By Joyce McFadden, psychoanalyst, author
A little girl needs her father's support in her unfolding sexual development because it helps secure three hugely important facets of how she'll see herself in the world throughout her life. You, as a father, will influence her level of personal confidence, her body comfort and pride, and you'll set her expectations for the way she should be treated by boys and men.
Even though fathers only want the best for their daughters, when asked to contemplate the idea that they should play an active role in guiding their daughters as they transition from little girl, to girl, to young woman, they squirm. They wince. They slam their eyes shut in an effort to make it stop. They say, "Go ask your mother."
This is exactly the kind of response fathers should reconsider, because your daughters really do need you.
Whether we're talking about the idea of teaching your toddler the accurate names for her body parts during bath time, educating your 8-year-old about menstruation or discussing sexual behavior as your teenager is getting ready for a date, dodging, squirming and wincing aren't reactions that are going to help your daughter feel comfortable in her own skin or confident about who she is.
Parents don't wince over things they're proud of or happy about in their kids, and even our youngest daughters understand this. When we're proud of them and happy for them, we beam. We smile. We tear up. So, when you reveal your discomfort with your daughter's sexuality, you're unintentionally teaching her it's either something to be afraid of or something to be disdained. You'll also be directly or indirectly teaching her you don't want to be involved in knowing that part of her, and that will probably create distance in your relationship. None of this will enhance her self-esteem or her ability to believe you love her unconditionally.
In both my clinical practice and my private life, whenever men share their fears for their daughters' sexuality, it tends to go something like this: "I'm going to put her in a convent because I know what guys are like." But if the problem is that fathers know what guys are like, the solution isn't to make our daughters pay the price by sequestering them. The solution is to raise our sons to respect girls and women.
On that note, we need to be more conscious of what we imply about kids' sexuality from the time they're little. We always think the sexual socialization of our sons and daughters begins in adolescence, when it actually starts so much earlier.
So, on the road to raising a happy, confident woman, here are three things your daughter needs from you:
1. She needs you to respect her body and its capacities.
When she's little, don't avoid using the correct names for her body parts. One of the perspectives is that children are too young to know such "adult" terms. But they're not adult terms. They're anatomical terms. They contribute to self-knowledge, which contributes to a well-being. A study in the journal Gender and Psychoanalysis found that preschool-age girls were more likely to have been taught the word "penis" than any specific word for their own genitals. That isn't fair and it isn't right. If you don't call her elbow her "Over There," then don't refer to her vulva as her "Down There." When we do that, we only stigmatize those parts and make it even harder for our girls to feel pride and ownership over them. And if you're uncertain about the anatomical terminology, invest in the two minutes it will take you to Google it. Your daughter's body image is well worth those 120 seconds.
When she's older, don't shy away from discussions about menstruation, and if you don't understand how it works, educate yourself years before she starts so you can respond to any questions that might pop up along the way. Let her know you're proud of her reproductive functioning. Remember, if it weren't for menstruation, you wouldn't even have a daughter. If the two of you have talked about it from the time she was young, when she's older, you'll already have built a shared comfort level with it. The exchange will be as it should be: natural.
2. She needs to feel close to you throughout your lives together.
It can be difficult for men to go from parenting a pre-adolescent girl to finding themselves the father of a young woman with curves.
Remember, that new body is the one your daughter will be living in the rest of her life. Let her know you'll be by her side throughout it all. If you back away, there's a danger she may think it's her fault. She could feel she's losing her closeness to you simply by virtue of being drawn into a biological process she has no power to stop. There's absolutely no way she can stay your little girl just so you can remain comfortable. Sometimes, though, a girl feels caught in this bind and she may sub-consciously feel she has to choose between her human sexuality and your love for her. She may also fear you'll judge her if she ventures into sexual activity. When this occurs, in addition to weakening her bond with you, it can later complicate her ability to have adult sexual relationships without experiencing guilt or shame; it's hard to have a solid sense of personal confidence if you feel like you're being judged or like you're not enough for your parents, just the way you are. As her father, you have the power to make certain she knows your love is steadfast, and that she won't have to choose between your love and her maturation.
3. She needs you as a role model for how she should be treated by boys and men.
Your daughter will live in a world with boys and men. Pay attention to the way you address her as well as to the way you talk about women. Be thoughtful in the way you speak to your sons about girls and women, and set limits on appropriate language. The tone you set in your home can either negatively complicate how she believes she deserves to be treated by the opposite sex, or it can ground her in her right to be treated respectfully.
Part of that respect needs to include your appreciation of the fact that her sexuality will be about far more than just the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy and sexual violence. More importantly, it will be about desire, attraction, the complexities of romantic relationships and often, difficult choices. Offer her guidance, but as she experiences these things, healthy parenting will also sometimes involve affording her the same freedom you would want for yourself -- the freedom to follow her own heart and mind.
One of the most common things daughters say about their fathers is they wish they were more communicative. So, take the risk on behalf of your daughter, and open the door for the two of you to talk about sexual matters. Don't worry if you're nervous -- in fact, cop to it. Tell her you weren't raised to be comfortable talking about sexuality, but that you're going to forge ahead because you never want her to ever question your regard for her wellness and happiness. She won't care if you fumble through it at first. Let her know you understand her sexuality will be an important part of who she is throughout her life and that you want her to always be comfortable in, and proud of, her body.
Let her know she should be treated with the respect she deserves, and that it's your honor, as the first man in her life, to set that bar high.