Daughters of Distance

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The Sydney Morning Herald

So too is the strong bond of fathers with girls, particularly boarders, who want to return to the land and work on family properties.

Intimacy and Intergenerational Aid and Contact among Mothers and Daughters on JSTOR

Showing affection, even when it was spurned, and refusing to step back when their daughter reaches adolescence, feature as the top pieces of advice along the way. But another factor stands out as a red alert to fathers of girls grappling to find their way in this world.

Those who demolish an argument posed by their daughters without properly hearing it, or considering it, risk harming their daughter's self-esteem, and driving a wedge between them. The girls hear a subtext that says they're not smart, that they don't understand things, or are immature.

It's a "putdown", and girls explain two options: they can either antagonise their father by prosecuting their case, or they can stay quiet. Most decide not to share their views again. Adds Chelsea: "I just go quiet, I try and say something — like on refugees — and he just slaps my argument down. Tanya questions why she'd talk to her father about her opinions. And I'm not about to agree with Dad and his views on same-sex marriage. Others point to the obvious irony here. Many girls today are being schooled to have convictions, analyse different sides of an argument, find supporting evidence, and prosecute their case with passion and clarity.

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Fathers support that in the school context, as witnessed by the resurgence in the popularity of public speaking and debating. They also applaud strong marks for assignments based on research, analysis and communication. They like that their daughters can hold their own in front of the class, and they fork out money for them to be able to do that. Then the girls come home wanting to present their case to their fathers, and they're dismissed. Her group of 15 or so friends are listening to every word. I think. Tanya, 14, says her father could top that. My phone died, which meant Dad couldn't track it anymore.

He thought I'd been picked up by someone! Each of these girls tells her own story; one in which she thinks her father's actions to protect her were disproportionate with what was needed, and out of whack with how their brother or brothers are treated. They're seen as "more vulnerable", "not as strong", even "weaker" than their brothers. Alex explains it this way: "When my brother leaves for boarding school, Dad says, 'Off you go,' and when I go, he actually cries. Many girls see that while their father is more protective of them, he's often more demanding on their brothers or less forgiving of their shortcomings.

Fathers don't flinch at the suggestion that they parent according to gender. Indeed, most acknowledge that immediately. Many fathers expect their sons to be better at sport than their daughters, to work harder or to "be tougher". This worries every expert who hears it. Julie Wilson Reynolds, principal of St Hilda's School for girls on the Gold Coast, sums up the disquiet of several who see a new protectionism limiting girls' ability to judge risk, develop critical thinking skills, and even just live life.

He just has to see her in tears. Asked about the motivation for this, another principal thinks long and hard before answering: "It's dads who don't have good relationships with their daughters. They have some guilt over it and they just want to fix things. I take that answer to two other principals, who between them have 60 years of experience in education.

They nod their heads in agreement. But across the board, experts warn that treating a girl as needing more protection than her brother can actually lead to her becoming more vulnerable. It starts a belief structure in their heads: if they need to be protected, then they must be vulnerable. Angela White, executive director of the not-for-profit Adolescent Success, advises fathers to flip the issue. Despite the long list of grievances teenage daughters offer about their fathers, the list of those traits they admire runs to pages.

Many see their fathers as rational and hardworking, organised and calm. They love that issues are less dramatic when their fathers are involved.

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Annie says if she gets a C-grade in maths, her father will inquire whether she thinks she needs a tutor. Girls appreciate advice without emotion, and most girls consulted for this project also believe their fathers don't push them beyond their abilities. Trying their best is good enough. That just makes me feel worse.

Intimacy and Intergenerational Aid and Contact among Mothers and Daughters

Dad says it's okay if I tried my best. Adelaide-based clinical psychologist Kirrilie Smout urges fathers to try to "coach" their teen girls. There are things that they can't do well yet, and they don't know that they can't do them well because they're teenagers and sometimes they don't know what they don't know. Research has repeatedly quantified the power of a solid father-daughter relationship.

Fathers can raise academic performance; influence hugely who they choose as a future partner; and encourage them to take calculated risks. They can gift them a sense of belonging, a self-efficacy and a resilience for life; and their relationship can be the impetus for learning reason. Fathers can also teach their daughters the value of saying "sorry", to be brave in the face of fear, and to speak up when they — or someone else — is wronged.

They can teach practical skills too, like using a hammer and nail, changing a tyre and a light bulb, and setting up a tent. Mothers can of course also teach these skills, and do; the point is, they're skills fathers routinely offer their sons, that they should replicate with their daughters. Briony Scott, principal of private Sydney girls' school Wenona and mother of three adult daughters, is one of a dozen experts who recommend a regular father-daughter get-together, such as breakfast every second week, as a way of building a solid, independent bond.

This also gives teen girls the top two requests they say they have of their fathers: firstly, to be afforded more time, and secondly, to really "be there" more.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Take year-old Annie, whose father is an anaesthetist, a fact she announces without a hint of pride. She stops, and you can see she almost feels bad revealing this to her peers, sitting around a classroom table in a group interview, so she quickly explains that she wants for nothing.

Family holidays are overseas. She has been skiing, on and off, since she was a tot. But along the way, she feels as though she's missed out, too. Asked what activities they'd want to do with their fathers, the girls' answers range wide. So why don't you ask him? At a hall in central Victoria , dozens of schoolgirls and their fathers are gathered.

On this father-daughter night, girls and dads have been asked to bring along a "treasure" — something important to them that reflects their relationship with each other. One teen arrives with a live yabby that she caught. It's in a little takeaway food tub, filled with water and decorated with greenery. The organisers ask her about the significance of the yabby. Without prompting, the girls start recalling the childhood activities they loved doing with their fathers.

While they don't know how to ask their dads to do something with them any more, they want that special bond to continue. They say they'd talk to their father more if he talked to them more. They'd hang out with him more if he showed signs that he wanted to do that, too.

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