As fathers, we generally set the standard for our daughters of how men typically behave. With this in mind, there are certain things that are specifically incumbent on fathers to say and do for their daughters. I am the father of a 3-year-old firecracker of a daughter, and my thoughts are largely on what the future will bring. I’m also coming from the context of an American, suburban, two-parent household where both my wife and I are cisgendered heterosexuals, so I can’t really speak to what might be toughest in other types of families.
While there are “big conversations” that parents need to have with any child (for example, sex, drugs, smoking, physical safety, Internet safety and cyberbullying), the really tough ones are the things that you have to be mindful of almost all of the time. As a universal example, my wife and I are very big on basic manners with our daughter. We insist on saying “please” and “thank you,” and in addition to nudging her verbally, we also consciously and conscientiously make sure that we’re modeling the behaviors we want to see. That diligence can be surprisingly challenging (especially when we’re exhausted).
With all of that laid out, these are the things fathers should diligently teach to their daughters:
1. You are beautiful, inside and out. Note that this is not “you are always beautiful to me” or “in my eyes” or anything like that. This is a clear and direct assertion of an incontestable fact. It is rather staggering how quickly the world starts praising and judging girls on their appearance. The message from Dad needs to be crystal clear: “If the world starts telling you that you aren’t beautiful, then the world is wrong.” An important corollary to this is, “Your mother gets more beautiful every day,” because I’ve repeatedly heard it said and seen it written that the best thing a father can do for his children is love their mother.
2. I love you no matter what you do or what happens to you—even when I get angry or sad. It is a stereotype that, as an orientation and gender, we straight males are often lacking in emotional awareness and vocabulary. I have personally found this stereotype to be frequently true. But regardless of where one is personally, I think it’s important for fathers to reinforce for their daughters that they are loved unconditionally.
3. Your hugs and kisses belong to you and are yours to give or not. In addition to judgment about appearances, it’s also amazing the degree to which people—men and women alike—demand affection from small children, especially girls. With a bit of foresight, one can see how instilling an obligation to give affection can have potentially serious consequences down the road. While it may be perfectly sweet and appropriate to ask for a hug or kiss, fathers need to be conscious about not demanding them and really diligent about taking “no” for an answer. Both parents should also be unflinching in standing up to other adults who insist upon affection from their daughter. She has to be allowed to own herself.
4. Here’s what I like to do, and here’s what I liked to do when I was your age. There can often be unchecked assumptions about “boy things” vs. “girl things.” This is tough because these assumptions, despite increased awareness, are very pervasive. They can be deeply ingrained and tough to overcome and often limit a child’s perception of her life opportunities. But my point here is much more about missed opportunities for personal connection. If you are really enthusiastic about sports, make sure to take your daughter to games and talk through your favorite aspects just like you would do with a son. If she doesn’t take to it, that’s fine—the benefit is that she’ll have gained insight into you and what you enjoy. One of the things guaranteed to put me in a blissful state these days is playing trains with my daughter (my parents got her a Brio set like the one I used to have).
5. It’s not OK to hit, kick or bite. Except, there may be times when you absolutely need to hit, kick and bite. There are obviously huge variables around age and maturity here. For boys, rough-housing and physical confrontation are much more socially acceptable (if not socially encouraged). I think it’s crucial that girls and women be prepared for the possibility of a physical confrontation—specifically a physical confrontation with a male. Invite your daughter to study a martial art. At the very least, she should take some workshops where she can practice self-defense. Fathers should also play an active role in supporting self-esteem and body ownership, and in giving the specific blessing to knee a male assailant in the testicles, gauge their eyes, or do whatever is necessary to—if possible—create an opportunity to escape.
Along with the sad reality of the dangers our daughters may face, it’s also true that there can be a great, almost primal temptation, for a father to position himself as a ferocious, shotgun-wielding menace for any who would dare lay a finger on his daughter. My daughter is only 3, and generally when thinking forward 10 to 15 years, I have already experienced the powerful primitive impulses of the teeth-gnashing, limb-removing Daddy-beast within. But the temptation of this notion is problematic on several fronts, not the least of which is that it can be more disempowering to a daughter than empowering.
If you want to truly protect your daughter, you must continuously support the message that she, not you or anyone else, owns her body. And if you want your daughter to be confident and free to pursue her own aspirations, give her opportunities to experience the world outside of gender assumptions. But above all else, let her know she is loved, no matter what. These are the standards we as fathers need to set.
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