Baseball hard-hitter Harmon Killebrew tells a story that hints at the importance of fathers to boys: “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard,” he says on his Web site. “Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’”

Obviously, Killebrew’s father was tuned in to the needs of his sons, an admirable quality that seems only natural in a man. We accept that every boy needs a father as easily as we accept the notion that he needs a dog. But while society is beginning to acknowledge that a father is more crucial than a dog to a boy’s well-being, the question of how important fathers are to the well-being of their daughters has all but been ignored.

This gap has been addressed by only a few researchers, one of whom is Linda Nielsen, professor of adolescent psychology and women’s studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Nielsen has been teaching a “Fathers and Daughters” course there since 1991 and authored its current textbook, Embracing Your Father: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted With Your Dad (McGraw Hill, 2004).

“Do you realize how rare incest is between a biological father and daughter?” she asked rhetorically in a recent interview with Vision. “It is extremely rare. When we talk about girls who are victims of incest, that term, to psychologists and sociologists, covers being sexually abused by cousins, uncles, stepfathers, stepbrothers, brothers, half-brothers, men who live with your mother who are not related—that all goes into the category of incest victims. But when you look into the percentage of girls who were sexually abused by their biological fathers, it is very small. What this tells me, just as it told you—is that researchers have the wrong focus when it comes to studying father-daughter relationships.”

This wrong focus may contribute to the misconception that daughters don’t need their fathers after a certain age. “My students tell me that their fathers stopped doing things with them when they became teenagers—like going camping with them alone on the weekends—because it would look weird,” says Nielsen. “Once puberty hits, you aren’t supposed to spend as much time with your daughter. Once she’s a teenager, you’re supposed to back off and let Mom have the main relationship. If that’s the message you’re sent and you’re told that’s what a ‘good father’ does, then that’s what you’re going to do.”

According to Nielsen, most men would like to be involved, and she adds, “Fathers do spend more time with their kids than in the past.” But she says some changes still need to occur. Although company work-life balance programs for men and women are becoming increasingly popular in Western nations, “men still spend an average of 15 more hours a week at work and commuting than their employed wives do, and American fathers spend about 70 more hours each year at work than do men in other industrialized countries. Dads still don’t have as much time as moms to be with kids.”

Clearly, as a society we remain unconvinced of how crucial fathers are to their children—particularly to their daughters. But would we be convinced if we read the research?

Vanderbilt University researchers have long known that girls who have supportive, involved fathers enter puberty later than girls whose fathers are distant or absent, and this is not as insignificant to a woman’s quality of life as it may seem. In 2003 researchers at the Cincinnati, Ohio, Children’s Hospital noted a link between early onset of menstruation and adult obesity. But there’s more. When early onset of menstruation was marked by early breast development, there was an associated rise in the risk for breast cancer. The accompanying factors may be complex, but there is certainly more to be explored in the association between good father-daughter relationships and a healthy future for adult females.

Mothers may also contribute to the problem through what some researchers call “gatekeeping” behaviors. A 2005 study by the National Council on Family Relations explains that maternal gatekeeping may take a number of forms, any one of which "either encourages or discourages fathers from acting on their paternal identity. . . . One path to changing fathers’ behavior may involve changing the way that mothers look at them. If mothers believe that fathers can and should be capable parents, they are more likely to allow fathers into the lives of their children.”

So then, does all of the responsibility for good father-daughter relationships fall on daughters? Of course not. Especially while they have young children, fathers carry the bulk of the responsibility for spending as much quality time as realistically possible with their children, whether girls or boys. But as they mature, sons and daughters can contribute to the effort too. Eventually there comes a time when the best way to turn the heart of a father to his daughter is for his daughter to turn her heart to her father.

Author's Bio: 

Gina Stepp is a writer and editor with a strong interest in education and the science that underpins family and relationship studies. She began working toward a Journalism major and Psychology minor at the University of Central Florida before moving to California where she completed her BA in Theology in 1985. Currently Gina Stepp lives in Southern California with her husband and three daughters.