It would be dumb to suggest that fathers raise boys the same way they raise girls. As much as many parents would prefer to raise children in a gender-blind society, fathers still need to confront issues that are unique to daughters. But importantly, those issues have little or nothing to do with daughters themselves. Instead, the hurdles fathers face are connected to gender stereotypes that fathers have internalized as they grew from boys into men. And that means fathers might need to work on themselves as much as they work on their parenting skills.
The hard truth is that some dads will struggle with overcoming their preconceived notions of how girls should be raised. But with a healthy dose of perspective and openness, any dad can excel at raising a girl. They just have to start early.
Harsh Truth #1: Dads Can’t Be Squeamish About Changing a Girl’s Diapers
Dad’s who change boys diapers have an advantage in that they know the parts they’re dealing with. After all, once you’ve lived with a penis for a couple decades it’s pretty easy to deal with a smaller one that happens to be on a baby boy. Cleaning a daughter’s genitals, however, may cause some dads anxiety.
This anxiety, by the way, is completely normal. The weirdness dads feel is all based on the fact they’ve lived many adult years where the female genitalia is viewed in a wildly different context. So, it’s important to take a deep breath and lean into the fact that changing diapers is simply about paternal care and nurturing.
In terms of that care, however, there is one important diapering issue unique to girls: Their genitals need to be cleaned front to back. Cleaning back to front has the possibility to introduce bacteria into the urethra, which could lead to a nasty infection. Other than that, diapering a girl is fairly uncomplicated. So show up for this good bonding time and revel in being an excellent caregiver.
Harsh Truth #2: Dads Should Use the Word Vulva Because That’s What it Is
When dads use euphemism to talk about their daughter’s genitals, it sends the message that they are unmentionable. The result in these instances is that girls can grow up feeling ashamed of their sex organs. The problem can be particularly exacerbated if conversations about genitals are more frank with moms than dads because that makes the shame tied directly to men.
There is a distinct danger in this shame. For one thing, it makes girls less safe. They are more apt to hide abuse if they feel it’s connected to an unmentionable and shameful part of their body. Also, euphemisms can make communicating about abuse more difficult should girls decide to report it.
That said, some dads may blanch at the term vulva, which somehow seems more lurid than the word vagina. But vagina is an inaccurate term for the part of their daughter’s body a father might clean, or a little girl might experience issues with. The vagina is the internal portion of a girl’s sex organs. The vulva is the external portion of a girl’s sex organs. It’s important to normalize and use the correct terms.
Harsh Truth #3: Girls Clothing Doesn’t Have Pockets and It’s Super Annoying
The brutal fact is that you’ll have to carry all the crap that your daughter picks up on those nature hikes. Because where boys have tons of pockets where they can stash rocks and treasures, girls clothing is practically devoid of ways to port objects from here to there. Your job as a pack mule began the second your daughter put on a cute outfit without pockets.
Harsh Truth #4: Potty Training is Different for Girls
It’s important to note that girls generally begin potty training sooner than boys. As such, they’ll often be pretty little when they sit on the toilet. Dads need to help them out by providing a stool so their legs don’t dangle uncomfortably.
Also, just as dads had to learn to clean their daughters, daughters have to learn to clean themselves. The key is to wipe from front to back. It may take some practice, but she’ll get it soon enough.
Harsh Truth #5: Calling Daughter Princess Isn’t Necessarily Helpful
Using “princess” as a pet name might feel natural for some fathers, particularly when their daughter is the super-glittery rainbow and unicorn type. Unfortunately, the term and all of its connotation might affect a girls ability to succeed in life.
Why is the word princess a problem? Because both girls and boys understand that the role of princess implies supplication to authority and perfection. And while some might think striving for perfection is a good thing, that’s not what girls who internalize being a princess actually do. They are, in fact, likelier to be risk averse and avoid possible failures.
The upshot? Consider a study that found girls who were just as skilled and capable at mathematics and science rarely chose those fields because they lacked confidence that they could achieve. That’s awful. So, maybe choose a better pet name.
Harsh Truth #6: Daughters Masturbate Too
Both little boys and little girls will touch their genitals for comfort and/or pleasure. It’s just a fact of life. Some fathers may find this behavior in daughters particularly disturbing because it seems somehow more indecent. But the worst thing a dad can do is get freaked out or angry about his daughter’s masturbation.
There’s a good reason for not calling out masturbation. For one thing, it can cause a kid to touch themselves even more because it increases the curiosity about an apparently super important or shameful part of their body. And when the pleasure of masturbation is associated with shame, that can set a child up for a life of complications.
The better response, particularly when children are younger, is to ignore the behavior. When they get older (around 5 or 6-years-old) parents can redirect children to a private space. If the behavior occurs in a public place, the trick is to give daughters something to do with their hands to occupy them.
Harsh Truth #7: Dads Need to Be There for the Girly Stuff
Being a parents means being present for your kid’s interests. To turn away from a daughter who wants to have a tea party or dress up is to say there’s something inherently wrong with her interests as a girl. So it’s best for dads to get in the game, even when the activities are girly. It’s a great way to show daughters that their interests and ideas are important and valid, regardless of how pink and sparkly they might be.
Harsh Truth #8: Dads Shouldn’t Check Out During Puberty
When a girl hits puberty, the inclination for many fathers is to let mom take the helm. But that doesn’t mean that dads can simply check out for a couple of years. Turning away from a daughter’s questions about puberty can instill in them a sense of shame about their changing bodies.
So much of being a father of daughters is about reducing the shame that the world will try to foist upon them for being girls. Being open with them about puberty is a great way to minimize the shame. But at the same time, fathers need to acknowledge when they don’t have the answer. Assure your daughter you’ll do some research.
Also, try not to joke about her experiencing “that time of the month”. It’s humiliating.
Harsh Truth #9: Dads Shouldn’t Threaten Their Daughter’s Boyfriends
Daughters will want to have relationships. It’s an important part of learning how to be a person. When dads threaten their daughter’s suitors (with gun “jokes” for instance) it can backfire spectacularly.
Most notably, an overprotective father can make an otherwise okay boy seem like prince charming. Threatening dads may simply succeed in pushing their daughters away. It may cause them to engage in relationships outside of their parent’s knowledge, which can be dangerous. It can also delay the adoption of necessary relationship skills, making her later years chaotic.
It’s okay to seek respect from young men. But respect can be better earned by being a confident father, who respects his daughter’s choices.