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Girls as Well as Boys Benefit When a Father Is in Their Life

Sunday mornings were always special in my house.

Home from church, my father and I would adjourn to our living room to watch the morning shows — This Week with David Brinkley was our favorite.

After the hour of punditry, my dad would quiz me on the discussion, intently listen to my thoughts and challenge me to sharpen my arguments.

Even well into my tumultuous teenage years, when time spent with either parent was some combination of agony and obligation, our Sunday morning ritual was a sacred hour, always spent in mutual respect and admiration. Only some years later did I appreciate how these interactions with my dad profoundly elevated my self-esteem.

It’s a well-trodden trope that a father is the first man his daughter loves; the first man she observes and relates to; the man she compares all other men to for the rest of her life, for better or for worse.

Those crucial first impressions a father makes on his daughter — his personal and professional activities inside and outside of the home, how he interacts with her mother, his presence and degree of engagement, or lack thereof, during great and small moments in the family’s life — shape not only how she views men but how she sees herself and approaches decisions as an adult.

To wit, new research by a group of psychologists at the University of British Columbia suggests that a father’s participation in household chores is a stronger predictor of his daughter’s future career aspirations and choices than the ideas about gender roles articulated by her mother.

Yet we often discount both the implicit and explicit societal implications of the relationship between girls and their dads. For understandable reasons, the recent focus has been trained on fathers and sons, or more specifically, how to support fatherless boys, who often, lacking the influence of a strong male example, become rudderless young men.

But young women are equally injured by the absence of a reliable male influence during their formative years, and more and more girls are reaching adulthood knowing little of their fathers.

While some evidence indicates that fathers who do live with their children are taking a more active role in their daily lives, more than a quarter of absent fathers who responded to the National Survey of Family Growth admitted to seeing their children less than once a year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of children in America — 24 million kids — live in biological-father-absent homes, a condition that dramatically increases poverty and its associated ills, from decreased opportunity to the increased likelihood of incarceration.

For a young woman, the absence of her dad also substantially exacerbates the circumstances that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Numerous studies have linked single motherhood to higher rates of adolescent sexual activity and teenage pregnancy, and increases in future failed relationships and declines in academic and professional achievement when young women reach adulthood.

But there are other consequences, some embedded deeply in the psychology of women that cannot be so easily quantified. Girls with absent dads often suffer from an eroded trust of men yet simultaneously desire male attention and affection, which often leads to regretful relationship decisions or leaves young women vulnerable to exploitation, low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior.

Some progressive thinkers argue that the issues that plague the children of fatherless households should be solved through a litany of federal social programs that offer little incentive for mothers and fathers to co-parent. They demand instead that government and businesses adapt to changing family structures.

But such solutions fail to acknowledge the devastating reality that downward trend lines plotting academic achievement and income inequality look a lot like the trend line representing the trajectory of marriage and co-parenthood. The connection is incontrovertible; effective long-term solutions must seek ways to reclaim and reinforce the value and necessity of fatherhood in a healthy society.

As for me, I’m fortunate. On Sunday morning, I will call my dad. We’ll probably discuss the morning shows before I thank him for his constant presence in my life.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.