If there’s a category of literature that’s invites more skepticism than self-help books, it may be self-help parenting books. The genre combines the pseudo-science of pop psychology and copious amounts of anecdotal evidence, with the added unpredictability and variability of children. Parenting is hard to begin with, and feedback cycles are long and at best ambiguous. Of the handful of parenting books I’ve made myself read, the only one I can recommend is The Expectant Father—which is more of a field guide on pregnancy for dads interleaved with words of encouragement.
Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters was a book recommended to me by the father of 3 daughters, so very much a subject-matter expert in the area of father ↔︎ daughter relationships. Going in, my expectations were modest; I mostly wanted to garner tips on growing my grade-school daughter into a strong young lady, as per the title suggests. In pop culture, fathers and daughters are often portrayed awkwardly—the stern dad who disapproves of the boys she brings home, the rebellious girl unable to explain teenage puberty—but I find there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotypes. Compared to my son who I can just draw on my own childhood to empathize through his experiences, I do find that there are more blind spots when trying to understand what my daughter is going through, and I wanted Strong Fathers to make up some of the difference.
To her credit, the author does get into some uncomfortable topics, around sex and anorexia/bulimia and body image issues. She is a pediatrician, and she presents case studies of some of her adolescent patients to drive some of her points across. One thing the book does do well is offer up words of encouragement for fathers—reminding the reader that their behaviors and words do matter and that daughters still look to their dads as role models. It’s nice to be reminded.
But, the main thrust of the book is about highlighting all the terrible things that girls face in the 21st century, and it only takes a chapter or two before the author really hammers that point home to the reader. It’s the dangers that I think all fathers worry about for their daughters: self-esteem issues around weight, underage drinking, illicit drugs, sex. So it’s not that Strong Fathers is wrong in bringing these issues to the forefront; it’s more that the book doesn’t have much more to say other than point out these concerns, and then conclude that the only real remedy is for dads to try harder.
I generally dislike books that make their points through stroking fear and negativity, yet Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters returns to the well time and again with horror stories. There’s the girl who was sexually assaulted but their father shrugged it off; the girl who stayed out too late with her friends and had disaster averted only because her dad followed her to the club discreetly and kept curfew; the daughter who suffered from anorexia nervosa with a confused dad. Piled on top is a growing list of bad influences for teenage girls: pop culture, media, rascally boys, other girls, godlessness, and texting1. In particular, the author obsesses about sex, comes out against sex education in schools, and essentially advocates for abstinence—reflecting the Bush administration’s policies at the time.
I had to make myself finish reading this book, and not because I agreed with most of what the author was saying or that I was satisfying my completionist complusions. Hell, I had even given up trying to get the advice I was initially looking for in connecting with my own daughter by the halfway point, when the author made her stance pretty clear and a cursory glance at the titles of the remaining chapters gave a good indication of what I was in for. It eventually became an exercise in trying to understand a wholly different perspective, and attempting to sympathize with a worldview that helps explain some of the inexplicable things enacted by some parents. In the year 2022, school boards have become battlegrounds for culture and parents want to ban books on unsavory topics. It’s easy enough to dismiss these movements as mere politics, but takes a bit more effort to understand the thinking behind it, that sense of every force in modern society acting to corrupt children with these parents as the last guardian. In this rendition of reality, the strong fathers in Strong Fathers are unabashedly heroic.
The book was first published in 2006, and chat apps were the social media of the times.↩