Under a father's watchful eye
Today's dads are advising their daughters about dating and other sensitive issues.
NEW YORK — As his daughter, Brooke, inches closer to dating, Bill Goodspeed is anticipating talking with her about boys. He knows all about them, of course, because he was 15 once, too. "I was a devil," he recalls. "Playing sports and looking for girls."
Like other dads, he hopes to help educate his daughter about the way teenage guys sometimes let hormones influence their thinking. Even though he trusts her, he plans to do a bit of fatherly posturing when would-be beaus come to the door. "I'll be nice, but there will be some intimidation," he explains.
Talks about dating and sex are typically left to mom. But these days, dads are getting more involved. Many are not yet comfortable enough to discuss what getting to "second base" means, but they are more actively acquiring information - quizzing family counselors and taking advantage of time in the car to ask kids questions and absorb back-seat chatter about who's cute.
"Dads are much more involved," says Susan Bartell, a child and adolescent psychologist on New York's Long Island, who says she has more fathers coming in to learn about modern courtship."One of [their] big concerns is that they don't understand what it is that kids are doing nowadays ... the nuts and bolts of the dating process," such as going out in groups and curfews, she explains.
Men today have more opportunities to bring up dating with their kids, as they spend more time parenting than dads of a generation ago. Some, like those who visit Dr. Bartell, say they are interested in offering advice to their kids because their dads did not do it for them.
Both sons and daughters benefit from hearing from dad, say parenting experts. Along with advising sons on how to respect girls, they can also provide daughters with insight into how nervous guys are about asking for dates, for example. And they can help reassure teens that they aren't alone in what they are experiencing. A dad or a stepdad sharing his teenage stories - first date, first kiss, first heartbreak - can make him more approachable and potentially open the door to an awkward topic, especially for daughters.
"Your daughter wants to have those conversations with you ... it's just who's going to go first and how are we going to get this started," says Linda Nielsen, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who studies father-daughter relationships. Women in their early 20s have told her that they wish they knew more about their dads' teenage experiences with romantic relationships.
Professor Nielsen is not convinced that more time together equals more discussions about emotionally intimate issues. But she does point out that dads and their teens have both grown up in eras with similarly liberal attitudes about sex, which may give them more jumping-off points to talk about expectations. She recommends that fathers get out old high school yearbooks and prom photos, and talk about their early years one on one with their kids to get the conversation going about dating.
Finding the right balance can be difficult for dads, who sometimes aren't sure how far to push their teens to talk. It can be easier for some men to talk with their sons, for example. And some try to respect the boundaries of their children's privacy. "We're invited in," says Bob Stien, father of two teen girls and the leader of courses in fathering at the 92nd Street Y in New York. "They're not walls that we should be crashing through."
He's an advocate of nurturing a rapport with children from a young age. "[For] a lot of what goes on in those teen years, the stage is set much earlier on," he says. "You don't just sort of wake up with a 12-year-old and say, 'Oh, look what happened here.' "
Mr. Goodspeed, a widower, started a conversation with his daughter when he mentioned that he was surprised she didn't have a boyfriend. He learned she was, in fact, interested in having one - a change from previous talks when she'd said she was focused on her schoolwork rather than dating.
Some dads ask subtle questions to generate discussion about a boyfriend or girlfriend, says Mike Domitrz, an author and speaker on teen dating issues. These include: What do you think about his/her character? How would you describe him/her to me? How does he treat you around his friends versus when you're alone?
Still, some dads say conversing with teens - about anything, let alone a sensitive subject like dating - is often not easy. Questions are met with one-word answers, or responses that require more fleshing out. When Darrel Seife recently asked his daughter, a freshman in high school, if she liked being with a new boyfriend, he recalls her response as being very matter-of-fact: "Would I be with him if I didn't?"
"My wife tends to have more intimate conversations. But I don't push, as long as [Danielle] can talk with one of us," says Mr. Seife, who also has a 10-year-old son.
The new beau looks like more of aman than the schoolboys Danielle had datedpreviously."His shoes are my size," jokes her father, recalling his early impressions of the tall football player who now escorts Danielle to movies. Seife refrained from asking the young man's intentions at their first meeting. But he and his wife did want their desire to meet the boy to send a message that they care about their daughter and are there to protect her.
Finding the right way to send the "protection" message is something dads struggle with. Joe Kelly, cofounder of Dads and Daughters, an advocacy group, has heard many stories from men about how they plan to be intimidating - cleaning shotguns and the like - when a boy arrives for a date. He points out the confusion posturing like that can create.
As a teen, he remembers when he started seeing a girl in his church - a girl whose father he already knew and enjoyed talking with. When her dad became less friendly after the dating ensued, he couldn't understand why, especially when both had something very important in common: They both really liked his daughter.
"That's something I think we lose sight of as fathers," he says. The message young men get is that they are predators and one-dimensional, "which is not how we want our own sons treated. And, if we stop and think about it, it's not how we want other men's sons treated, either."
Some dads talk not only with their children, but with their kids' dates, too. That's what Michael Connor, who teaches a course on fathers and fathering at California State University at Long Beach, did when his now-grown daughters were dating. "I found that nobody talked to the sons," says Dr. Connor, a clinical psychologist. His girls were mortified by the interrogations and speeches on values and rules that their suitors got. Their dates were uncomfortable, too. But some have called years later to say thank you.
" 'I've got other plans for my kids, and being teenage moms is not part of my plan,' " Connor would tell the young men. "I didn't get any more specific than that," he explains, "but I did make it very clear where I was coming from. And then I changed the subject."
Goodspeed, who has a 12-year-old son in addition to his daughter, plans to talk with him about respecting girls when he starts dating in earnest. But for now, the Long Island dad is interested in making sure daughter Brooke makes smart choices in relationships. He lost his virginity at an early age, he says. "I don't want to see that happen to my daughter."