I took my oldest daughter camping last weekend. We were attending an annual daddy-daughter camp out put on by my church. It was just the two of us. I have a younger daughter, but she just turned 3, and I’m pretty sure that the song “Welcome to the Jungle” was written about taking a toddler camping.
So it was just Norah and me.
She’s 8, with brown hair cut into bangs and a passion for brightly colored leggings. This was our fourth year attending the one-night camp. We have a tradition. We get McDonald’s on the way. We have a dance party in the car on the drive. Then we read stories in the tent before bed. I’m not sure how we got into this rhythm. But what I do know is that on the drive up, in between songs, Norah said, “Daddy, will you always take me camping?”
And here’s the thing: I’m not a big camper. I don’t really care for it. I used to go backpacking in my 20s, but now in my mid 30s, with three kids and a full-time job, I’m not interested in giving up even one night of decent sleep just so I can sleep on the cold, hard ground. Even with an air mattress, I don’t sleep too well while camping. But the reality is, I know that spending time with my daughter, just the two of us, is incredibly important, and these one-night camping trips are an amazing way to do it.
As we drove, Norah told me about gymnastics. She told me about the pommel horse (only, she called it the hobby horse) and the spring thing that she loves to jump on, and how she fell off the bar a couple times. She told me about school and Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony, and how she hates math but understands that she has to do it. I didn’t say all that much. I just listened. I asked a few questions. I gave a little advice. I smiled because she makes me happy.
Spending time with my daughter usually looks like this. But the thing is, it doesn’t always have to be some big production. Sometimes we just sit at home, together on the sofa, and watch a cartoon of her choice, usually My Little Pony. Sometimes we go out for ice cream, and she tells me about some silly thing that happened in school, and I listen and ask questions and make sure that she knows that I care and understand.
More than anything I want her to know that what she says has weight and value and her thoughts and opinions matter. Although what she has to say right now isn’t usually all that weighty, that will change someday soon. And I want her to feel comfortable speaking up and speaking out, regardless of the topic or how many men are in the room, so I listen. I encourage. I reaffirm her ideas and passions. I validate her feelings.
I also want Norah to value the relationship we have together. I want her to see me as a confidant and a father. I don’t want her to seek someone out to listen to her because she doesn’t feel like she was heard at home. And when she’s a teen, I really don’t want her to see me as an adversary. I don’t want her to see me like many of the girls I grew up with saw their fathers, as some crusty old dude who didn’t really demonstrate their love and only wanted them to follow the rules. I want her to see me as someone who cares about her, and when I enforce a rule, that I am doing it out of love and respect.
I don’t know if my hope for Norah’s future and my future relationship with her is too lofty. Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. I’ve never been a little girl, and I didn’t know my own father too well, so I often feel like I’m flying blind.
But I have to assume all fathers want great things for their daughters, too, and spending time listening to them, giving them advice, and making them feel important seems like a great way to set a foundation for a strong, healthy father-daughter relationship later in life.
It seems to me that the best way to do that right now is by spending time with my daughter, just me and her, talking about all the things that interest her.
Norah looked at me from the back seat in silence for a while, waiting for me to answer her question about always taking her camping. I thought about my dislike for camping. Then I thought about what I wanted from our relationship and who I hoped she’d become, and I said, “I will take you camping for as many years as you will let me.”
Norah looked up at me with a gap-toothed smile (we are currently waiting for four of her front teeth to come in). Then she giggled, and I turned up the car radio, and we went back to our dance party.
There’s nobody I’d rather camp with than this kid.