On Psychology

Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 1999 / 13 Tishrei, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

When the step-mom is the saint

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I am the stepmom for two girls who don't have a very good relationship with their father. Although he lives with them, he might as well be absent. He believes being a good father is providing a roof over their head and food on the table. He does not hug them or tell them he loves them. He says they are just suppose to know it.

The girls are twelve and fifteen. We have having trouble with the twelve-year-old. She tells me her dad doesn't care about her. When I tell him this, he just laughs.


She is beginning to become sexually active, kissing boys and such, and has a bad reputation. She has also been caught shoplifting once.

I think this all boils down to the lack of a relationship with her dad. Am I right?

A: When many people think about the importance of fathers to the well-being of children, they tend to concentrate on the impact that fathers have on their sons. The image of fathers taking their sons fishing or to a ballgame is a common one in our culture.

And, indeed, fathers do play an important role when it comes to sons. It is the father who teaches a son what it means to be a man, a husband, and a father. But what about the daughters? Are fathers important to daughters as well, and if so, how? Or is bringing up daughters really mothers' work?

It turns out that fathers are as critically important to the healthy development of daughters as they are to the healthy development of sons. Here's why.

The father is the first man a daughter wants to love and be loved by. If she grows up with a father who loves her, cherishes her, and encourages her, she grows up feeling love worthy. On the other hand, girls who grow up with absent or emotionally distant fathers are more likely to question their love-worthiness. They are constantly asking themselves, "Why doesn't my daddy love me more?" For far too many, their answer is: "Because I'm not worthy enough."

That's why one of the predictable consequences for girls of emotionally distance or absent fathers is a tendency toward early and promiscuous sexual activity. Feeling unloved by her father, the daughter seeks affirmation that she is love worthy through the attention of other males, sometimes even much older males. The daughter, in effect, is trying symbolically to seduce her father's love through the affection of other males.

Leiters Sukkah

Interestingly, the one exception to this is when the reason for the father's absence is death. In this case, the daughter does not tend toward sexual promiscuity, but sexual uneasiness.

In a fascinating study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia a number of years ago, the behavior of adolescent girls were observed and recorded at a school dance. The researchers discovered that girls who did not have a father in the home because of divorce or abandonment tended to be sexually aggressive toward the boys at the dance. In contrast, girls whose fathers had died, tended to hang back, unsure how to act around boys.

It seems that for daughters whose fathers have died, what they were missing was not the idea that their fathers loved them, but experience interacting with a man. Hence, they felt confident they were love worthy, but uneasy about how, exactly, they should act around males.

Fathers influence the development of daughters in other ways as well. Research has found, for example, that daughters whose fathers who engaged them in rough-and-tumble play when they were young -- jumping up and down on the bed, wrestling with them on the floor, and so forth -- grew up to be more self-confident, higher achievers at school, and to have higher self-esteem, compared to daughters whose fathers did not.

It seems that when fathers roughhouse with their daughters, and not just their sons, they are communicating to their daughters that the daughters are fully capable and competent human beings. The father's confidence in his daughter's abilities, translates into the daughter's self-confidence in her own abilities.

Conversely, when fathers treat their daughters like breakable china dolls, they communicate a lack of faith in their daughters' capacity to withstand this kind of play. Such messages can result in a daughter's doubting her own competency.

Finally, fathers influence their daughters through their observation of how the father treats the mother. If the father treats the mother with respect, dignity and love, the daughter grows up understanding that this is what she should expect -- and demand -- from men. On the other hand, if she grows up seeing her father treat the mother with disdain and cruelty, this is what she may come to believe is acceptable in her own relationships with men.

Of course, moms influence daughters too. It is through the daughter's relationship with her mother (or, in this case, her stepmom) that the daughter comes to understand what it means to be a woman, a wife, and a mother.

But fathers clearly play a role too. As the father of two daughters myself, this is somewhat comforting to know.

So, is this step-mom right? You bet she is. It is truly unfortunate that this father doesn't share her wisdom about the importance of fathers regularly and consistently telling their daughters how much they love and cherish them. It is even more unfortunate that the daughter is the one who is paying the price for his neglect.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn