Colleges shouldn't overlook the importance of father-daughter relationships (opinion)

Although women now earn more undergraduate degrees and more graduate degrees than men, all is not well with them. Women undergraduates are just as likely as men to binge drink and use recreational drugs. And they are more likely to have anxiety disorders and to be clinically depressed and suicidal.

After 46 years of college teaching, I still give colleges an F on the “F” factor — a factor that plays a major role in female students’ well-being: fathers. As documented in my research over the past 30 years, daughters who have strong, supportive relationships with their fathers generally earn better grades, have higher college graduation rates and enter more STEM professions. These daughters are also more emotionally resilient and self-confident and less likely to have eating and anxiety disorders or to be clinically depressed or suicidal. They are less apt to binge drink, have sex with multiple partners or with men they hardly know, be coerced into having sex, or end up with an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. In short, their fathers give them advantages that go far beyond their grades.

Moreover, well-fathered women reap these benefits regardless of their family’s income. It is worth noting that students from wealthier families do not have better relationships with their parents than students from less well-off families. For example, in a series of studies, young adults from relatively affluent families with incomes between $110,000 and $150,000 were not closer to their parents. And they, in fact, had more problems related to drug and alcohol use, self-inflicted cuts and burns, anxiety disorders, and depression than their counterparts from middle-income families.

Then, too, college-educated parents are the most likely to coddle their children — especially their daughters — which undermines their emotional resilience and self-reliance and leads to more anxiety and depression. Too many of these children become the fragile “snowflake” students who melt too easily under stress and rely too often on their parents or college personnel to solve their problems for them. For decades, however, the research has shown that fathers are less likely than mothers to be overly protective “helicopter” parents who go overboard trying to make life’s path as stress-free as possible for children. More often than not, it is Mom who goes too far in preparing the road for the child while Dad is trying to prepare the child for the road.

So how can colleges and universities improve their grades on the “F” factor? First, the curriculum needs to be more inclusive and less biased against fathers. For example, social science textbooks and academic journals devote far more attention to mothers than to fathers. A less sexist, more balanced curriculum would help dispel myths that work against strong father-daughter bonds.

For example, professors can present the research showing that men are not less empathic, less communicative and less cooperative than women and that most married dads are not slackers who shirk their childcare responsibilities. In the same way that many professors have become more sensitized to racist or homophobic material and damaging stereotypes, they can become more sensitized to sexism against fathers.

Many colleges now offer courses specifically aimed at formerly overlooked groups — for instance, mothers and daughters, the LGBTQ community or African Americans. But to my knowledge, I am the only professor in the country who has ever offered a course on father-daughter relationships. Although I have been teaching my Fathers and Daughters course for 22 years and making this known in my academic writing, only one other professor ever contacted me about the course. Even after an op-ed about my course, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kathleen Parker, appeared in more than 400 newspapers, professors responded with a resounding silence.

Institutions shouldn’t stereotype fathers in other ways, either: in freshmen orientation material and meetings for parents, for instance, they should be careful not to direct the financial information largely or only to them.

Second, colleges can create more events specifically for fathers and can be more sensitive to fathers’ needs. It is not unusual for institutions to provide orientation events for certain groups of parents who might otherwise feel overlooked, such as a special session for parents of first-generation college students. Those same approaches can be employed to create more father-friendly, father-focused events.

For example, I have offered seminars during freshmen orientation just for fathers with daughters. Each year, nearly 100 fathers register for my seminar, filling the lecture hall to capacity (with a wait list). I’ve instructed the dads beforehand to have their daughters come to pick them up afterward and then to spend the next 30 minutes alone with each other — without mothers, stepmothers or siblings. The dads have felt honored that a faculty member is acknowledging them as key players in their daughters’ lives. And contrary to some of society’s sexist assumptions about men, most of the fathers have been self-disclosing, candid and empathic when asking questions about how to help their daughter during her college years — not just academically, but emotionally.

The dads have been stunned by the research I present showing that fathers have as much or more impact than mothers do on their young adult daughters. They’ve felt affirmed and encouraged — not dismissed, demeaned or disenfranchised. Even a year or two after the seminars, fathers have emailed me for advice or to thank me. Others have written to say the seminar was a catalyst for creating a more open, more mature, less superficial relationship with their daughter.

Third, college counselors can be more attuned to father-daughter relationships. Counselors can teach female students the four-step method I developed for helping young adult women resolve problems with their fathers — the kinds of problems that increase their stress and depression in college. Counselors can also consider possible biases they may have against dads. For example, do they assume that fathers are less empathic or less willing to discuss personal matters than mothers? Keep in mind that it is well documented that even the most well-meaning mental health professionals can be inadvertently biased against fathers.

Fourth, colleges can make the faculty more aware of how their female students’ relationships with their fathers affect their academic performance and mental health. In the same ways that higher education institutions educate and sensitize faculty members to issues related to students’ race or sexual orientation or religion, they can help to educate and sensitize them on the topic of fathers.

Supporting the “father factor” in these ways can give women students’ mental health a much-needed boost. And it can also offer professors and staff members another valuable resource to help deal with the challenges that lie ahead for themselves and their students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inside Higher Ed