Hammering it home: Daughters need dads
By Marilyn Elias USA TODAY, June 10, 2003
It's widely recognized that boys benefit from having dads around as role models and teachers about manhood. But does having a father at home make much difference for girls?
As Father's Day approaches, a new movie and a large new study explore this question. They provide sobering answers that might be hard for some to hear.
Blue Car, the Miramax film, runs just 86 minutes but has some parents on the edge of their seats the entire time. Agnes Bruckner, 16, portrays Meg Denning, the older daughter in a divorced family. She's a gifted poet whose yearning for her absent dad surfaces in spare, exquisite verse that catches the eye of Mr. Auster, her high school English teacher.
He mentors Meg and sparks improvement in her writing, and he seems to give her the fatherly attention she craves. But Auster is not her dad; he finds it impossible to resist the girl's budding sexuality and ends up taking advantage of her.
Critics have praised the raw, real feel of Bruckner's performance. Writer/director Karen Moncrieff says the movie "was emotionally autobiographical."
Moncrieff, 39, still vividly recalls when her parents split up 30 years ago in Rochester, Mich. "I remember sitting on that green shag carpeting and crying with my mom, trying to buck her up. ... I know about kids left to their own devices and mothers who have to work all the time."
She also knows about the poignant longing for Dad because she seldom saw her own after the split-up and didn't develop a strong relationship with him until her college years. "You end up searching for surrogate fathers who will approve of you," Moncrieff says.
She never had a sexual relationship with an older "surrogate," but she does recall "a high school teacher who professed his love for me and kissed me across the desk once. I was petrified."
Some studies have found that girls who are not living with their fathers begin to have sex sooner and are more likely to become pregnant than teenagers from two-parent homes. The problem sometimes has been chalked up to poverty and perhaps lack of supervision.
But even in affluent families, girls become sexually active and pregnant earlier if they don't live with fathers, according to the largest and longest-term study on the problem. It was released in May.
Compared with daughters from two-parent homes, a girl is about five times more likely to have had sex by age 16 if her dad left before she was 6 and twice as likely if she stops living with her dad at 6 or older.
The study of 762 girls for 13 years took into account many factors that could lead to early sex, says Duke University psychologist Kenneth Dodge, the study's co-author. Still, there was an independent link between teenage sex and girls not living with their biological fathers.
The idealized dad
Girls who see their fathers often tend to realize that dads have warts, says San Diego psychologist Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce. But a daughter isolated from her father "may idealize him and yearn for tenderness and attention. They're seeking 'the good dad' out there," Ahrons says. Boys yearn, too, "but it tends to get translated into sexuality only for girls," she says.
A dad is a girl's first love object, "and she's likely to believe if she was worth loving and worthwhile, then her daddy would want to see her," says Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Florence Bienenfeld, author of My Mom and Dad Are Getting a Divorce and Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce. Sometimes mothers are so angry at their ex-husbands that they don't want their kids to have contact with them, Bienenfeld says.
Moncrieff recalls feeling "that I'd be betraying my mom if I saw my father." In the film, Meg bitterly tells her mother: "He doesn't come around because of you."
Her dad hasn't paid child support, and the mother is furious. Dads are far more likely to pay support if they get to see their children, studies show.
In research on parenting, dads have been found to play some important roles. For example, fathers do Read More .. rough-and-tumble play than mothers and are more likely to encourage physical risk-taking. Also, youngsters with active, involved fathers tend to get higher grades than classmates whose fathers are rarely around.
Studies of high-achieving women suggest that they have been especially close to their dads. Although there are no national figures on children's contact with dads after divorce, custody plans are increasingly flexible, Ahrons says.
Amanda Barrett, 24, felt relief after her parents divorced 18 years ago because they stopped fighting. They decided to share custody. "My dad has a lot of respect for me and for women, and I expect men to respect me," says Barrett, a singer in Los Angeles.
In Blue Car, the outcome is mixed. Meg's younger sister, Lily, develops mental illness, and her story ends tragically. But Meg's brutal sexual encounter with the idolized Mr. Auster propels her back into contact with her real dad. A hapless lip-biter who often can't think of what to say, he loves his girls nonetheless. Meg decides to go live with him.
"I know he's not perfect," she tells her mother, "but I need him, too."