A ‘true’ father is much more than your child’s friend. Your love, commitment to and involvement in your daughter’s life is unshakeable. Whatever happens, you will be there for her, as long as you live. So, you have to be kinder, and more forgiving, than any friend would possibly be. Also, to do your job, you have to sometimes be tougher than any friend would risk being.
There will be times when your daughter will not like what you say, or what you do or what you insist she does. A true father expects and teaches his daughter to be a cooperative member of the family, who keeps her agreements, treats others with respect, is thoughtful in any situation and pulls her weight regardless of the circumstances.
Toughness, however, is not the same as meanness. Your daughter will be impressed by your quiet strength more than by your attempts to intimidate her. She will respond to your good-humored suggestions more readily than by caustic verbal criticisms. It is, ideally, a mutually respectful relationship, but not, for many years, an equal one.
What do children, especially teenagers, need from their parents? The security that comes from knowing that Mom and Dad stand on a firm foundation and can’t be manipulated. By pushing against this firm family foundation, teenagers learn invaluable lessons about ethics and values, about compromise and standing fast.
One day, and sometimes at a surprisingly young age, your daughter will argue with you – and win! And, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find yourself thinking, ‘I guess she’s right!’ At this point, you can choose to feel put out, or you can choose to feel proud that you have empowered her so effectively. (I once heard a father at a barbecue say to his teenage daughter, when a discussion became heated, ‘l don’t agree with you, but I think you’re making a great argument!’ Both father and daughter were aware of other people around them listening in, and she glowed with pride.)
So much of fatherhood is in the little things: like driving her to volleyball practice and watching from the sidelines, to comfort or cheer or both; knowing her friends and meeting their parents; helping her find a good photo of Kakadu National Park on the lnternet at 10:30 at night while she frantically writes out her assignment due the next morning.
If you can work with her cooperatively and good-naturedly on a project (assembling a piece of furniture, for example) without getting tense and angry, then you are laying down the foundations for how she will do this kind of thing with her partner when she grows up. More importantly, you will be setting the standard for the kind of partner she will choose. If you are a remote or indecisive or uninvolved dad, she may choose partners who are distant or indecisive or non-participatory. These are pretty good reasons to work at being an actively good role model for your daughter.
Of course, you will have conflicts. But whatever time you spend in conflict with her needs to be done really well. If you are able to say ‘no’ to your daughter, kindly but firmly, with good reasons and no arbitrary rejections, she will not only learn how to hear ‘no’ reasonably, she will in turn learn how to say ‘no’ reasonably to others when she needs to. You can be much more effective in setting limits and getting cooperation if you avoid using hostility or fear tactics. A father doesn’t bully, shout or intimidate.
Many women reading these pages will remember how their fathers launched humiliating tirades at them: ‘While you are under my roof, young lady.. .’ (as if we have a choice); ‘You are a selfish, rude, inconsiderate, useless …’ (maybe, but do you have to point it out at the cost of my vulnerable self-esteem?). As men, we often seem to forget (or are careless about remembering) the fact that we are bigger, louder and stronger than our little girls and that physically and emotionally we hold all the cards. Our daughters long for our love, respect, admiration and praise. Which means every cut from a father goes very deep. The true dad is clear and firm, but he isn’t aggressive. His underlying tone is warm, even when he is setting clear, firm boundaries. He takes his time, and listens to his daughter’s side of the story.
Of course, this isn’t always easy. It takes a lifetime of learning. But every inch of progress is worthwhile. Imagine how it might be to really get this right. Our daughters, our little women in the making, will respect and love us, and will want to earn our respect and love and never, ever have reason to be afraid of us.