Men often don’t realize how tough the world can be on girls until they have daughters. Dads want to teach their girls to be strong, independent, and resilient but often lack the insight or language needed to impart that message. Things that seem like silly girl stuff for dads can be life-or-death for girls. And when dads try to get real about girl power, it falls on deaf ears (because they say stuff like “get real about girl power”).
As a father of a daughter, you’re not going to get it all the way right every time. But Catherine Steiner-Adair can help you get it mostly right when it’s most important. In 2005, the psychologist, school consultant and author partnered with Harvard Medical School to create the middle school program Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health, and Leadership to strengthen girls’ self-esteem and help them flourish into independent women.
Here, per Steiner-Adair, are seven things all daughters need to hear from their dads.
“Claim Your Strength.”
Fathers, per Steiner-Adair, often don’t understand how cultural rules about gendered behavior influence girls’ personalities and the way they act. “If you understand that, then you can raise a daughter who can deconstruct some of the very self-limiting messages that the dominant culture will give her,” she says. For example, if a girl tells the world how talented, special, and capable she is, she’s often chided for being too full of herself. Steiner-Adair writes that good fathers help their daughters “claim their strengths,” adding: “And claiming your strength isn’t the same thing as bragging or being bossy.”
“You’re Allowed to Be Angry.”
When girls reach the ages of 8, 9, and 10, they start hearing the message that it’s not feminine to express anger, even during situations where they have every right to be mad. “That’s a very dangerous gender-code message for girls,” Steiner-Adair writes. “Dads have a huge role to play here in authorizing their daughters to say things loud and clear when they’re mad.”
“You’re More Than the Way Your Body Looks.”
The world’s going to tell your daughter her body is the most important thing about her over and over again. Dads can play a big role in tempering that message and fostering a healthy way to think about their bodies. “Help them understand their bodies in terms of health and the power of being physically strong and brave,” Steiner-Adair explains. “Our body is a form of self-expression and it’s something you want to respect.”
“You Don’t Just Look Good When You’re Dressed Up.”
When a daughter walks into a room wearing a fancy dress, dads are quick to compliment them. But Steiner-Adair says those shouldn’t be the only times we positively note how they look. “It’s really important for dads to tell girls they look great when they’re muddy and coming back from the game or just playing outside,” Steiner-Adair says. “They can say, ‘You look like you’re having the best time. I love it when you come home covered with mud,’ not just, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so pretty when you’re in your dress.’ ” Your daughter pays attention to what dads say to moms. “It’s important for your daughter to hear you say things like when your wife or partner is in her pj’s that you think your mom’s just so adorable,” Steiner-Adair adds. “She’s so beautiful. In other words, say that women are beautiful, not just when they’re all made up.”
“You Don’t Have to Kiss Grandpa if You Don’t Want To.”
Dads rarely consider the implications of cajoling a reluctant girl into hugging and kissing a close relative goodby. Many fathers might be surprised to hear there are any implications at all. But Steiner-Adair says there’s an unpleasant undercurrent to the seemingly innocent request: You’re chipping away at your daughter’s belief that she can choose what to do with her body.
“You should never, ever make your daughter kiss somebody, even if it’s their grandparents,” Steiner-Adair says. When you tell your daughter to be affectionate, you’re telling them they don’t have control over their bodies. “You want to teach them from early on that they’re the boss of who kisses you, who hugs you, who touches you,” she says.
“I Need Your Advice.”
It’s not enough for fathers to tell their daughters to be leaders. Invoking girl bosses and girl power can seem like empty platitudes or, worse, corny dad talk, when you don’t show her you believe her insights and judgments are valuable. Steiner-Adair says fathers should ask their daughters for advice. “Talk about situations where you were confused and you didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Ask ‘How would you handle that? What advice do you have for me?’ ” And don’t ask her opinion as an intellectual exercise. Take your daughter’s advice to heart and apply it. Afterward, tell your daughter how it ended up. You might both learn something.
“I Value and Support Women.”
You’ll never help your daughter become a strong, capable woman if she thinks you don’t believe women are strong or capable. Steiner-Adair urges fathers of daughters to be feminist dads. Talk to your girls about gender equality. Tell them that men and women are equal and deserve equal respect, equal pay for the same job, equals safety in the world, equal access to important positions. “Be clear that you believe women should get paid equally,” she says. “Talk about how it’s crazy it hasn’t happened yet and talk about what you’re doing to make it get better.”