What started as a class discussion turned into a revelation for this teacher, and some instructions every father needs to know.
The other night in my adult English as a Second Language class, I gave my students the following conversation-starter question: “Is it harder to be a father or a mother?” The answers ranged from serious to facetious and included some good-natured ribbing between the sexes, e.g., “When men can breast feed, then we’ll talk.”
But one woman’s comment cut through all the classroom chatter and commanded our attention. “I don’t know which is harder, but I do know this,” she said plainly. “Little girls love their mothers, but they are in love with their fathers. A father can shape a girl’s future in ways a mother can’t.”
This woman wasn’t necessarily breaking new ground with her observation. The impact a father can have on everything from his daughter’s body image to her job performance to her choice of marriage partner has been documented in scholarly research (not to mention confirmed by no less pop icons than Oprah and John Mayer). Yet, her words somehow seemed revelatory that night.
Her voice calm but authoritative resonated with the kind of stark truthfulness that comes from experience. It comes from a deep knowing rather than from research statistics or song lyrics. As it happened, everyone in the class either was a daughter or had one, and we were all deeply affected by this woman’s remarks. The discussion that ensued led me to give everyone, including myself, the homework assignment of writing a set of basic instructions for fathers of daughters.
Highlights of my instructions follow below. Be advised that I wrote them without the benefit of controlled studies or even a cursory review of the literature. They were written from that same place of “knowingness” as the woman in my class, with my only credentials being that I am a daughter myself as well as the mother of daughter.
My completely unscientific observations may strike some as obvious to the point of banality, but I’ve heard it said that what seems apparent to some may be enlightening to others. If that’s true, then I hope my two cents will be helpful to some dad out there who hasn’t yet gotten the memo on daughters and is struggling to do right by his “little girl.”
Get a Clue, Seriously
It sounds simple, but it is stunning how many fathers, even in the 21st century, still don’t get it. Everything you do and say counts. Your words, expressions and gestures all create the lens through which your daughter will see herself and her place in the world. The way you regard her and all other women becomes the yardstick by which she will measure her worth and worthiness. The way you treat her and all other women creates the template for all her future relationships with men; it serves as the benchmark for what is acceptable and appropriate in relationships. You have a staggering amount of power, don’t screw it up!
Again, it seems pretty basic, but many fathers are still not doing it. You need to be physically present in your daughter’s life and emotionally accessible to her. This may mean skipping a golf game to sit through a voice recital. This may mean forcing yourself out of your comfort zone of monosyllabic responses to have a meaningful conversation with her. This may mean tolerating everything from “terrible-twos” tantrums to preteen melodrama to full-out PMS mood swings. Deal with it, Daddy!
Being a father to a daughter is not a spectator sport. You cannot exert positive influence in her life from the sidelines. You have to jump in and get your hands dirty. You need to be an active participant in whatever your daughter’s interests are. From gymnastics to softball to ballroom dancing, if you can, do it with her; if you can’t, then support her. Be her biggest cheerleader and show her that you believe in her.
Once you show up, you need to stick around for the whole show—no cutting out at intermission. The only thing more damaging than a completely absentee father is one who leads his daughter to believe he will always be there and then walks out, leaving her high and dry. That is a special kind of devastation that leaves scars on her heart and soul that may never completely heal.
Spend More Time, Not Money
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that spending money on your daughter is the same as spending time with her. A girl can learn to ride a bike on her own with the support of training wheels or with the support of her father’s hand on the back of her seat. Even if the training wheels come attached to an expensive new bike and her father’s hand is steadying a garage sale bargain, I know which method will leave the most lasting impression on her.
Finally, Don’t Expect Perfection
From her or yourself. There are bound to be some missteps and even some trampled-on toes in the give-and-take of the father-daughter dance. That’s okay. You are both learning from and with each other. Try new steps or move at different speeds and rhythms until you find your groove. At times you may have to hold her hand tightly, and at others, you may have to let it go completely.
Girls are incredibly complex, endlessly fascinating and gloriously resilient creatures. They are capable of surviving and thriving despite bad fathering or even a complete lack of fathering. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should have to. If you have been given the privilege of being a father of a girl, do not squander it. Cherish your daughter and appreciate every moment you have together because sooner than you can even imagine she will be all grown up. If you have done your job well, the little girl eyes that now look up at you adoringly will then belong to a strong and confident young woman who will look at you with gratitude for guiding her on her journey. And surely a father can experience no greater reward.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given for raising daughters?
Photo: Flickr/ Eric Peacock