As the dad of three daughters, my husband occasionally finds himself confused by the goings-on in our estrogen-heavy household. He’s a man of few words, but I can tell by the expression on his face that he often has no idea what precipitates the occasional tears, shouts, stony silence or defiance from one of our girls. And yet at other times, he is able to get through to them with a prescience and insight that defies my understanding.
Neuropsychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak gave a presentation at the Trafalgar School for Girls this past week to fathers only of teenage daughters, on the subject of self-esteem and intelligence. I wanted to attend as a journalist and writer, but I was politely told Dr. Deak was quite firm on this gender-based attendance. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Deak’s work, having written about one of her previous presentations on brain elasticity in this very popular post from 2011. Nevertheless, my male sources at the event have filled me in on some of the key takeaways for those of us who weren’t there.
First of all, why the hardline on dads only? This was partly because a fathers-only event encouraged a kind of bonding, a safe space to talk amongst themselves. The other reason has to do with one of the lessons from decades of brain imaging — females have a more developed linguistic part of the brain. Our superior language and verbal skills tend to be evident when moms and dads attend events together and mothers dominate the conversation.
All of the fathers who attended were extremely pleased with the workshop, even though it drew them away from any Halloween activities and got them downtown on a cold, rainy October night. The consensus was that they really appreciated Dr. Deak’s messages about how dads can positively influence their daughter’s self-esteem and intelligence.
Among her key takeaways:
Be sure to spend time with your daughter on a regular basis. Studies show that girls whose dads choose to do activities with them have higher levels of self-esteem than those who do not.
Engage your daughter in physical activity. Moms aren’t always as good as dads at getting their daughters to enjoy sports and physical activity. Since men tend to interact well by doing things, it’s an easy way to make sure there is shared time.
Listen, then talk. You want to hear what she has to say, and she needs to know you are interested in hearing from her not just holding forth about your own opinions.
Don’t shout. Not only can deep male voices be particularly intimidating to young girls, but the overall impact can be to make your daughter(s) accustomed to being shouted at by the men in her life. Obviously not something she should ever accept as OK.
Get involved in her school. Mothers tend to be the ones most likely to volunteer at their children’s schools, but dads send a powerful message of support when they lend their time.
Teach her about finances. She should get this message from her mother too, of course, but dads can be particularly effective teaching their girls about balancing checkbooks, budgeting their finances and saving their money. Too many young women fail to achieve financial independence, which can lead to a whole host of life-altering bad choices involving the men who may pay their bills.
Talk to her about boys. Don’t leave this to her mother. Fathers have insight into the mysterious male mind in important ways, and girls want — and need — to know. Teach her about respecting her body, resisting pressure, maintaining her dignity. Remind her that boys also have doubts, concerns and a need to connect emotionally with the right person. Even the most awkward, stilted conversation powerfully conveys how much she counts in your mind. (Click here to tweet this.)
Treat the women in your life as you would want her treated. Your daughters are watching to see how you treat their mother and women in general, and in doing so they are learning what to expect from the men in their futures. Set the bar high. (Click here to tweet this.)
Encourage her to push past her comfort zone and take some risks. Girls’ brains tend to be physiologically differently than boys when it comes to risk-taking and fearing they have made mistakes. This can be traced to the relative size of specific brain structures and the impact of hormones (read more in this blog post). But pushing your daughter slightly out of her comfort zone during her childhood and teen years (when the brain is most elastic) can actually rewire those brain structures so that she takes more risks when acceptable to do so (take on a new job, put together an ambitious business plan, aim high with her education, etc.).
Hug her often but respect her space. Your daughter will thrive on these physical reminders of your love, but as she grows from a girl into a young woman, you might want to move from tight bear hugs to looser “tent” hugs.
Want to know more about Dr. JoAnn Deak and her messages about understanding brain elasticity in how we raise and teach our kids, help girls thrive and more? Check out her website and line-up of books. I personally recommend How Girls Thrive to parents of daughters everywhere.