grow in that amazing young mind of hers. But it’s also terrifying how easy it is for seeds we didn’t plant to take root.

Because for every “I learned to read all by my own,” she says, there’s a “that’s just for boys,” or “that’s just for girls,” waiting for us.

The truth is, my daughters don’t read my posts. At their age, my daughters don’t read A Mighty Girl or Feministing or Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls or any of the many great sites out there that regularly present amazing stories of women doing amazing things unless we share them with them.

As a dad, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can raise girls to believe they are as strong as I know they are. There is no single way to do this I’ve learned, and it will often feel like everything you do is a failure. But I have found there are a number of small things dads can do to raise strong daughters.

Maybe I’ll use all of these and I’ll be completely wrong. Maybe not though.

Protect them with knowledge, not with your muscles or guns.

Let’s all make the dad holding a gun to his daughter’s prom date’s head a thing of the past. If we want to protect our daughters, let’s make sure we teach them from an early age about consent, teach them that they make decisions about their own bodies, teach them about body and sex positivity. Answer their questions when they have them instead of letting them find out online or from a friend.

Face full of hair

Have some female role models yourself.

There are billions of amazing women out there and just because we grew up thinking football players and boy band stars were the most worthy of our emulation doesn’t mean that as grownups we can’t find new role models. Make sure your daughter knows how in awe you are of young women like Malala Yousafzai. And if you aren’t already aware of some of these amazing role models, check out A Mighty Girl to start your education.

Support their efforts.

A young girl will hear many times over their lifetime that they can’t do something because they’re a girl, because they’re not as strong as a man or because that’s not the way a good girl acts. Don’t be part of that noise and be part of the group of people in her life who takes her aside and says “you want to do that? You go ahead and do that and I’ll be right beside you helping if you need it.”

It doesn’t matter what “that” is. If they have an interest, let them know it’s an important one.

Girls playing the drums

Learn together.

If your daughter wants to pursue something you know nothing about, learn with her. If she’s showing an interest in photography but you’re at your picture-taking best, find a class to take together instead of saying you can’t help her. Often you can’t help, but that’s no reason learning can’t happen anyway.

Don’t write off failures.

When they do make an effort and when they eventually fail at something, don’t let them think it was just too hard for them. Don’t tell them not many women have ever been able to do it. Let them know it’s fine that they failed but that it isn’t because of any make-believe inherent weakness and that them giving up simply because they don’t think they can do it is a cop out.

DO NOT tell her something is for boys.

Yeah, no duh, right? Except this still happens every single day in a number of ways. Some things may be dominated by men but that doesn’t make them “for men” or “for boys.” My daughters both love princesses and I think that’s wonderful. But conversely, princesses aren’t “for girls” they’re just “for kids.” And if the princesses also love riding motorcycles and playing with Transformers, that’s great.

superhero daughter

Use “she” instead of “he” when you’re talking about non-specific individuals.

When talking about what scientists do, talk about the things “she” does on a day-to-day basis. I tried to take note of just how many professions I defaulted to “he” on and it’s astoundingly bad. Equal representation of women in the media for some professions just doesn’t exist. Girls are asked to think they can grow up to become anything they want but are asked to do this using men as their example.

Stop with the blonde jokes, and sexist talk. Everywhere.

This sounds so damn straightforward and you probably think it’s simple to do. But when you’re in a group with your buds at a bar and someone lobs a blonde joke across the table, it’s easier to laugh it off and think to yourself “I don’t think that way so I’m all clear. But, I don’t want to have to tell my buddy he’s being an idiot.”

But that doesn’t do anything for our daughters. Say something, even if it’s as simple as “that kind of joke isn’t funny.” If you’re pushed beyond that, say it again. Because it isn’t funny, it’s misogyny. It’s sexism. It has no place in front of your daughter and it has no place in a bar at midnight.

Don’t parent believing there are things daughters can only hear from a female.

There may be things you don’t experience—menstruation, shopping for bras, etc. but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn about these things and be confident enough to answer questions from your daughter without making them feel like these are taboo topics or things they should only feel comfortable talking about with certain people. They aren’t.

Sure, there are things they might end up feeling more comfortable talking about to someone who isn’t you, but don’t let that happen because you weren’t welcoming or lacked knowledge.

Dad holding up flying daughter

Fight sexist crap together.

When you’re walking down the toy aisle trying to find a Black Widow toy for your daughter but notice she’s the only one missing from the Avengers toy lineup, don’t shrug it off and tell her “oh well, that’s what happens sometime.” Tell her it’s not okay and then tell more people it’s not okay. If she comes home and tells you she was told she wasn’t allowed to do something because she’s a girl, find out why, fight it if it needs fighting. Fight her being told she needs to cover up at school because her outfit is a distraction to the boys in her school. Fight for her right to choose what she can and cannot do with her body. Fight, together.

Glasses and Girls

Play recklessly.

Explore beyond the campsite limits, turn over big rocks, swim to the big log in the middle of the lake. Play like you’re a kid again and spend as much time doing this as your daughter would like. There are butterflies to run behind, iguanas to photograph and cannonballs to perfect. Be part of it.

13 responses to “11 ways dads can help raise strong daughters”

  1. Mary Gene Beheler says:

    I’ll turn 69 soon. My Dad’s father died when he was 12, and left Grandma with 10 children to raise, and a farm to manage, during the Depression. I can remember a Dad saying, “Come here and learn how to saw a board. You might have to saw a board yourself someday.”
    Sure did need to learn how to saw a board! Dad’s project the summer I was 12 was to disassemble a two story wood frame house, and my 11 year old sister and myself were his chief assistants. My sister and I also needed to know how to use wrecking bars and hammers.
    Next summer, we used the wood to build a garage. Dad had us do the math to check that the foundation was square, figure out how to cut the rafters, and do lots of steps in between. We girls even put the shingles on the roof ourselves, after he got us started with the first row or two. (He is especially proud that the roof lasted well beyond 30 years, because we did it right!)
    He had four daughters, and although Mom was careful to teach us cooking and sewing, and such stuff, she was perfectly happy that Dad made sure we could swim and row a boat, “let” us garden with him, took us fishing and hunting, and even showed us how to clean our catch. He taught us the little bit of judo he had learned when in WWII, because girls needed to know self-defense. When we each got our driver’s licenses, he made us each change all the tires on the car before he handed us the keys. He did not want his daughters to be standing alongside the road waiting for whatever “help” might show up, or get hurt by not knowing how to use a jack.
    The only time I heard either parent say, “You can’t do that; you’re a girl,” was my mother objecting to me sitting in the tenor section of the church choir because tenor was easier for me to sing than alto. (In women’s quartets she herself sang bass.)
    One thing I learned, both in church and in school, was that the pronoun “he” meant any human, unless the context indicated otherwise. I personally think it is a step backward to lose that knowledge.
    So, when I was 15, and a recruiter pitched a new program in technical electronics to any student that was good in math and science, I signed up to go to Vo-Tech. No one mentioned that I might be the only girl to do that, but when I walked into class, that fact was abundantly clear. But, armed with the knowledge that anyone good in math and science belonged there, I stayed.
    Except for a few girls in nursing and distributive education classes, the rest of the Vo-Tech was male. I had to think over whether I was “weird” or not, as the gossips said. No less authority than the Reader’s Digest (really popular back then) proclaimed on its pages that girls just weren’t good at math and science! But then, I said to myself, “I’m good at math and science, and I’m a girl. Therefore, the Reader’s Digest and everybody else is wrong.”
    The seeds of that conclusion were sown when my parents named me Mary Gene. When in first grade, I proudly signed my full name, only to be told I’d spelled my middle name wrong. I went home and informed my parents of the error, and they sent me back with the message I was named after my father, and GENE was correct! It is hard to tell where life’s lessons will come from. That day, I learned grown-ups, even a teacher, can be wrong. Questioning them was OK.
    Despite the Civil Rights Act supposedly opening the doors for females to enter formerly all male engineering schools the year before I got out of high school, my chosen college wrote back, “Your grades are fine, you test scores are fine, and you took all the right classes; however, we require all freshmen to stay on campus, and the engineering class rooms are too far away from the women’s dorm. (My son later attended the same school, and said that women outnumbered men in many of his classes.)
    So, Dad, you are on the right track with your daughters. Never saying, “You can’t do that, you are girl,” is an excellent starting point. (Be careful not to train them to expect opposition, just to have the courage & skills to overcome it IF it shows up. Living life afraid and angry is no fun at all.)

    • Mike says:

      This is probably the best comment I’ve ever had left here. It should be a post of its own. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

    • Boe Vaieke says:

      Wow what an amazing story. I’m a new dad to a beautiful little girl,you’ve just thought me a billion ways how to raise a child especially this baby girl. You’re dad is a genius. I’m inspired.

    • Smruti Bhati says:

      Your comment brought tears into my eyes as it reminded me of my own father who is now no more. I have no words to express what I feel right now. I hope one day I have a daughter who will never be judged for being a female.

    • john anderson says:

      what an AWESOME comment Mary Gene Behler -and what a nice article in general. I have tried. I think it is working. Eighteen months ago my daughter called me from Oman to tell me that she was off to India for Spring Break. When i expressed concern, she replied: “look Daddy, travel is going to be a big part of my life. If you have a heart attack every time I go somewhere, you won’t live long”. Ruthless? yeah, but I have to say i am enormously proud of her. She got to see the Taj before ever I have….

  2. Jessica says:

    Mary, that’s an amazing and inspiring story. I’m so glad you shared.

  3. Andrew says:

    Mary, that was great. Thanks for posting the comment.

  4. Ken says:

    As a father of two beautiful, strong daughters, thank you for your blog. I feel like someone just let me know I did it right.

  5. Just a girl says:

    I’m an only child, a girl, who was given everything on a silver platter. Every birthday my mom would ask me what I wanted and I’d say “a camouflage outfit and a gun!” Or “Another quad!”. My dad always wanted a boy, sorry daddy, you got a girl! My parents raised me right. My mom and dad are my best friends. On my 30th birthday my mom got me the designer shoes and purses I’ve been eyeing and my dad got me a motorcycle. I have multiple college degrees, including my JD. My dad wanted a metal detector for Christmas so I bought him the best one I could find, as a thank you for all he’s done for me. We’ve found some pretty worthless trinkets with it, but the time together exploring is priceless.

  6. FC says:

    This is all over thinking, common sense stuff. Raising a child shouldn’t be based off a rule book. It’s about your own instincts as a parent. I want my daughter to be strong and will raise her my own way. I don’t belive in the feminism movement bs that is going on. Men are men. Women are women. Women can be strong of course. But men are the stronger sex. This is just reality. Sorry if that offends people. My daughter can do whatever she wants. If she wants to pitch for the Dodgers I will do my best to help her reach that goal. If she wants to be a “girly girl” and plans on being a mother and wife, I will support that too. My point is that my daughter will show me the kind of person she wants to be and I will help guide her while still showing her all that I can about all parts of life. But I will not guide her into something that she doesn’t want to be or do for my own selfish beliefs or reasons. Which is what people seem to be doing nowadays. It was almost comical about the gun to the prom date line. I will try my best to raise my daughter so that she can make the correct moral decisions in certain situations but it doesn’t hurt to put some fear in that prom dates mind. That can be achieved many ways tho, not just with the clinche gun. Just being stern and a very strong hand shake with eye contact can achieve the same effect. One last thing, lol, which man looked up to boy bands? Not one guy I’ve ever known has ever looked up to boy band members. That was hilarious.

  7. Jody says:

    I did
    I have always known that I wanted to be a performer.Today I have been performing professional for about 25 years.When I was a teenager my sister loved New Kids on the Block and my parents asked me if I would take her to the concert.I went the following week and saw a fantastic show that did not fail to entertain me from start to finish.When I left that show I was more certain than ever that performance was going to be my life.The one person I looked up to most in that show was Donnie Wahlberg. He was the MC of that show for sure and did an amazing job of keeping the evening going.So I would say if you need to find a man who looked up to and still does in a way to a boy band member than look no further.I’m right here.
    Mary your story was great thank you for sharing.
    Oh and Mike if you need help with the Black Widow fig there are some out there they just get snapped up real quick.
    A new one wil be out soon too let me know if you need one.

  8. Richard says:

    Lovely. Sexist comments can come from where you least expect them too. One of my extended family made a comment watching football about the Cowboys losing, “More like the Cowgirls today.” I didn’t say anything and even though I’m pretty sure it would have been blown off I still think back on that and regret my silence.

    How many offhand comments like that do our daughters hear before they’re ten, I wonder?

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