I’m a man. I grew up in a family of three boys. I went to a boys’ school until years 11 and 12. The vast majority of my best friends are men. I work with the men’s health charity, Movember. And I’ve created The Father Hood with two other dads. So, I spend a lot of time hanging out with men and thinking about ‘man stuff’.
However, I’m married to a woman and have three daughters. The two most important roles in my life, partner and father, require a fair amount of tact, ingenuity and random guesswork in navigating relationships with women.
So, I needed to speak to Madonna King. For her book, Fathers and Daughters, Madonna interviewed 1300 girls and 400 fathers, along with dozens of school principals and teen psychologists, to unpack the good, the bad and the ugly in the dad/daughter relationship. This was my chance to effectively crowd-source the insights and mistakes of those who have gone before us.
Here, Madonna explains the three biggest mistakes that dads are making with their daughters.
MISTAKE NO.1: NOT BEING THERE
“The biggest thing is absence. Almost all of the girls that I interviewed say that mum is the primary carer. And too many dads see themselves as the provider, not the parent, and so do their daughters.
Dad’s got to be there more. I remember one girl, she was 15, and her Dad’s an anaesthetist who works long hours. She said; “I want for nothing. I was the first in my group to get the new Apple iPhone. But I just don’t have a relationship with my Dad anymore. We’ve just grown apart. Why would I go to him with a problem?” That Dad is doing what he thinks is right, but that lack of actually being there really does damage to the relationship. Dads are still too absent.
I spoke to a cancer surgeon in writing the book. He said to me that when he tells dads that their conditional is terminal, they always ask two questions. One is prognosis and treatment. Then every single father, 100 per cent of them, ask one more question, “Why didn’t I spend more time with my kids?” That makes me feel sick when I hear that, because 99.9 per cent of dads want to do the right thing. It’s just life gets in the way of doing it. That ability to spend time with them is something that is just so vital.”
MISTAKE NO.2: FAILING TO BUILD A CONNECTION
“The second biggest thing is actually doing activities with them. Dads need to find a way of building connections with their daughters separate to their partner and separate to other children.
Whether it’s a milkshake or a cup of coffee on the way to school, they’ve got to have that one-on-one connection that too many are missing out on now. Because, when their daughter reaches adolescence and takes a step back, she’s going to keep that step back unless that connection has been made and practised and rebuilt.
It doesn’t have to be a huge quantity of time, but Dad can’t afford to step back. You’ve got to stay in and be there. A lot of dads step back, because they think their daughter needs privacy or because it’s easier for her, or maybe easier for himself, too. But the lesson I’ve learnt is you just can’t afford to do that.
The most successful way to build a positive connection is the ‘date’. It doesn’t have to be white tablecloths, but it can be. That idea, if she’s under 10, of actually going to McDonald’s, or for a milkshake, or something that may be a little bit naughty, and just doing that together. For a teenager, it might be a coffee on the way to school, and that takes 15 minutes. That has proved, over and over, to be really, really successful. It absolutely is that simple.
And shared passions and activities are also important. One dad loved AC/DC music, and taught his daughter to love it as much. Together, they played it too loud, and eventually flew from Perth to Sydney for a concert. My 15-year-old does pilates every Thursday night with her Dad, my husband. A couple of weeks ago, I asked; ”What’s the goss? She winked at my husband, turned to me and said, “Sorry, Mum, what goes on at pilates stays at pilates!”
It doesn’t matter what you do. It could be Ed Sheeran’s music. God forbid, it could even be watching The Bachelorette together! What’s important is that it is one-on-one with our daughter – or son. They know then they have an independent bond with their Dad. They know he’s got their back.”
MISTAKE NO.3: DISMISSING THEIR OPINIONS
“The third thing is valuing their opinion. If a daughter comes home and says, “I support a Republic,” and Dad dismisses that as silly and immature, the hit to her self-belief is really strong.
Girl after girl told me that and it is the reason so many daughters stop sharing what they think with their parents. “Why would I tell Dad something? He just dismisses it, or he says I’m wrong. So I just tell him what he thinks.” But if Dad says, “Look, I disagree with your argument, but just explain to me your rationale,” that changes the discussion. She hears her father is interested She might even go to school and ask her friends to help her work out her rationale!
How we respond, and that is by valuing what they say, is really, really important. One principal said to me, and I think it’s such a lovely way of saying it, she said, “Dads have got to remember that they’re QC in the courtroom, but they are always dads in the lounge room.” I think that’s a pretty good message.”
Madonna King is the author of Fathers and Daughters. Published through Hachette Australia. Available here.