Elizabeth Elizardi M.Ed., MAPP

Parent Pulse

Three Tips for Better Father-Daughter Bonding

Create strong bonds with daughters and build positive relationships

Posted Mar 15, 2013

This past week toy maker Mattel has been in the spotlight for starting a conversation with moms about how they play with their sons.  Mattel Vice President told Bloomberg Business Week that the average boy’s mother “doesn’t get why cars, engines, and all the shapes and crashing and smashing are so cool”, so the company invited the country’s top influential mommy bloggers to brunch to give them a better understanding of why little boys like trucks and to teach them specific strategies for engaging in Hot Wheels battles.  While some of the invited moms were not won over by the brunch or the premise of the conversation, others seemed to take advantage of the opportunity to learn something about playing like a boy. This controversial move begs the question, are girls and boys hardwired to play differently? And if so, can parents benefit from learning to cross the gender gap and develop skills for playing better with sons and daughters?

In a 2002 study, Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University and Melissa Hines of City University in London studied the behaviors of 44 male and 44 female vervet monkeys.  Armed with police cars, balls, dolls, cooking pots, picture books and stuffed animals, the researchers observed the monkeys’ preference for toys.  They found no distinction between the two sexes in choosing the neutral toys- the picture books and stuffed animals.  However, the researchers were surprised to find that the male monkeys spent more time and showed greater interest in playing with the car and ball, and the female monkeys with the cooking pot and doll.  Stripped away of gender socialization, these monkeys not only showed a preference for gender-specific toys, but also how they played with the toys mirrored their human counterparts.  If the cold, hard researched facts tell us that boys and girls demonstrate different play styles, then maybe Mattel is on to something.  Teaching mothers to engage in a more masculine style of bonding with their sons- closeness by doing instead of closeness by talking, may lead to stronger family ties.  Maybe mothers need to learn that the smashing and crashing of the cars trumps the dialogue of what one driver is saying to the other. 

For fathers, recent research shows that getting closer by doing and talking is the most effective way to reach a daughter.   Mark Morman and Elizabeth Barrett, researchers from Baylor University, provide evidence of the type of play and interaction that leads to greater father-daughter bonding (and it doesn’t include Barbies).  In a qualitative study of 43 daughters and 43 fathers, shared activity was reported as the most frequent turning point in the father-daughter relationship. No brunch needed.  Fathers, here are three things that, based on the findings, might increase closeness with your daughter:

1. Play sports – Learning a sport is good for the relationship because the father is the primary playmate and the daughter has the chance to be the center of attention.   Take time to get outside and throw the ball.  Teach her the rules of football, soccer, or another favorite sport.  Take her to a game and share the excitement of a live sporting event together. 

2. Find a project – Look for a small project around the house to work on together.  Maybe it’s the latest diorama for school, fixing the gate, raking the lawn or washing the car.  Many fathers  (and mothers) work long hours that keep them away from home during the week.  Working on a project with your daughter resets the hour glass and creates engaging moments. 

3. Take a vacation – Several daughters in this study reported that taking time away with their father was the first time they really talked with their dad.  Remember that vacations need not be luxurious or grandiose.  Camping, a day trip close-by or a father-daughter dinner can get you the same result. 

Aside from these three simple strategies, marriage, leaving home and dating were three other significant relationship changes mentioned by fathers and daughters in the study.  There is no doubt that children will change, grow into adulthood and find their own way in life, but your role as a parent is constant.  You are the anchor.  The links that you create now will be the bonds that tie your family together for life.    Positive relationships are one key element of Well-Being.  Nurture relationships with children and live a healthier, more meaningful life.  How do you bond with your sons and daughters?  I’d love to know.