From the day our daughter was born, she’s always held a special place in my heart. From my experience talking to dads and reading numerous parenting books, there’s nothing unusual about that.
But those same sources also tell us that it’s common for dads to step back when their daughters hit adolescence, not only jeopardising their ability to influence them, but unintentionally withdrawing their emotional support at a time when their daughters need it most.
When it comes to the tough issues – relationships, sex, dating and pornography, most dads tell me they leave those discussions to their wife. Of course, her mother has the added insight of having experienced adolescence as a teenage girl, but does a father also have a key role to play?
Dr Meg Meeker, author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, says, ‘yes’ – a father’s role is critical in helping his daughter navigate the uncertainties of adolescence. In fact, key areas of your daughter’s development such as self-esteem, her ambitions, the likelihood that she’ll prematurely engage in sexual activity are all areas where fathers have a direct influence.
Meeker (sometimes referred to as ‘Americas mother’) knows what she’s talking about. She’s spent almost 30 years writing, teaching, speaking and working with parents and children in practice as a paediatrician. She doesn’t write from the school of public opinion but bases everything she says on research, psychological and medical experience.
As evidence of a really great read, I sat with her book in one hand and took notes with the other hand. Here are four key messages I took from the book:
Popular opinion says teenage daughters rebel and push the boundaries because they don’t like rules – it’s just a necessary, unavoidable part of her becoming independent.
Meeker counters that argument, saying that when daughters of all ages complain to their peers about how strict their dad is, it’s actually a way of showing off how much their father loves and cares about them.
The testing of boundaries isn’t so much a test of power as it is a test about how much dad really cares. The question they’re really asking is, ‘Am I worth fighting for?’ It seems the worst scenario is a father who doesn’t care enough to put some boundaries in place.
Never too old for a hug
Meeker says that she has counselled countless girls who had sex with a boy simply to fill a void of physical contact left by a dad who no longer hugged them or showed them appropriate affection.
“Fathers often assume that their teenage daughters want to be left alone and don’t want to be hugged. This isn’t true—in fact it couldn’t be more wrong. She needs your touch during these years even more than when she was five.”
It’s great to recognise her achievements, but if we only tell her we love her when she does something well, she hears the message that’s she’s valuable because of what she does.
It’s important that we let her know that we love her even when she fails – when she loses her basketball match or doesn’t do so well in a test. It’s a great lesson for her to learn – that she is valuable because she is human, not because of what she does.
Stop chasing happiness
It sounds such a positive thing to say to our kids – ‘I just want you to be happy’. But when we make happiness the end goal in life, we encourage self-indulgence and self-centeredness, and set our daughters up to be miserable.
“By far and away the most destructive lesson popular culture imbeds in our little girls’ mind is that they deserve more”. One of life’s great lessons for our children is to introduce them to a world that’s bigger than them.
Meeker shares the stories of a girl whose favourite one-on-one time with their father wasn’t lying around the pool in a luxury resort but accompanying him on a trip to a third world country, assisting him to administer free medical help to locals in an abandoned shed. See witnessed first-hand her dad reaching out to serve others. In that shared experience, the girl said, “he wanted me by his side; he knew me and loved me. What more could I ask for in a dad?”
Meeker’s closing encouragement to dads is worth sharing verbatim:
“Connect with your daughter every day and keep it simple. Make it a part of your everyday life. Have her help you with chores, or take her out to the theatre, or go on a mission trip with her, but whatever you do, focus on her. Tune in to her, listen to her, and don’t let work and its preoccupations distract you from your daughter. At the end of the day, she’s more important than anything else.”