Orlando Sentinel

A father's best gift? His presence

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 3, 1999.

It is said that the best thing a father can do for his daughter is to love her mother.

A girl lucky enough to observe her "first man" demonstrating affection and respect for the woman with whom she most strongly identifies grows up with confidence and high self-esteem.

More likely than not, she'll set her standards high when seeking her own mate.

Now, new research published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that there's more fathers can do: Be there.

The gist of the study of 173 girls and their families is that girls who have a close, positive family relationship in their first five years -- especially with their fathers -- enter puberty later in life. Specifically, the researchers found that girls reaching puberty later had fathers who were active caregivers and had positive relationships with the mothers.

Conversely, the researchers -- led by Dr. Bruce Ellis of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand -- found that girls who grew up without their father at home, or in dysfunctional homes where the father was present, entered puberty earlier.

Why? Apparently, girls' biological clocks are tuned not only to their physical environment but to the emotional atmosphere as well. We've all heard of female roommates who, after living together a few months, mysteriously synchronize their menstrual cycles. The same principle may apply to the onset of puberty in relation to the man of the house.

Ellis and his colleagues believe that girls subconsciously adjust the timing of their puberty based on their fathers' behavior. Pheromones -- those information-packed hormones we hear so much about -- hold the key.

The theory is that girls who grow up in a stable relationship with their biological father are exposed to his pheromones, which causes them to postpone puberty -- possibly as a shield against incest. Who knows? Maybe Neanderthal Dad was a randy creep when Mom was napping.

Girls who grow up with stepfathers or their mothers' boyfriends, on the other hand, are exposed to other-guy pheromones that may accelerate puberty. Draw your own conclusions.

Those of us who grew up with fathers don't need convincing that dads matter. Nevertheless, this research adds dimension to the arguments that fathers are especially important to girls and their future well-being.

Even without scientific data, the researchers' theories make sense. We've learned that girls who grow up without fathers tend to become sexually active at earlier ages, that girls without fathers tend to look for male approval in intimate relationships before they're emotionally ready.

In recent years, girls have become sexually active at earlier ages than ever before in American history. Is it mere coincidence that, simultaneously, more girls than ever are growing up in households without their biological fathers?

It's a fact that girls are reaching puberty earlier and engaging in sex sooner than they should. It's a fact that sexual activity leads to unwanted pregnancy, disease and future health problems. Early sexual activity and multiple partners are associated with cervical cancer, for instance.

Logically, girls don't experiment with sex -- at least voluntarily -- until they've reached puberty. Logically, the later the onset of puberty, the better.

Given that we can't seem to curb the news media's insatiable appetite for titillation nor stem the onslaught of sexual messages that say "Just Do It," we might do better to seek ways to postpone puberty. How nice if the solution were as simple as having a good dad around the house.

Kathleen Parker can bereached at Kparker@Kparker.com. She welcomes comments, although she cannot respond to all mail individually.

[Posted 10/01/1999 6:24 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.