A Fear of Hugging
Why Some Fathers Worry About Embracing Their Daughters
WSJ, September 9, 2004; Page D1
Every night, for as long as Jessica Klein could remember, her father would tuck her into bed with a flourish. First, they'd talk about her day and his. Then he'd mold the covers to her body so she was comfortable and warm. He'd end the ritual with a hug and a kiss.
But last year, as Jessica's ninth birthday approached, her father told her that the tuck-ins were going to stop. He figured it was time to end her dependency on such physical contact with him.
Jessica protested fiercely and emotionally. "She didn't use the words 'this is not negotiable,' but basically, that's what she said," recalls her dad, David, a 42-year-old finance executive in New York.
In many ways, we've become a more tactile culture. Families today see the value in expressing love through a hug, and a lot of people feel comfortable embracing friends, even strangers, which explains New York's latest fad, "cuddle parties." And yet, when it comes to dads and daughters, this new enlightenment is tempered by uncertainty, caution and fear. Confused about how and when to touch the girls in their lives, men are distancing themselves from maturing daughters who still yearn to be held.
The media's obsession with sexual improprieties and pedophilia, and the parade of men accused of abuse in divorce disputes, have added to fathers' inhibitions about showing affection. One reader recently e-mailed me to say that his daughters, ages 7 and 9, like sitting in his lap. But he's been reprimanded by disapproving acquaintances. "It's terrible that I have to deprive my kids of appropriate, non-sexual, physical affection," he wrote, "but I also don't want to get phone calls from child-protection agencies."
The physical relationship between dads and daughters gets most complicated when girls reach their teens. Especially if a girl resembles her mom, it can be disorienting for a father. "She becomes a lovely version of his wife in her younger years, and that's the visual he's attracted to," explains Suzanne Persons, a psychotherapist in St. Petersburg, Fla., who specializes in father/daughter relationships. "He's seeing his daughter as a sexual being. For some dads, that's alarming."
It's also natural. In fact, it can be more damaging if dads back away, says Joe Kelly, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Dads & Daughters. He hears from women who as teens felt rejected when their fathers stopped hugging them. "One woman sprouted breasts and felt abandoned because her dad wouldn't touch her," he says. "She became anorexic to stop her breasts from growing."
Annmarie Wells, 38 years old, of Springdale, Ark., says she'll remain forever grateful to her dad for welcoming her into his lap one day when she was 16. She had just come home from a date with a boy who had groped her. Her dad held her and reassured her, as she cried for half an hour. "It was a bedrock moment in our relationship," she says.
In Orchard Lake, Mich., Arnie Goodman senses girls' eagerness for physical contact. He coaches a soccer team of 9-year-old girls, including his daughter and mine. "When the girls make a goal, they're looking for hugs," he says, and they come barreling toward him, arms extended. As a rule, he tries to keep his hands on their shoulders, but in their innocence and exuberance, politically correct embraces aren't always possible. "You can't just push them away," he says.
Sometimes, it makes sense to talk to girls about uncomfortable issues. Bob Schulte, 43, of Omaha, Neb., cherishes the physical closeness he has with his daughters, ages 11 and 16. But when he saw one of his older daughter's friends sitting on her dad's lap for 30 minutes during a volleyball match, "it was an opportunity to ask my daughter how she felt about that," he says. Both he and his daughter found that prolonged public display disconcerting. Talking about it helped them understand their own parameters.
When it comes to physical interactions with daughters as they get older, dads need to recognize some clear turning points. For instance, they should stop bathing girls at about 8 years old, experts say. On other fronts, however, there's no exact timetable and dads can let daughters give the signals.
Jennifer Santoro, 20, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., recalls being a teen and saying, "Hey dad, will you tuck me in?" He'd happily comply. But if she said, "See you in the morning, dad," he'd know not to come in her room.
Mr. Klein is also letting his daughter take the lead. At her insistence, he'll continue those nightly tuck-ins. "I'm happy and relieved," he says.
Meanwhile, in Whitefish, Mont., Rick Dodds, 46, says he's maintaining the status quo, too. Each morning since his daughter was young, he has been her personal alarm clock. He comes to her room and gives her a quick 100 kisses on her head or cheek; she usually wakes up by the 70th kiss. Now 14 years old, his daughter still likes the ritual, but he'll stop if she ever asks.
"I know someday she'll have a husband and I won't be able to kiss her awake anymore," he says. But he hopes that as his daughter goes through life, she'll carry his 250,000 kisses as sweet reminders of his love.
• E-mail: Jeffrey.Zaslow@wsj.com.