Dads and daughters – a special relationship

Author and father Joe Kelly talks about how to make that relationship more meaningful

Joe Kelly knows a thing or two about girls. A former journalist, he is the father of adult twin daughters, and he once worked for his wife, the creator of New Moon magazine, which is written and edited by girls.

Mr. Kelly is now executive director of the nonprofit group Dads and Daughters (www.dadsanddaughters.org), which was founded to support and mobilize fathers. He is also the author of the new book, "Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast" (Broadway Books, $23.95). In a recent interview (excerpts below), he talked about the relationship of daughters to their fathers.

What do fathers bring to the parenting relationship with a daughter that mothers do not?

Well, first off, I think fathers are not more important than mothers, nor are they less important. But I think a father sets a standard for what it is a daughter can expect from boys now and from men later. And not just that, but a father sets a standard for what to expect from a partner in a long-term relationship.

My shorthand for that phenomenon is "the first man." We're the first man in our daughters' lives. We may not always [be] first if we're a stepdad, but we're influential men. And that influence takes on special meaning in our culture, because girls are bombarded all the time ... with the message that they don't measure up, that they don't look right, that they're not attractive enough.

What's a father's role in helping counter the onslaught of media messages that objectify women and girls?

The first thing is to listen. [By] using the advantage we have as the first men in our daughters' lives – playing on the underlying message of culture, that a female's primary purpose is to get males to notice her – we ... counter that [message] by listening to her, recognizing that her voice, both literally and metaphorically, is her most valuable and threatened resource.

We do that by asking questions, having regular conversations with her where she does more of the talking than we do, having an ongoing series of [informal] talks, rather than waiting for "the Talk."

Another crucial thing is to be physically active with her. So much of what she's told is that how she looks is more important than who she is and what she does. By playing catch, shooting hoops, horsing around, playing word games with her, I am showing her that she has a body for what it does, not for how it looks.

I can demonstrate that powerfully by showing up at her extracurricular activities, her concerts, her games, her recitals, by volunteering at her school, by trying to make the world better for girls.

It might seem that mothers bring more understanding to raising a daughter, because they were once girls themselves. How do fathers learn to understand and speak to daughters in a way that makes sense to them?

I think the biggest hurdle we face as fathers of daughters is that we grew up as boys. We don't know what's it's like to grow up as girls, which is why it's so important for us to learn what it means to grow up as girls.

I think you learn it a couple of ways. One, by watching, by talking to, and by being coached by the women in your life. We're really fortunate we have all these people around us who grew up as girls, who can give us perspective and insight.

I hear many men talk about this, about how they start to see the world through their daughters' eyes.

One example I give is a story many men have told me in some variation. They say, "I've walked through malls or down main streets all my life with my mother, my sister, or girlfriend and didn't even notice that other men were eyeing them or making comments about them. But when it's my daughter, I have this visceral reaction: 'Don't you dare treat my daughter that way.' "

Something happens that helps fathers see more clearly the ways in which our culture treats females. And it helps us understand better some of the issues they face in a culture where girls and women are objectified, where girls and women are still not taken as seriously as boys and men, because this is still a sexist culture.

Everyone jokes with a new father about whether he'll lock up his daughter until she's 35 – no dating. But what's the most constructive response a father can have once she does become interested in boys – or they become interested in her?

I think we have two traps to watch out for. One is the overprotection trap, the lock-her-up, be-standing-on-the-front- porch-with-a-shotgun-when-a-boy-comes-calling trap.

The other is the abandonment trap, where we flee, emotionally or physically, because it's too scary for us, it hurts too much. The constructive way to deal with it is to tell stories on ourselves.

When I went around and did interviews for this book back in 1996, nearly every single father I talked to told some variation of the shotgun story, which, of course, [is] a metaphor for overprotection. It was stunning. That feeling ran across every geographical, social, racial, and economic line.

Then I encountered a construction worker in northern California, a recently divorced dad with a 10-year-old daughter, and I asked him, "How are you feeling about your daughter's impending adolescence?"

And he knocked me off my feet by saying, "I'm really excited about it. We have this really great relationship, we really like talking, we can talk about anything. And I have already started telling her stories. I remember so clearly what it's like to be an adolescent boy, so I'm telling her stories about myself. It's kind of like I'm being her spy into the world of boys."

What that does is two very important and powerful things: When I tell those stories on myself, I really am giving her a perspective that nobody else can give her. It helps her understand that not all boys are jerks, not all boys are just out to score. I'm also reassuring myself that not all boys are jerks, and that I don't have to run around with my shotgun.

That's what our daughters need. Overprotection tells my daughter that I don't trust her, I don't trust her choice of friends, I don't trust her ability to stay or get out of trouble. What she needs is trust in herself and her judgment. By telling stories on myself, I help to build that trust. That's the most constructive thing you can do.

You have a test in your book that helps dads determine how well they're doing in parenting their daughters. One thing you ask is whether they can name their daughter's three best friends. Why is that important?

I think it's a sign of how well I'm listening, how much I'm paying attention to what's important in my daughter's life. Friends and best friends are really important to kids. If I don't know her three best friends, I'm not paying attention. And I'm not creating an environment where she shares with me. My not knowing who her three best friends are would be the equivalent of her not knowing where I work.

If a father has done a good job parenting his daughter, what kind of woman will she grow up to be?

What Girls Inc. calls strong, smart, and bold. Girls Inc. is a national organization [that] used to be the Girls Clubs of America, and that's their slogan. I think that's what you get when you father a daughter successfully.

One thing I say to dads is, if you [have] any doubts about your influence, go to your work tomorrow and ask half a dozen women about their relationship with their father. You don't get any lukewarm answers.

You get either "He's my hero, he believed in me and supported me," or you get "He's a jerk, he hurt me, he blew me off." There's very seldom any in between, any ambiguity. The successful, powerful women I meet, almost all of them talk about a positive relationship with their father, a father who pushed and supported them in taking risks, somebody who talked passionately about their work, somebody who took her to work with [him]. Those are powerful experiences.

When we share ourselves with our kids, when we share our masculinity, our nurturing, our experience, our support, our enthusiasm, our presence, it has a huge payoff, and we only get one chance to do it.

We get exactly one chance to be their dad during their childhood. They have exactly one chance to have their childhood with me as their stepdad or dad. Nothing else is as important as that or as frustrating, gratifying, and wonderful. We've got to show up for it. It's too good to miss.

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