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I am the father of a three-year-old firecracker of a daughter, so my thoughts are largely on the future. I’m also coming from the context of an American, suburban, two-parent household where both my wife and I are cisgendered heterosexuals; I can’t really speak to what might be toughest in other types of families. Additionally, I do indeed acknowledge that there are certain things that are incumbent specifically upon fathers to say and do for daughters as we generally set the standard for them on how men typically behave.
While there are “big conversations” that parents need to have with any child (e.g., sex, drugs, smoking, physical safety, Internet safety & cyberbullying, camera consciousness), I think that 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 upon “pleases” and “thank yous,” and in addition to nudging her verbally we also have to consciously and conscientiously make sure that we’re modeling the behavior that we want to see. That diligence can get surprisingly challenging (especially when exhausted).
With all of that laid out, here are the things that I think are really important for fathers and daughters:
“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. I think that 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. I think an important corollary to this is, “Your mother gets more beautiful every day.” (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.)
“I love you no matter what you do or what happens to you — even when I get mad or sad.”
It is a stereotype that, as an orientation/gender, we straight males are often lacking in emotional awareness and vocabulary. I have personally found that stereotype to be frequently true. Regardless of where one is personally, I think it’s important for fathers to reinforce to daughters that they are loved unconditionally.
“Your hugs and kisses belong to you and are yours to give or not.”
In addition to judgement 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 this obligation to give affection taking root early can have potentially serious consequences down the road. While it may be perfectly sweet and appropriate to ask for a hug or a 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. She has to be allowed to own herself.
“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. These assumptions can be very ingrained and tough to overcome. While there is the dimension of limiting her perception of her life opportunities, my point here is much more about missed opportunities for personal connection. If you as a father are really enthusiastic about sports, make sure you take your daughter to games and talk through your favorite aspects just like you would a son. If she doesn’t take to it, that’s fine — but she’ll have more 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 I used to have.)
“It’s not okay to hit, kick, or bite. Except that there may be times that 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 important that girls & women be prepared for the possibility of a physical confrontation — specifically a physical confrontation with a male. Invite her to study a martial art. At the very least she should take some workshops where she can practice with a padded instructor. (SF Bay Area folks should check out Impact Bay Area. They have public classes for girls starting at 12, and can do private groups for younger kids.) I think that fathers should play an active role here in supporting self-esteem and body ownership… and in giving 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.
One more note on this: there can be a great, almost primal temptation for a father to position himself as a ferocious, shotgun-wielding menace for any that would dare lay a finger on his daughter. (My daughter is only three and — generally when thinking forward 10-15 years — I have already experienced the powerful primitive impulses of the teeth-gnashing, limb-removing Daddy-beast within.) 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. As I presented previously, there should be a continuously supported message that she, not you or anyone else, owns her body.
Ian McCullough is a consumer technology professional, as well as a freelance writer who has been published by Forbes and The Huffington Post. See more of his Quora posts here: