Kobe Bryant Shows Us the Importance of Fatherhood

NBA star Kobe Bryant’s tragic death earlier this year in a helicopter crash—which also took the lives of eight others, including his own daughter—has left the athletic world reeling. But one rather unforeseen result is something Bryant himself would have heartily endorsed: more discussion about the awesomeness of being a #GirlDad.

The hashtag went viral shortly after ESPN’s Elle Duncan, co-anchor of SportsCenter, shared a moving story about meeting Bryant at an ESPN event in 2018.[1] She was eight months pregnant with a daughter at the time, and asked Kobe, who at that time had three daughters of his own with his wife Vanessa, if he had any advice. “Just be grateful that you’ve been given that gift,” Bryant told her, “because girls are amazing!” He added that he “would have five more girls” if he could. “I’m a girl dad!”

After Duncan tearfully shared that story, the Twitter-sphere blew up with celebrities and others sharing pictures of themselves and their daughters, under the hashtag #GirlDad. “"I'm so proud and lucky to be a #GirlDad," Tweeted former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez.[2] Casey Sadler, a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs, shared a picture of himself with his daughter under the caption “#girldad and proud of it."

The posters also reacted against the idea that they were “waiting for a boy.” “I swear I wouldn’t want it any other way,” one user Tweeted.[3]

The hashtag is a celebration of the father-daughter relationship, and an acknowledgement that being a father to a daughter is inherently different from being a father to a son. “Girl dads,” says Auguste Meyrat at The Federalist, “are those fathers who treat their daughters as daughters, loving and caring for them differently than they would if they were sons—a counterpart for a ‘daddy’s girl.’”

Research backs up the idea that dads do something positive for their girls that no one else can. Linda Nielsen, professor of psychology and author of two books on the father-daughter relationship, summarizes the relevant studies.[4] Girls who have positive relationships with their fathers simply do better, in a wide range of areas and activities over the lifespan. To begin with, “daughters whose fathers have been actively engaged throughout childhood in promoting their academic or athletic achievements and encouraging their self-reliance and assertiveness are more likely to graduate from college and to enter the higher paying, more demanding jobs traditionally held by males.” Interestingly, Nielsen points out, most of the world’s top female political leaders have no brothers—“they tend to receive more encouragement from their fathers to be high achievers.”

Fathers are also crucial to a girl’s romantic decisions. Nielsen writes, “a girl who has a secure, supportive, communicative relationship with her father is less likely to get pregnant as a teenager and less likely to become sexually active in her early teens.” (Given other research demonstrating that earlier sexual debut tends to be associated with greater risk of depression later on, this is important news.[5]) These girls also tend to have more fulfilling and intimate relationships with men, better and longer-lasting marriages, less instance of depression and eating disorders, and higher self-esteem and better body image. Fathers have actually been found to have more influence on their daughters’ relationships with other men than mothers do.

In a similar vein, an NPR story reports that girls without a father in the home are two times as likely to be obese, and four times as likely to end up pregnant as teenagers.[6] A Family Research Center report details similar, startling statistics: “Research is clear that the lack of a father, especially in a girl’s life, increases her likelihood of earlier sexual activity, higher rates in teen pregnancy, devastatingly higher rates in child abuse, and significantly higher rates of abortion.”[7]

These are facts that should startle us, because in America today, about one in four children is living in a home without a father—and that includes a stepfather or adoptive father. If women represent about half the population, that means one in eight girls, roughly, don’t have a father. And these numbers are likely even higher amongst lower socioeconomic households, which have much, much higher rates of single parenthood and divorce. If we truly care about women’s opportunity to compete, or women’s well-being, or even women’s safety, then we must care about whether those women grow up with fathers. We must stop paying lip service to the concept of fathers, while preaching out the other side of our mouths that all family forms are equal.

Fathers matter. #GirlDads matter. Whether or not we like to admit it, women do, in fact, need the special set of skills and gifts that men bring. And girls need it from their dads first of all.  

[1] “Anchor's touching Kobe Bryant tribute sparks #GirlDad trend,” CNN, January 29, 2020, available at https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/01/29/kobe-bryant-girl-dad-espn-elle-duncan-orig-llr.cnn.

[2] Lisa Respers France and Harmeet Kaur, “Kobe Bryant called himself a 'girl dad.' His words are inspiring proud fathers to celebrate their love for their daughters,” CNN, January 29, 2020, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/29/entertainment/kobe-bryant-gianna-girldad/index.html.

[3] @IraSchoffel, “After our 1st, 2nd and 3rd daughters, so many people would come up and say, ‘Are you gonna try again for a boy?’ (Don't say that, people) Having any child is a blessing. But I swear I wouldn't want it any other way. These 3 and their mom are so much more than I deserve. #GirlDad,” Twitter, January 28, 2020, 12:40 p.m., https://twitter.com/IraSchoffel/status/1222228092808302593.

[4] Linda Nielsen, “How Dads Affect Their Daughters into Adulthood,” Institute for Family Studies blog, June 3, 2014, available at https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-dads-affect-their-daughters-into-adulthood.

[5] Helen Gonçalves, et al., “Age of sexual initiation and depression in adolescents: Data from the 1993 Pelotas (Brazil) Birth Cohort,” Journal of Affective Disorders 221 (2017): 259-266. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.06.033.

[6] Claudio Sanchez, “Poverty, Dropouts, Pregnancy, Suicide: What The Numbers Say About Fatherless Kids,” nprEd, June 18, 2017, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/18/533062607/poverty-dropouts-pregnancy-suicide-what-the-numbers-say-about-fatherless-kids.

[7] Rob Schwarzwalder and Natasha Tax, “How Fatherlessness Impacts Early Sexual Activity, Teen Pregnancy, and Sexual Abuse,” Family Research Council Issue Analysis IS15L01, December 2015, available at https://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF15L32.pdf.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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