Many years ago in the checkout line at Central Market, my older daughters were feverishly and competitively loading food onto the conveyer belt in a way that only preschoolers can. My toddler sat restlessly in the cart, alternating between nervously observing the melee and pleading to be held and soothed. Any parent knows that sibling-disputes often boggle, overwhelm, and unsettle the adult mind, and my mental state was no different at that moment. As the food flew and the complaints screeched, I was doing as much as humanly possible to keep a level head and a gentle tone, all while staying focused on getting through the line, out the door, and back home.
A woman slightly older than me was watching this chaotic scene unfold with a mixture of amusement and (as I later learned) judgment. As I was paying the cashier, she casually inquired if all three girls were mine. I beamed at what I assumed was a compliment-in-the-works, and proudly answered yes, whereupon she replied, “Oh, you must have been a bad boy in college!”
Eyebrows pinched and mouth-agape, I quickly returned to my parental and shopping-related tasks. As I reflect on this memory with about eight years more experience as a father, I find myself more than a little miffed by what I see as the underlying assumption of that comment (and many other, much more subtle ones like it): having daughters is a bad thing. This misogyny contrasts in the sharpest terms from my own experience, as my three daughters are without reservation the most precious gifts in my life.
At this point in this brief article, I am tempted to explore how we might—as parents, family members, friends, community leaders, educators, coaches, and citizens alike—behave in ways to better support, guide, empower, and protect our daughters. To be sure, this is a most worthy and much-needed endeavor. But I feel drawn in a different, more personal direction.
I’d like to share with AFM readers some of the most important lessons my daughters have taught me thus far. Admittedly, I am still very much a work-in-progress as a dad. Consider the following a mid-term check in, of sorts. It is arranged chronologically, from lessons I learned (or tried to learn) early in my tenure as a father to the more recent, although all of these items are overlapping and interlocking.
One of the best thing dads can do to love their daughters well is to have the best possible relationship with their mother or other parent. This is also true for dads who are divorced. Developmental researchers have found that kids are impacted by the atmosphere of their home environment more than any other factor; it is the interpersonal soil out of which confident, self-assured, and compassionate people are formed. A loving, caring, and (at the very least) congenial relationship with the other parent is a key ingredient for healthy girls.
In my opinion, it is no accident that the apostle Paul’s definition of love begins with patience. It lies at the very core of what love is. Patience will probably always be an important area of growth for me, and I have learned some painful lessons about how impatience works against a gentler, peaceful, and deeper connection with my girls. Being proactive by placing images or examples of patient-action at the center of my consciousness has offered me the best tool for actualizing this virtue as a father. Like so many things in life, vivid visualizing is the first step to meaningful change.
One of my favorite books in college was “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass, a Harvard psychology professor who explored the application of Eastern ideas for the Western soul. I sometimes repeat this book title to myself as a reminder to put down the cell phone, get away from the computer, leave a mess uncleaned, etc. in order to be as completely engaged as I can when my daughters need my attention. When it’s all said and done, it is our undivided attention that may be our girls’ most important psychological need.
I have found it imperative to listen first and talk second, something that becomes more and more important as my daughters get older. Kids—and especially teens—often don’t just come right out and say what’s going on. They often need gentle nudging, which is best done in a field of communication highlighted by keen and non-defensive parental listening. After all, how are we really to know what needs to be said if we don’t understand what is being said to us?
People my age may remember this classic song by 38 Special. It captures what is most challenging so far in parenting my teen daughters. I strive to balance being involved and available (on the one hand) with backing off (on the other hand), often erring on the side of the former. Parenting teens, I have found, requires a profoundly different mode of engagement than when my daughters were in early and middle childhood, when they so frequently asked for (demanded?) my immediate involvement. What I would give for those days now! (See No. 3.) Being loving and patient as a father sometimes means being content to remain in the background or on the bench, as it were. But like any great 2nd string quarterback knows, you’re just a snap away from being in the game, so you better be ready to play!