Once a year, elementary schools across the country open their gymnasiums to dads in bow ties and fourth-graders with up-dos. The DJ plays “Butterfly Kisses” and “My Girl” as the pairs sway under strings of twinkling lights taped to the wall. It’s a special opportunity for daddy-daughter bonding, argue the dance’s supporters (a surprisingly fervent group): No moms allowed.
The father-daughter dance, now a time-honored American tradition, is one of a host of roles and events constructed around the father-daughter relationship — seemingly manufactured, at least in part, to put the bond on display. When U.S. companies participated in the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day, in 1993, most daughters followed fathers into the office. Weddings are designed to publicly exhibit the father-daughter bond, too: In Christian and secular services, it’s traditionally the father’s responsibility to walk his daughter down the aisle, toast her at the reception, and dance with her as the rest of the guests look on.
There are no similar events or roles explicitly designed to highlight or strengthen the bond between a mom and her kids, said Linda Nielsen, professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, and author of the book, “Father Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research and Issues.” That’s because they’ve never been seen as necessary. “The mother’s role has always been so strong and so clear that you didn’t have to make up these phony Hallmark moments to let kids know, ‘Look, this parent is really important,’” said Nielsen.
But now that millennial dads are spending far more time with their children — more than double the amount of time dads spent with kids in 1965 — these father-daughter traditions are feeling more and more outdated. Left unchanged, Nielsen says, they could reinforce antiquated stereotypes about parenting roles.
“These rituals convey that the relationship [between a dad and his daughter] can’t stand alone,” said Nielsen. The general assumption, she said, has always been that while fathers have plenty to do with their sons — because (clearly) all men love sports — they need an excuse or an extra push to bond with their daughters. Rituals like the father-daughter dance “reinforce the concept that the father is nothing but a sidekick,” Nielsen said.
While the origins of the father-daughter dance are hard to pin down, many of the father-daughter-centric wedding traditions emerged after World War II, when big weddings — with dancing and speeches — became popular. By that time, middle- and upper-class men and women were living in “separate spheres,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of marriage history at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash. As women began taking charge of everything that went on inside the home, including relationships with children, Coontz said, “there was a sense that men needed to find their way back to the family.”
“The idea was, ‘Well, men aren’t in charge anymore at home, and they’re a little bumbling in the domestic sphere, so we need to give them special rituals and opportunities.’” The father-daughter dance and the father’s speech are good examples of this trend, she said. (The father-gives-daughter-away tradition has a much longer, and much more sexist, history. When daughters were legally considered their father’s property, it was the father’s responsibility to hand his daughter over to her husband, signifying her transfer from one household to the next.)
These traditions have stuck around for so long because people still don’t treat the father-daughter relationship with the same seriousness as a mother’s relationship with her children, said Nielsen. Historically, she said, it’s been seen as “sweet” or “cute” when a father spends time with his daughter. The language used to describe the father-daughter bond, she says, is also revealing.
It’s common to hear someone talk about a “daddy” and his daughter, Nielsen said, even if that daughter is an adult. “Daddy’s Little Girl” is a popular tagline — a favorite for babies’ onesies; “Mommy’s Little Girl,” not as much.
“Daddy sounds like someone who is going to take you to a dance or buy you an ice cream cone,” Nielsen said. By using the word “daddy” and participating in events like father-daughter dances, she said, “we make the relationship seem much more superficial.”
Young people, especially, now seem to be adapting some of the explicitly father-daughter rituals to their own family dynamic. At their weddings, many millennials are pulling both parents into the spotlight, opting to walk down the aisle with both parents or asking both to give a speech.
School districts — mostly in left-leaning parts of the country — are also pushing back against the concept of “dads-only” events. Many have been rebranding their father-daughter dances, advertising a “family dance." Melissa Willets, a writer based in St. Augustine, Fla., who has also written for The Washington Post, was one of only two mothers who attended a “daughter dance” at her daughter’s elementary school. Other districts are canceling the dances altogether.
Still, these father-centric roles and events are beloved, and slow to change. Before her wedding, Meg Keene, founder and CEO of the wedding platform A Practical Wedding, sent an email to all of her close female relatives, asking if they’d like to give a toast. Almost all of them said no.
“My mother-in-law turned me down, my grandmother turned me down,” Keene said. “I think they’d internalized this idea that the role of a mother at a wedding is to be seen and not heard. Whereas the dads just knew that this was something they were going to do.”
The father-daughter dance tradition can be similarly difficult to reimagine. Even though the word “father” was not anywhere in the event title or promotional materials of the “daughter dance,” Willets said, everyone assumed the invitation was meant for dads. When Willets wrote about her dance experience on the blog, Parents, under the title, “Father-Daughter Dances Are Seriously BS,” she was surprised by the negative pushback.
“Can you just leave these events alone please?" one user commented. “I’m a father and I treasure these special times to treat my daughter, show her how a man is supposed to treat her and be a positive male role model in her life.”
A few years ago, Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member Paul Weingarten discussed the father-daughter dance tradition with his daughter, Elizabeth, a senior fellow who specializes in gender parity at New America, in a series of letters published in the Tribune.
“This one night in the year created an expectation that a father, busy as he might be (and I was!), carved out this time to spend with his daughter (or in some cases, daughters),” Weingarten writes. He sees “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” as a similarly unique bonding opportunity. The nature of the day changed, he says, when the office was opened to sons as well as daughters.
Other fathers feel differently. Duane Henderson, a contractor based in Winston-Salem, N.C., attended a father-daughter dance session with one of his four daughters at their church, but he didn’t find the experience particularly memorable. The best way to bond with his daughters, he’s found, is to create his own rituals, unique to their interests. With his 16-year-old, he mountain bikes. With his 6-year-old twins, he sings whatever song they request before bed — usually “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat” from “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I have no idea why they like it,” Henderson says, “but we sing it anyway.”