Hug Your Daughters

As daughters age and develop, Hugo Schwyzer argues, it’s important for men to overcome their discomfort and continue to show affection.

“I was always daddy’s little girl. We did everything together. He was my hero. My father was always there with a hug for me; when I was little, he let me climb all over him like he was a jungle gym.

And then my body changed. I developed early; I had boobs by 11. And all of a sudden, my Dad stopped hugging me or touching me. He went overnight from being my best friend to being remote and critical.”

I read that in a student’s journal earlier this semester (quoted with permission). I’ve read and heard similar things countless times over the course of nearly 20 years teaching gender studies and doing youth ministry. Ask any family therapist who works with teen girls, and they’ll report the same thing I’ve heard: story after story of fathers withdrawing physical affection as soon as their daughters hit puberty.

Most fathers won’t explain what’s changed. Many of my students report their fathers simply said, “It’s not appropriate anymore” when they were asked why they’d stopped giving or accepting hugs. More commonly, the daughter doesn’t ask why her dad isn’t embracing her any longer, as she’s too embarrassed or confused. Often, she’s scared about what the real reason might be.

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Dads offer their own reasons. Scott, who has two daughters aged 15 and 12, tells me he has this overwhelming fear he might get an erection if he held one of his girls for too long. “I have no sexual desire for my daughters,” he says, “but I’m so scared it might be inadvertent, just a physical response. And if one of my girls noticed, wouldn’t that be more damaging than just not hugging in the first place?”

Other fathers worry less about what their own reaction might be and more what others might think. “Maybe it’s paranoid,” remarks Todd, the father of a 14 year-old girl, “but I feel like every man who touches a girl is seen as a predator. Even dads. So I wonder what people might think if they see me being too affectionate with my daughter.”

I don’t want to dismiss concerns like these too quickly. Many men do admit to being uncomfortable around their developing daughters, and they do figure it’s better to err on the side of caution rather than risk doing something that might have awful incestuous overtones. Erections, which are not always evidence of desire, often come as a unwelcome parasympathetic nervous system response—but imagine trying to explain that to a 15 year-old girl, or just as bad, not explaining it! And Todd is right—we do live in a culture that is deeply suspicious of adult men’s interest in teenagers, even if those adults happen to the fathers of the young people in question.

But here’s the thing about being a dad. Doing what makes you excruciatingly uncomfortable is part of what you signed on for when you became a parent. You get up in the middle of the night to change diapers and give bottles, even though your body can barely stand the sleep deprivation. You pull a trembling toddler off your leg on the first day of preschool, leaving her to the care of her teachers, and you sit and cry with guilt in the car. (Most dads I know cry harder and longer than their kids on these occasions.) And when that little girl starts to develop a woman’s body (too soon, you protest silently, it’s too soon!) you need to keep right on hugging her.

One widely-believed myth about father-daughter affection is that if a dad stops hugging his daughter, he’ll drive her to seek affection from other males. I’ve heard of pastors who urge fathers to embrace their girls as a “prophylaxis against promiscuity,” and even some therapists take it for granted that there’s a demonstrable connection between paternal touch and a daughter’s sexual decision-making. But as Kerry Cohen points out in Dirty Little Secrets, her forthcoming study of teen girls and promiscuity, no study has ever shown a link. (The actual research on adolescent sexuality shows that parents have much less influence on decision-making than we like to imagine.)

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The reason we should hug our daughters has nothing to do with preserving their virginity. It has to do with reminding them that no matter how overwhelming the changes of adolescence may seem, a father’s love is a constant in the midst of what seems like daily upheaval. Just as importantly, it’s an affirmation that their bodies aren’t as big a problem as our daughters fear that they are. As boys (and, sadly, older men) begin to leer and other girls begin to judge, girls desperately need reassurance that their bodies are not dangerous distractions. A dad who doesn’t freak out that his daughter has boobs can provide that reassurance as few others can.

Dads, like all adults, need to be careful not to foist unwanted affection on young people. Forcing your daughter to hug you when she clearly doesn’t want to is violating; it’s no better (and possibly worse) than shying away from her embraces. On the other hand, it’s not a great idea to put your daughter in the position where she feels she has to ask for normal affection. There’s a delicate dance here, as there always is with teenagers. A little awkwardness is normal.

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As every father knows (or will find out), good parenting involves being both consistent and adaptable. No matter how tempting it is, we can’t treat our teens as we did when they were toddlers. Slowly and steadily, we need to give our kids more autonomy, more freedom, more permission to separate from us. At the same time, we need to love them just as intensely as we did when they were little creatures who sat on our laps and clung to our necks. That means both acknowledging the reality of the onset of puberty without being dismayed or discomfited—or at least without making our discomfort clear to our daughters!

Fathers (and father figures) have a vital role to play in the lives of young women. In a world where so many men seem predatory and unreliable, in a culture where so many older men sexualize teen girls, a loving father figure can provide an indispensable reminder that men are not inherently weak. Girls need dads with the maturity to soothe their own anxieties about their daughters’ burgeoning sexuality. And they need dads who will remind them—in words and actions and hugs—that their bodies are never a problem.

Photo Ms. Phoenix/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Wow, I’ve never known of any man to get an erection when he hugged his daughter. My daughter is grown and has a son of her own. I still hug her and always will. In fact, If I leave her house and don’t hug her she’ll phone me and ask if something is wrong. And for that matter, I also hug my grown son.

    There appears to be a lack of understanding that many dads know when it’s appropriate and not. When my daughter was maturing and she got her first bra, I couldn’t even look in her general direction without her asking what I was looking at.

    I wish people wouldn’t make it sound like men have no clue about things or worse yet, know their daughters.

    “A son is a son until he takes a wife but a daughter is a daughter all of her life.” this is a fact in my life.

  2. Honestly, I don’t really like hugging my dad because I feel like he wants a hug all the time. For example, before work, after work, at night and maybe once in between. But I don’t want that. I think that a simple Hug goodnight would do it. I’m 16 and I love my dad, just I don’t want to be treated as a little girl. And I’m not sure the kind of affection my dad gives me is appropriate because he’ll touch my legs and he’ll wrestle with me on my bed or he’ll try to playfully pull me off my bed when I have short-shorts on and obviously my shorts are riding up. It’s very uncomfortable. And I wish I knew what to tell him.

    • yes.i know the type.And no-its not appropriate.Hes looking for something.You’re a good woman though.must have gotten it from your mom.

    • Alicia, I don’t think your dad is necessarily a creep. I believe that maybe, as you said it, he still feels you’re his little girl. It’s very important to find a way to tell him that (maybe ask for the help of a school counselor or something) in order to preserve your relationship with him or at least get the matter straight. I wish you good luck with your struggles!

  3. My dad has always hugged me but i found it odd that he wanted to rub baby oily in my body when i was ill at 16 i said no but he carried on anyway, he is now no longer in my life thank god

  4. No wonder Americans have so many issues if hugging is seem as wrong. Sheesh. You even almost succeeded in transferring your paranoia over here but fortunately several newspapers ran articles that made it clear there is nothing wrong with hugging a child (who isn’t uncomfortable with it), including kids who are your students or at nursery (preschool) and there was an article about a school making it clear they encourage hugging (or cuddling as many of us still call it here) their students. As for the extremely paranoid idea that men want to access their daughter’s bodies: most men are not child molesters – and if your dad was one, you’d know it long before you hit puberty. On a side note, correct about the erections – heck I still get the occasional spontaneous one, and massage parlors know that touching certain parts of the body (not even the intimate parts) can cause an erection. Nothing to be ashamed of – it’s the intent that counts.

  5. Be careful

  6. Laramie White says:

    My daughter is 23 years old and just graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison this past May. I still hug her, just as I did when she was little. Yes, sometime we feel awkward at time s but we come from a hugging family (my wife’s side of the family). Just this morning I walked pass her and grabbed her by the arm and she stated you are touching me..I told her I will always touch you and show you I love ya.

    My dad never showed his children affection by hugging us when we were growing up. Not until he became older in his late sixties did he tell us he loved us or would hug us. We all noticed the change in him at this time. My father in law would always give me hug whenever he would see us, even though the kids would complain about his hugs in a kidding way.

    I don’t feel anything sexual whenever I hug my female relatives or daughter. Yes, men will always have sexual thoughts during each day but feeling this way towards my own child would be just Nasty to me. When she was little we discussed with our children what touch was appropriate and which was wrong. To tell us if she / he someone touched him / her the wrong way, so we could take action against that person.

    We need to continue to tell our children we love them, just as we did when they were little. To let them know we still can discuss anything they may be going through in life with us. This leads to them having a healthy and loving relationships with others. Trust them to make the right decisions in life.

  7. Robert Ferreiro says:

    WoW……all these feelings….some so sad…but there are woman that feel that men do not always think about the woman/girls feelings….There some great Dad’s out there I am sure..I have come across a few…but have also come across a few different one’s….AS woman are not the same..SO too are men…I am a person who never had a daughter but had young people that showed me so much love with small hugs that it still with me 6 years on…I miss the warm feelings…YOU Dad’s are so lucky and enjoy the investment and it will give you the returns…and Ladies..young…old or in between be upfront with the MEN in your lives..as we that are seen as uncles ..dad’s friends will love you even without the hugs….You are so special…Thank you for the time you give me…

  8. Holy vitriol on this comment page.

    On a more emotional note, this article has me in tears. I miss my parents, and wish I could hug them, especially my dad. He still kisses me on the cheek when we say “goodbye”. It is something special to be touched by other humans.

  9. I’m confused.. My boyfriend told me he needs to be honest with me and told me when my 15 year old daughter hugged him he got an erection. He told me he loves her, does find her physically attractive, but it isn’t a sexual thing. He often gets erections just when he feels good or really happy , which I’ve seen before and has never been father figure to her but I still am confused. Is it normal for a guy to get an erection when feeling good or happy about something? He also told me its not a sexual thing for her. I just don’t know how I’m meant to feel and need answers.

    • Men get their egos twisted and their feelings hurt when a female tells them something about themselves. Wow!
      Anyway, my cousin who is a 47 year old male said this in a conversation with other cousins around. He said that many fathers touch or eben molest thie daughters and it goes unnoticed for years. His niece was molested that way and no persn had a clue. Her real dad was the culprit. It happens So mwn, if you want to break the cycle, stop getting your little feelings hurt when a female says she does not want to be hugged by dad

    • A mans body will throw out an erection for absolutely no reason just because it can! Obviously hormone level has something to do with it as well… A woman’s body can have similar responses too, as you know. I can be sitting with a woman next to me, her leg or arm touching me and get an erection. It doesn’t matter if I find her attractive or not.
      Your boyfriend getting an erection because your daughter hugged him isn’t a big deal, it may be confusing for you but I think he is telling you this in an effort to avoid any concern had you seen it on your own and come to the wrong conclusion. Honestly most guys wouldn’t have said anything, finding it more uncomfortable to broach the subject .
      A woman under the age of 18 that has a nice body *will* be found attractive/appealing to a guy regardless of his age or relationship to her… And something will pop into his head, consciously or unconsciously. There’s no point in asking him about it because wether he tells you the truth or lies about it, it still happens and most men don’t/won’t want to admit it due to how its typically viewed in this country, even if you actually have no interest at all in whoever you happened to look at.

      Besides the reasons above that were mentioned as to why some fathers quit being affectionate to their daughters I think this is an important addition; when a daughter’s body starts to mature fathers will, on some level, find her physically attractive, and I think this is the reasoning behind it. The father isn’t actually interested in her but he feels his body is betraying him and is partially confused/repulsed at this and concerned for what his daughter might think if she noticed it. I think most parents probably aren’t capable or willing enough to be open with their kids in discussing something of this nature so they would rather avoid it, even at the cost of their relationship with them worsening.
      My family are all huggers/kissers and its made for a tight knit family, about half of them willing to openly discuss sexually related issues. …my wife’s family on the other hand, not even close! Heh, its taken her a while to get used to my family hugging her! Her family fell pretty far from the hugging tree, hehe… And honestly I think her family not being more open and loving with each other that way has caused problems and issues that I get the joy of trying to fix, heh.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] to how a “good” father might navigate such impulses. [For an interesting article on this, see "Hug Your Daughters" about fathers who withhold affection once their daughters hit [...]

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