By Steve Biddulph, Plan International Australia ambassador
Imagine you are a girl, aged about ten or eleven years old. You are on the edge of puberty, childhood is coming to an end and you are entering your teens. It’s a nervous time, feeling your life changing. What do you draw on for strength? For a sense of excitement, rather than fear or anxiety?
Maybe you turn to your mum, your aunties, your grandma – the women in your life who raised you, love you and believe in you. These women might be the foundations of you feeling secure in the world. But the big world you are entering, and in fact already live in, has men and boys in it too, though your relationship with them might change as you enter this new phase. These are the men whom you may hope to work among, be friends with, perhaps even partner with. As a ten or eleven year old, how do you feel about that world?
A lot of that can depend on your dad, or the men who help raise you, if you happen to have one in your life. For girls around the world, the relationship they have with the men who raise them is pivotal. Is he a man who is present, does he have a positive relationship with the women in his life, does he add emotional and practical security to his family? And secondly – is he a source of warmth, fun, comfort, and self-belief, or is he scary, moody, and demanding? Does he wish you a wide, unrestricted and free life to do whatever is in you to do? Or does he have narrow and restricting ideas of what is right for a girl or woman?
Can you see how huge a father can be in a girls’ life, and how that relationship can help her thrive – or hold her back.
Girls yearn for their father’s love – cuddling and holding them when they are little, preparing food or tucking them into bed, telling them a story at bedtime, going for walks or playing. Yet in the old days, dads didn’t do this very much. Luckily this is changing – today’s young dads spend three times as much time each day playing or interacting with children, on average about 40 minutes a day.
Research shows that girls with engaged dads are more confident, do better at school, wait longer before becoming sexually active, and choose partners who respect them which can mean they are less vulnerable to harm or assault in their own homes. Dads convey to girls that they can set the benchmark high with boys, not by preaching, but by being that sort of male themselves.
I have a friend, a wonderful and caring woman, who had a terrible dad. He provided for her and her sisters, but from a very young age he would hit them, often and very hard, as a way of keeping control. Sometimes their overwhelmed mother would complain to him when he came in late at night, and he would beat the children as they lay asleep in bed, so they woke to terror and fear. She and her sisters walked on eggshells their whole childhood, and couldn’t wait to leave home. It was a terrible childhood that left its scars on their bodies and lives.
Dads have a choice, to be feared, or loved. Being loved arises from being that bit vulnerable, not having to control everything, not being afraid of some giggling, laughter and happiness in their home. You can still be a very capable parent, by teaming up with your partner, discussing what to do and talking calmly and quietly with your daughter or daughters. Avoid shouting – the hearing of girls can be more sensitive than boys, and they can also be more alert to emotional signals. Don’t let moods or emotions hang around your house. Be aware of your size and strength. As girls grow older and more aware of the discrepancies in size and strength between women and men it’s a cue be gentle and polite in your manner, help girls feel safe around men and boys. Don’t be sarcastic or cutting in what you say.
Imagine being girl with a great father figure, no matter what form he comes in. He spends time with you, he talks to you, and values your ideas and thoughts. He is fun. He is reliable and keeps his promises. He is always respectful and kind to your mum. And you know deep down that he thinks you are special and important. You will always matter to him and be a source of pride to him, just for being in this world, without any conditions.
Imagine how great that girl would feel and how ready she would be to tackle the next phase in her life.
Steve Biddulph is the author of 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Boys, and The New Manhood. His books are in four million homes around the world, and 31 languages.
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