Fathers and Daughters
Most everyone is familiar with the phrase "Daddy's little girl." It connotes the special relationship that begins to appear between fathers and daughters somewhere around six to seven years of age. Up until that time, mom has been the primary person in the young girl's life, but as the child moves into the early middle childhood years (six through eleven), a growing need for the father's influence and affections begin to surface.
This shift is due to the fact that there are certain aspects of a girl's development and growth that are more directly attributed to her father. These aspects of growth fall into two categories, which I'd like to briefly outline here.
The first of these important contributions is related to the development of the girl's ability to achieve, be competent, pursue goal-oriented activity, and compete. That is not to say that mothers don't have a lot of influence in these areas too, but rather that these specific qualities which are usually associated with masculinity are embodied more by fathers, who in turn have more influence in instilling them in their daughters. There is a well-known author named Ken Wilber (1991) who talks about these qualities in terms of "doing" versus "being." "Doing" is concerned with achievement, production, action, control, and competition, whereas "being" encompasses the qualities of connectedness, nurturing, acceptance, and allowing. Doing is associated more with masculinity (father) and being with femininity (mother), although we know that all of us have some combination of each of these qualities.
For young girls, it seems especially important that they please their fathers and gain approval from them in relation to achievements and accomplishments. The desire to achieve in school, sports, the arts, or any specific area of talent provides a special link between father and daughter that assists in the growing sense of competence that develops as the girl moves toward womanhood. There are many examples of daughters who have followed in their father's footsteps as they choose careers, go to college, or simply take up an occupation. We know this is quite common among fathers and sons, but for daughters the meaning is slightly different. For sons it signifies coming into one's manhood, whereas for daughters the emphasis is more on achieving a level of competence and confidence that open's the way for entrance into the world of work. I would add a footnote to this conversation which is to acknowledge that men's and women's roles have changed greatly over the last three or four decades. Many women are now involved in roles that have traditionally belonged more to males, and so the modeling done by mothers and fathers has also changed significantly. Even so, there are still particular influences and contributions that are provided by each parent. For our little girl, dad's approval and applause for her achievements in "doing" types of roles and activities has a very special meaning that follows her into adulthood and ultimately expands her involvement in career or occupational pursuits.
The second very important contribution of fathers to their daughter's development has to do with the reinforcement of femininity and self-esteem that can only be derived from interactions with one's father or a father substitute. Mom can do whatever she can to help her daughter feel good about herself as a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual person. All of that is utterly and endlessly needed by the daughter, however, from the father there is a unique need. This is the need for the daughter to have her femininity reaffirmed at a safe distance. After all, it is not mom that daughters flirt with and show off for; it is dad. There develops slowly over time in our young lady the need to feel attractive and empowered that way in the eyes of dad. Some of the drive has its roots in the process of pulling away from mom as the exclusively most important person in her world. To do this and have a strong link to another adult, she experiments with dad in a number of ways, while competing with mom for his attention. One of those techniques is flirting. If she gets dad's attention, she feels pretty, capable and ultimately less in need of dad. Moreover, if she feels she has dad's eye, she will feel far more certain to have less anticipation of rejection by her peers.
Now keep in mind that all of this is done with strict boundaries and safe distance. If daughter comes to dad wearing a new dress with a devilish gleam in her eye, he simply says, "Very nice," and smiles. The idea is to avoid any reaction to the seductive qualities evident in the flirting, nor should dad accuse his daughter of trying to be seductive in her dress. This reaction will bring about a predictable drop in self-esteem that can lead to a frantic search for redemption outside the home with peers, and often an increased probability for premature sexual involvement. What is needed is a reaffirmation of the daughter's attractiveness and feminine appeal, with the additional message that she can hold her own among her peers. There is a line out of the old classic movie, Casablanca, which captures dad's needed response perfectly. This is simply to give his daughter a wink and say, "Here's lookin' at you kid."
Wilber, Ken. Grace and Grit. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991.