When your daughter is born, she recognises your voice as deeper than her mother’s. As a toddler, she looks up at your enormous frame and realises that you are big, smart, and tough. In her primary school years, she instinctively turns to you for direction.
Whatever outward impression she gives, her life is centred on discovering what you like in her, and what you want from her. She knows you are smarter than she is. She gives you authority because she needs you to love and adore her. She can’t feel good about herself until she knows that you feel good about her. So you need to use your authority carefully and wisely. Your daughter doesn’t want to see you as an equal. She wants you to be her hero, someone who is wiser and steadier and stronger than she is.
The only way you will alienate your daughter in the long term is by losing her respect, failing to lead, or failing to protect her. If you don’t provide for her needs, she will find someone else who will — and that’s when trouble starts. Don’t let that happen.
Nowadays, the idea of assuming authority makes many men uneasy. It smacks of political incorrectness. Pop psychologists and educators have told us that authority is suffocating, obtrusive, and will crush a child’s spirit. Fathers worry that if they push their kids or establish too many rules, they’ll just rebel. But the greatest danger comes from fathers who surrender leadership, particularly during their children’s teen years. Authority is not a threat to your relationship with your daughter — it is what will bring you closer to your daughter, and what will make her respect you more.
In fact, girls who end up in counsellors offices, detention centres, or halfway homes are not girls who had authoritative fathers. Quite the opposite. Troubled young women spend most of their time in counselling describing the hurt they felt from fathers who abandoned them, retreated from their lives, or ignored them. They describe fathers who failed — or were afraid — to establish rules. They describe fathers who focused on their own emotional struggles rather than those of their daughters. They describe fathers who wanted to avoid any conflict, and so shied away from engaging their daughters in conversation, or challenging them when they made bad decisions.
Your natural instinct is to protect your daughter. Forget what pop culture and pop psychologists tell you. Do it.
And be ready. Your daughter wants you to be an authority figure, but as she matures, she will likely test you to see if you’re serious. Dads, as a rule, know adolescent boys will eventually start to challenge them. The one-on-one basketball games will get more competitive, and the son will start to buck dad’s authority.
Let me tell you a secret: many daughters challenge their fathers too. They’ll dive into a power struggle with you, not to see how tough you are, but to see how much you really care about them. So remember that when she pushes hard against your rules, flailing, crying that you are mean or unfair, she is really asking you a question: Am I worth the fight, Dad? Are you strong enough to handle me? Make sure she knows the answer is yes.
When I was at university, my father was so protective I thought that he was a borderline psychotic. I attended an all-women’s American college (my own decision) and really didn’t give my parents much trouble. I was the oldest girl in the family and had a firstborn’s sense of responsibility. One summer night before my senior year, a handsome fellow who had recently graduated from college and held a very respectable job invited me to dinner. When he came to my house to pick me up, my dad introduced himself. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, something about the fellow rubbed my dad the wrong way. I couldn’t see it because, quite honestly, the guy was really cute. My father asked what time I would be home. Yes, he reminded me, I was living at his home for the summer and that included a curfew. I told him that I would be home at midnight.
We went to a fancy restaurant and afterward went to another for dessert and drinks (the drinking age was 18 back then). Needless to say, I was so enamored with my date that I forgot about the time. It was 12:30 am. All of a sudden, at this lovely, quiet restaurant, I heard my name called over the PA system, telling me that I had a phone call. I was mortified. I knew exactly who was calling. I was so embarrassed that I simply asked my date to drive me home. I was furious with my father. He was waiting at the front door with the porch lights on. My date walked me into the house. The poor guy needed to use the restroom, but before he could get there, my father told him he didn’t care for the way he had kept me out so late, especially when he had known I was supposed to be home an hour earlier. Then he actually told the poor guy that he was no longer welcome in our home, because he had been disrespectful to me. My date was so upset he left without using the bathroom.
I was seeing red, poised to verbally punch it out with my dad. I was 20 years old, I told him, and fully capable of deciding when I should be home. I refused to be treated like an out-of-control adolescent girl. I yelled at him. He yelled back and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was in his home and he had every right to tell me when I had to be back. I didn’t speak to him for two days. I wasn’t as upset about the rules as I was embarrassed by being called at the restaurant and, worse, to have my date kicked out of the house.
I went on a few more dates with the man (he never came back to the house; I met him out) and really thought he was wonderful. He was gracious, intelligent, and fun to be with. Also, he was very polite and, whatever my dad said, I thought he treated me with respect, and I liked that. One day, I dropped by his house unannounced. I felt very relaxed with him, and just felt like saying hello. When I knocked on the door, I was greeted by a gorgeous twenty-something blonde. I felt sick. Particularly when I found out that the skunk wasn’t entertaining just her, but other women as well.
I realised then that my dad recognised in this man something that I hadn’t. The tough guy back home, who insisted on curfews even when I was a grown-up and who told me exactly what he thought about the men I dated, was right, as he’d been right many times before. He never once reneged on the authority he felt as my father — and I can tell you now that nothing feels better to a teen or young daughter than being protectively embraced by dad’s strong arms. His authority kept me out of trouble, it made me feel loved, and more than anything, it made me proud that he was my dad.
Your daughter needs your guideposts of right and wrong, of proper and improper behaviour. When she hits third grade or high school or marriage – all new experiences for her – she needs to know what you think is best for her. You’ve been there before. She trusts your opinion. So let her know. Don’t be afraid. And don’t shy away from the big questions in life.
She’ll want to know what you think her life’s purpose is: whether you believe she should indulge her own passions or devote herself to helping others.
This is an excerpt from Dr Meg Meeker’s best-selling book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: The 30-Day Challenge.