The relationship between fathers and daughters is often caricatured as one in which a clueless dad is stumped by his eye-rolling offspring as she blows past him on her way to the mall. But the interaction between dads and daughters is far more complex. It not only sets an example for the kind of partner a girl may choose as she gets older but also affects the way she sees herself. Recent research, however, indicates that even fathers and daughters who are close during the early years tend to drift apart as girls hit their teens. That's partly why a growing number of dads like King, dissatisfied with being distant onlookers in their daughters' lives, are finding ways to be more involved by spending more time with their girls and trying to see the world through their eyes.
Michael Kieschnick, 49, a telecommunications executive in San Francisco, had been answering his daughter's questions about life from almost the moment she could talk. Then one day when she was 9, she startled him. "Daddy," she asked, "do you think I look fat?" "I stumbled through the answer," Kieschnick recalls. "I knew the answer wasn't the most important thing, but the question was. It really led me to realize that the influences around my daughter telling her she had to look a certain way were more powerful than her mother and I were."
Girls these days struggle with body image starting at younger and younger ages, and researchers are discovering that relationships between fathers and daughters can have a direct effect on problems like eating disorders. Dr. Margo Maine, the author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and Food (Gurze Books) has treated thousands of girls in her 20-year career. She has observed that "a high percentage of them said they felt disconnected from their fathers. They were desperate for approval and not getting it. Girls eager for attention from their fathers will diet as a way to get it. Fathers tend to pull away when their girls hit adolescence, which makes things worse. Dads have no idea how much their daughters need them at this point." Or how much what they say matters. Maine notes that even an innocuous comment from a father about baby fat can initiate a cycle of dieting and depression in young girls.
Kieschnick decided to tackle the image problem head on, and three years ago he teamed with Joe Kelly, a father of twin 21-year-old daughters, to start Dads and Daughters, a lobbying group that has since attracted 2,000 members around the country. Through letter writing, e-mail campaigns and phone calls, the organization has successfully persuaded the CEOs of eight companies such as Campbell's and Sun-In to pull ads that perpetuate negative stereotypes for girls. Says Kelly: "Since most CEOs are men, we write to them dad to dad and ask them, 'Is this the message you want to send your daughter?'"
Kelly, 47, who is also the author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast (Broadway Books), is constantly on the road, meeting with fathers and their daughters, helping them find ways to stay in each other's lives. "I tell stories about the importance of the relationship and how unique it is," he says. "I've noticed a generational shift out there. Men who are younger than I am seem to want more connection with their daughters, but it's a challenge. After all, dads grew up as boys. That's a huge disadvantage."
It can be daunting for a man to figure out how to bridge the chasm between, for example, his love of pro football and his daughter's passion for 'N Sync. But, says Kelly, the main thing is to spend time together, to try to regard her interests with an open mind. Steve Emmett, 53, a psychologist in Scituate, Mass., who grew up in a family of boys and is the father of two teenage sons and a daughter Katherine, 11, decided to carve out special time with his daughter by taking daily bike rides to their favorite spot, the lighthouse near their home. "It's just the two of us going to the lighthouse, and we talk about things together," says Katherine. "He's a pretty good listener."