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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 1999 /24 Tishrei, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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A father's best gift? His presence --
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.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


09/30/99: Sorry, guys, Faludi is no friend of yours
09/28/99: Science's new findings: Scary future for families
09/23/99: The great blurring of need and want
09/21/99:Focus on more than baby's first 3 years
09/16/99: Commentary from kids sheds no light on day-care debate
09/14/99: Fathers' group seeks to right inequities
09/09/99: Son now has a license to grow up
09/07/99: A slap in the face of domestic violence
09/01/99: No, ma'am: Legislation on manners misses the mark
08/26/99: For better boys, try a little tenderness
08/24/99:The ABC's of campaign questions
08/19/99: Male 'sluts'
08/11/99: Language doesn't excuse bad behavior
08/09/99: When justice delayed is still justice
08/03/99: Unemployment? Not in this profession
07/30/99: It's not about race -- it's about crack babies
07/22/99: Tragedy tells us what's important
07/19/99: Study denouncing fathers sends danger signals
07/15/99:'Happy marriage' belongs in the Dictionary of Oxymorons next to 'deliciously low-fat.'
07/11/99: 'Brother Man': An American demagogue in Paris
07/08/99: Only parents can fix broken families
07/06/99: America is home, sweet home
07/01/99: Tales out of Yuppiedom
06/28/99: Men aren't the only abusers
06/23/99: Is the entire country guzzling LSD punch?
06/20/99: The voice remains -- as always -- there beside me 06/16/99:Stating the obvious, a new growth industry
06/14/99: Calling for a cease-fire in the gender war
06/10/99: We owe children an apology

©1999, Tribune Media Services