In a world where the relationship between fathers and sons often takes precedence, what should dads share with their daughters? What can they offer that will be enduring?
As the oldest sibling of three boys, I certainly did not have insight from growing up with my brothers. And truthfully, as a father of one daughter, I did not start thinking about this question until a year after she left home. However, after some success in hindsight, wisdom from a Nobel laureate and insights from Australian researchers, we can say with certainty that fathers can contribute to the wisdom, wealth and well-being of their daughters.
My own initiation into the world of fatherhood was decidedly inglorious. I thought I had done my heavy lifting by coming up with our soon-to-be-born daughter’s name: Sydney Anne. It reflected the vibrant beauty of a world-class city with a flourish of British royalty.
I was less well prepared to help my wife during her 15 hours of labor in the hospital. Armed with a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and highly squeamish, I hoped to ride out the ordeal with as little exposure as possible to one of life’s supernal events. Surprisingly, I gathered enough courage to cut the umbilical cord.
As the years passed, my idea of fatherhood shifted. Initially, I was the noble hunter, i.e., the primary breadwinner that traveled the world (largely to burnish my own reputation) and bring home a paycheck.
The headwinds of a few professional setbacks humbled my most ambitious inclinations and fatherhood became a duty that I fulfilled to the letter, but still not fully in spirit.
Around the time Sydney entered high school, I was ready to learn how to be the dad my daughter needed.
Before realizing I could offer something valuable in terms of her education, future prosperity and physical fitness, there was something of “daily maintenance” that made the last three years of her life at home memorable.
Driven more by my addiction to Diet Coke than any noble intention to “interview” my daughter, we initiated the ritual of driving to the gas station to imbibe copious amounts of carbonation on an almost daily basis. The side benefit was that I started to learn about her decision-making processes, her serious involvement with school, and her steady progress through trial and error when I learned to step back.
Education, then, proved to be a key aspect of what I shared with my daughter. Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate from India in economics, stated that a father’s interest in his daughter’s education improves the health of the next generation.
How did this apply, then, in the first world? Given the generally excellent state of public education in the United States, this meant doing things beyond school that coincided with her interests. She like to read. So, why not go to as many author talks as possible?
At first this was tedious. I remember listening to Rick Riordan speak of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” electrifying a hot high school auditorium full of energetic teens. But there was something kind of fun about these outings. We then found out that Ransom Riggs, author of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” was speaking at the King’s English Bookshop. We also went to BYU to hear Richard Paul Evans talk about his craft. These are now treasured memories.
My contribution to my daughter’s wealth was related to what I shared with her about writing. The same Sen argues in “Development as Freedom” that giving daughters control of wealth furthers their ability to succeed financially and socially as adults. As a writer and teacher, I shared the wealth of my failures, not by design, but by virtue of the fact that I wrote a 500-page book that I was convinced would win the Pulitzer Prize and incessantly talked with her about it.
While that did not happen (it’s still sitting on my desk), she began to show an interest in writing. I found I could read drafts of whatever she was writing and offer my encouragement. Over time, she has become an excellent writer in her own right, publishing her work and being interviewed about civic engagement in highly visible publications. She’ll be a terrific addition to someone’s political campaign.
Finally, I found that dads can contribute to the physical well-being of their daughters. Australian researchers have recently identified the beneficial emotional and physical effects of fathers and daughters exercising together. We decided early on to eliminate tennis as a shared pursuit after our first rallies resulted in my visiting an orthopedic surgeon, who repaired a torn ACL. Walking became our go-to activity.
Now we talked regularly about her writing, her participation in debate, her applications for college, and my more modest aspirations for writing and teaching. Three miles together a few days a week did everything for our mutual benefit, without having planned anything intentionally “father and daughter-ish.”
Daughters and sons need their dads, but there are specific benefits daughters take away from fathers that are mindful of their unique potential — even when it’s simply natural and not stiflingly intentional. These include shared wisdom, shared wealth and improved mutual well-being.
Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, and the proud father of one daughter and a son.