Fathers and Daughters
By William C. Duncan

In her 1893 story, “The Hiltons’ Holiday,” New England author Sarah Orne Jewett describes the visit of a farmer father, John Hilton, to the village of Topham Corners, with his two daughters, Susan Ellen and Katy. On the night before the trip, John and his wife discuss their daughters and John reveals his plans for the upcoming excursion.

John, a “kind-hearted man,” is observant of his daughters and notices individual differences between them. “‘Katy’s shy with new folks, more so ‘n Susan Ellen, who’s of the business kind. Katy’s shy-feelin’ and wishful.'”[i] He also values his daughters. “‘They’re good girls as anybody’s got.”[ii] His taking them to town is a treat, although his wife suspects an element of his own boyishness in the plan.

The sweet relationship between the father and his youngest daughter is evident: “Katy had seated herself close to her father on the doorstep. He put his arm around her shoulders, and drew her close to her side, where she stayed.”[iii] The next day, as the outing begins, the girls are speechless with excitement.

Although ostensibly in town on errands, they spend the day meeting people. On the spur of the moment they have their photograph taken – “perhaps the greatest triumph of the day.” The daughters “did not know why their father was so pleased with it; they would not know until age had dowered them with the riches of association and remembrance.”[iv]

When they get home, John (“the leader of the great excursion”), admits he had forgotten the hoe and turnip seed he had gone to buy. His wife responds with amusement, “You an’ the little girls have had a great time. They was full o’ wonder to me about everything, and I expect they’ll talk about it for a week.”[v]

John agrees, “‘We did have a beautiful day. I didn’t expect so much. . . . The little girls will remember it perhaps by an’ by. I guess they won’t never forget this day they had ‘long o’ father.'”[vi] With this, everyone goes in to supper as the “great day” ends.

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett’s own relationship with her father might have been the inspiration for this sweet story. A biographer notes that father and daughter would sometime go together on drives through the country, occasioned by her father’s practice as a country doctor.[vii] This biographer notes her “adoration of her father” which Sarah had described “as resembling that of a ‘little dog.”[viii] Further, “[h]is influence on Sarah cannot be overstated. He was father, teacher, comrade and model.”[ix]

Although she did not become a doctor, her identification with her father expressed itself in other ways. She absorbed his love of reading and his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, following his explorations of literature, science, history, and religion. She shared as well his interest in herbs and plants, and from reading his botanical journals and medical textbooks and watching him dispense medicines she gained a basic pharmacological knowledge that, for better or worse, she used all her life to prescribe for herself and her friends.

From her father she gained her emotional poise, the sensitive balance of compassion and humor with which she viewed the human scene around her. The physician’s stance of disinterestedly sympathetic observer became the writer’s, and like him she learned to imaginatively participate in the intimate griefs of others without either retreating or being overwhelmed.[x]

Father’s Influence on Daughters

Much has been written about the importance of fathers to their children.[xi] However, “the parent-daughter relationship has received little scrutiny” as contrasted with mother-daughter and father-son relationships.[xii] Much research indicates that fathers are particularly important to their sons.[xiii]

Recently, emerging research has begun to confirm the importance of the father-daughter relationship in the lives of girls. As early as 1972, psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington suggested that father absence has an effect on daughters.[xiv]

One important area of influence involves the sexual behavior of daughters. Interestingly, very recent research shows an association between father’s presence in the home and later onset of puberty.[xv] Earlier this year, a study published in Child Development indicated that father absence was associated with early sexual behavior of girls even when other factors such as stress and poverty were accounted for.[xvi]

Another report concurs, saying that “[d]aughters whose fathers gave them little time and attention were more likely to seek out early sexual attention from male peers.”[xvii] A much earlier study indicated that girls who experienced high levels of acceptance from their fathers “reported less sexual involvement, generally claiming holding hands or kissing as the greatest extent.”[xviii] A 1974 study indicated that disruption in the father-daughter relationships makes “sexual acting out” more likely.[xix]

Similarly, fathers seem to influence daughters’ interactions with other males.  A study from the mid-1980s suggested that young women’s dating behavior and attitudes were affected by the presence or absence of their fathers.[xx] This same study found that “[g]irls were more ‘discriminating’ or ‘selective’ about the men they dated if their fathers had talked to them about boys.”[xxi]

While fathers could play a role in influencing their daughters, in the absence of that influence, “other influences (i.e. peers, substance use, and school involvement) became more important.”[xxii] As demonstrated by another study, in intact families, girls with poor relationships with their fathers were more likely to plan to cohabit before marriage.[xxiii]        

Fathers may affect their daughters in other ways as well. Authors of a book on fathers and adolescents suggest that fathers who are not accepting of their daughters may contribute to “body image disturbances.”[xxiv] They also note that “closeness to the father supports the daughter’s academic achievement.”[xxv] Finally, they describe an association between female delinquency and negative father-daughter relationships.[xxvi] Another study indicates that young African-American women enjoying close relationships with their fathers report greater personal happiness.[xxvii]

As seems increasingly clear, fathers are no more “optional family baggage” for daughters than they are for sons. In the face of this emerging research, there should be particular concern that other research indicates that for unwed mothers, marriage is more likely for mothers of sons than of daughters.[xxviii] Additionally, one study suggests that sons were less likely to experience their parents’ divorce than daughters.[xxix] Another study found that “males report significantly greater emotional and behavioral involvement with their fathers than do females when the children are in early and mid-adolescence.”[xxx]

Need for Father Involvement

As suggested by Sarah Orne Jewett’s story and experience, a father’s presence as well as time and interaction with daughters can have great benefits for both of them. Formal and informal outings, such as father-daughter “dates,” can draw them together. A father’s presence also sends a powerful message of approachability and concern for a daughter’s well-being.

The father-daughter bond can also provide protection from non-family influences that might exploit girls and young women. Recent cultural changes have allowed girls to become more involved in activities such as athletics, which some have suggested will naturally allow for greater father involvement. However, it would be unwise for fathers only to be involved when their daughters’ interests and concerns coincide with their own. Individual time allows fathers to learn their daughters’ interests and concerns and to accept their schedule and interests to these.

What research is beginning to demonstrate, Sarah Orne Jewett and others seems to have known from experience – fathers can have a profound influence for good in the lives and development of their daughters. We are beginning to learn from research that the opposite is also true – father absence is not good for daughters. This knowledge is heartening for involved fathers but also challenging. Fathers of daughters must recognize the potential for good they can exercise and get involved in the lives of their daughters. Perhaps they too can earn their daughters’ adoration.


[i] .Sarah Orne Jewett, The Hilton’s Holiday in The Country of the Pointed Firs 291 (Doubleday 1989).

[ii] .Id. at 292.

[iii] .Id. at 294.

[iv] .Id. at 304.

[v] .Id. at 305.

[vi] .Id.

[vii] .Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work 21 (1994).

[viii] .Id. at 22.

[ix] .Id. at 24.

[x] .Id. at 25.

[xi] .See David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (1996).

[xii] .Patricia Allatt, Fathers and Daughters 29 Sociology 177 (February 1, 1995).

[xiii] .See Michael E. Lamb & Jamie E. Lamb, The Nature and Importance of the Father-Infant Relationship The Family Coordinator 379 (October 1976); Gary F. Jensen, Parents, Peers and Delinquent Action: A Test of the Differential Association Perspective 78 American Journal of Sociology 562 (1972); Thomas Cook, The Development of Occupational Aspirations and Expectations Among Inner-City Bos 67 Child Development 3368 (1996).

[xiv] .E. Mavis Hetherington, Effects of Father Absence on Personality Development in Adolescent Daughters 7 Developmental Psychology 313 (1972).

[xv] .Bruce J. Ellis, et. al, Quality of Early Family Relationships and Individual Differences in the Timing of Pubertal Maturation in Girls: A Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model 77 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 387 (1999).

[xvi] .Bruce J. Ellis, et. al, Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy? 74 Child Development 801 (May/June 2003).

[xvii] .Stephanie Weland Bowling & Robert J. Werner-Wilson, Father-Daughter Relationships and Adolescent Female Sexuality: Paternal Qualities Associated with Responsible Sexual Behavior 3 Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention & Education for Adolescents & Children 5, 13 (2000).

[xviii] .J. Roland Fleck, et al., Father Psychological Absence and Heterosexual Behavior, Personal Adjustment and Sex-Typing in Adolescent Girls 60 Adolescence 847, 852 (Winter 1980).

[xix] .Allan Gerson, Promiscuity as a Function of the Father-Daughter Relationship 34 Psychological Reports 1013, 1014 (1974).

[xx] .Keri L. Kinnaird & Meg Gerrard, Premarital Sexual Behavior and Attitudes Toward Marriage and Divorce Among Young Women as a Function of Their Mothers’ Marital Status 48 Journal of Marriage and the Family 757 (November 1986).

[xxi] .Bowling & Werner-Wilson, supra note 17 at 19.

[xxii] .Id. at 23.

[xxiii] .Suzanne Southworth & J. Conrad Schwarz, Post-Divorce Contact, Relationship with Father and Heterosexual Trust in Female College Students 57 American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 371, 380 (July 1987).

[xxiv] .Smuel Shulman & Inge Sieffge-Krenke, Fathers and Adolescents: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives 40 (1997).

[xxv] .Id. at 40.

[xxvi] .Id. at 185.

[xxvii] .Essie Manuel Rutledge, Black Parent-Child Relations: Some Correlates 21 Journal of Comparative Family Studies 369, 375 (1990).

[xxviii] .Shelly Lundberg & Elaina Rose, Child Gender and the Transition to Marriage 40 Demography 333 (May 2003).

[xxix] .S. Philip Morgan, Sons, Daughters and the Risk of Marital Disruption 94 American Journal of Sociology 110 (July 1988).

[xxx] .Kathleen Mullan Harris, Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. & Jeremy K. Marmer, Paternal Involvement with Adolescents in Intact Families: The Influence of Fathers Over the Life Course 35 Demography 201, 206 (May 1988).