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What Fathers Can Teach Daughters About Love

In describing father-daughter relationships, it's easy to default to images of men as heroes and protectors. Men are often thought of as the "first men" in young women's lives, the prototypes against which daughters will measure all romantic interests. Fathers are encouraged to set good examples for their daughters so girls can spot "good men" when they see them. And in a world where a "men are dogs" ideology pervades popular culture, fathers often feel responsibility to protect girls from unqualified or ill-intentioned suitors.

But, if you are father to a daughter, you can play a much broader role than coming to her rescue, scaring her sub-par boyfriend away, and warning her about the perils of dating. If you really want to be your daughter's hero, teach her to be herself and advocate for herself in relationships.

Here, Dr. Richard Weissbourd, Harvard psychologist and author of The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development, and Al Vernacchio, renowned human sexuality educator and author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk To Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, highlight seven lessons your daughter can learn from.

1. Some men are dogs. The age-old stereotype shouldn't be discarded all together. Dr. Weissbourd explains: "There's this trope, this one reflex, which is to tell daughters that they have to be careful, that men are dogs. In one sense, this is an important message. Romantic relationships do carry with them the potential for emotional or physical harm, and young women should be made aware of the risks." But, these types of conversations shouldn't just revolve around warning signs and negative consequences. They are also opportunities to remind your daughter of her ability to protect herself and make healthy, empowered choices. You can "send your daughter a message of agency," Dr. Weissbourd says. If she doesn't like how she is being treated, she can speak up or end the relationship. If she feels like she's ever being pressured sexually, you can help her find the confidence and the words to protect herself.

2. But, not all men are dogs. Girls can find respectful, caring partners, and a healthy relationship can add a meaningful dynamic to a young woman's life. Fathers should not discourage all romance or threaten to intimidate all of their daughters' romantic interests. Instead, fathers can talk to girls about positive qualities partners should have. "Not all men are dogs and not all boys are just looking for one thing," says Vernacchio. "Dads have to help girls identify good qualities and recognize good guys."

3. As men should be respectful, so should women. Mean girl tendencies don't just affect relationships between friends. Dr. Weissbourd says that in addition to conversations warning young women against boys and men, "adults should inform girls that they also have the power to cause emotional pain." "Parents need to teach girls as well as boys to communicate kindly," he says. "And they need to address subjects like how to turn someone down or break up with someone decently."

4. Male attention is not the only key to happiness. So much of the traditional narrative around fathers and daughters centers on heterosexual ideals, culminating with a father "giving his daughter away" to another man on her wedding day. However, because some young women will be questioning their sexual orientations, some may be single for extended periods, and some will ultimately choose to remain single, fathers must reinforce the value of their daughters' individuality. "The idea that Prince Charming will come along is not empowering," according to Vernacchio. "We need to talk about how girls are strong and powerful in their own ways, whether they are on their own or with a partner. And we need to be aware that sometimes, a young girl might not be interested in boys. She may be interested in other girls."

5. Love is different than infatuation. "You can be attracted to people who are terrible for you," Dr. Weissbourd says. "Parents need to talk to girls about love interests who treat them badly or might be negative influences." Try not to scold your daughter if she is interested in--or with--someone you don't approve of. That could push her away. But don't hesitate to ask your daughter questions about why she is interested in someone, and don't be afraid to reinforce what you see as positive characteristics in a romantic partner.

6. Truly loving relationships involve acceptance. "The primary message to convey is that what we want for them is to find someone who will love them and recognize how great they are," Vernacchio says. Young women often lose self-esteem in relationships where they feel like they have to live up to their partner's expectations or transform themselves to fit their partner's needs. To illustrate the qualities of supportive relationships, don't be afraid to use examples from your life. Try talking to your daughter about your relationships – which ones were successful, which qualities you appreciate in a partner. You can also use these conversations as additional opportunities to remind your daughter of her individual strengths.

7. The media rarely provides healthy depictions of love and heartbreak. Girls need to be informed of the ways in which media's depictions of love differ from real life. According to Dr. Weissbourd, "There's a narrative out there in film about what love is, how relationships are. Falling in love happens like a lightning strike. There are also a lot of songs about being with someone even if they aren't good to you." "All parents," he says, "need to be more active about countering those messages." Watching what your daughter is watching can provide valuable opportunities for conversation. If you see characters acting in a way that is unhealthy or unrealistic, ask your daughter what she thinks, talk about some of the misrepresentation you see, and share your own thoughts and values.

Talking to your daughter about love and sex might inspire some eye rolls and feelings of extreme awkwardness. Have these conversations anyway. She won't be your little girl forever, but what you teach her now can empower her later.

This article was originally published in the Planet Daughter newsletter, a roundup of research, news, and expert perspectives just for fathers of preteen and teenage daughters. Sign up or tell your partner to sign up here!

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