IT may seem a little creepy but the old adage holds true: a father should be his son’s first hero and his daughter’s first love. In fact, the relationship with her father is the most important of her life, according to the experts. The connection with a mother’s womb is clear and enduring while the father’s influence is more abstract and fragile, yet crucial.
For men, playing the hero comes naturally because a father was once a boy, but the relationship with a daughter is less straightforward. Men live their whole lives never grasping the infinite mysteries of women yet here we are responsible for creating the attitudes of our daughters.
This is a cause of alarm in men, expressed mainly through intimations of hostility and violence towards young men who show interest in their daughters. But put away that shotgun, because the terrified boy standing on the doorstep will be nothing more than an avatar of yourself.
A man’s best and worst traits will be represented in his daughter’s taste in men. It seems unfair the unwitting male can have such a lasting, even generational, effect on his daughter. I admit, as the father of a 17-year-old girl, to no little angst on the topic myself.
Counselling psychologist Annie Gurton says women receive a powerful boost to their lifelong self-esteem from their fathers.
“Women whose fathers have told them that they love them, that they are beautiful and wonderful, will have stronger, more robust self-esteem than those whose fathers did not, or criticised them,” says Gurton.
“For most fathers, their daughters are the apple of their eye and it’s easy to do this.
“I quickly know which clients had fathers who were mean-spirited, critical or abusive for they are the ones who value themselves lowly.”
There’s a tendency in men to over-complicate the issue, but it all comes back to love, says Gurton.
“My main message is that women whose fathers treated them badly will seek men who behave in the same way, for that behaviour is what they recognise as love,” says Gurton, who acknowledges that this fate won’t befall all those who had poor paternal influence. Many overcome this setback by seeking other positive male role models such as uncles or stepfathers, or by learning how to recalibrate their taste in men once they are adults.
A research project at New Jersey’s Rider University examined the role of the father-daughter bond in the development of positive romantic relationships.
Researchers studied 78 teens and young adults (average age 19), who reported on the quality of their relationship with their fathers and boyfriends.
Girls with good communication with their fathers also had significantly better communication with their boyfriends compared with girls who said their communication with their fathers was poor. A sense of trust with fathers led daughters to better levels of trust with boyfriends.
It was posited by the researchers that these girls learn to create secure attachments with their dads, which enable them to create relationships based on trust and clear communication.
Some researchers argue this also reflects the individual characteristics of the girls themselves and is not solely linked to the father-daughter bond. But if your daughter turns up with an outlaw biker with a face tattoo, you can rest assured that you had something to do with it. A hell-brew of individual characteristics and child-parent relationships has driven her to this.
My teenage daughter is going through a phase of claiming that I am simply the man who pays her gym membership, a life support system for a wallet. If only our relationship were so simple. I took her out to the movies the other night and I can strongly recommend Tom Hanks’s star turn in Captain Phillips. This, my daughter would say, is evidence that I am a bad parent who has scarred her for life. Halfway through the film, the low-fat, high-protein, chia-seed and quinoa-infused meal she had scoffed began a violent disagreement with her. She demanded to go home but with Hanks in the grip of Somali pirates on the high seas there was no turning back for me.
I suggested it was perhaps sea sickness from watching Hanks and the pirates bobbing around in a lifeboat for most of the movie. Unamused, she stalked off to the bathroom and did not return. She was waiting at the back of the cinema for me at the end with a face like thunder. She could have died, she told me stonily. My suggestion that we could pop into the hospital on the way home for tests did not lighten her mood.
If that was a test, I failed. I realise now that these innocent outings are, in fact, proto-dates that will set the pattern of her life. When her future husband proves to be an unreliable, uncaring cad I’m going to blame Tom Hanks. Other dads also complain of being played like a Stradivarius by their daughters. My mate Jez Privitelli says nothing works on his daughters, ages 12 and seven.
“I confiscate iPhones only to give them back the next day,” he says. “I put chores in place for them to do, only to end up doing them myself, and I say no regularly – which lasts for all of 20 minutes until the next time they ask. No matter how much I try to dig in I can’t resist them. My wife thinks I’m too soft.”
My advice to Jez is simply to give in. If the experts are right, his daughters’ future boyfriends will be generous, forgiving and merciful, like him. These are not battles a father can or should win. Don’t forget a daughter’s tears will always trump reason and principle.
Another mate, Lyle Turner, confesses he has no idea. “I can’t do or say anything that doesn’t offend my daughters, aged nearly 14 and 18,” he says.
But the late English poet Philip Larkin should have the last word: They f . . k you up, your Mum and Dad. / They may not mean to but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.