Dads are important to the intellectual, social, and spiritual development of their daughters.
This is the firm belief of Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician for over 30 years. Thousands of girls have passed through her office and she’s seen first-hand that deprived of the love of a father, many young women suffer eating disorders, take refuge in early sexual relations, and make poor decisions in hopes of getting their fathers’ attention. While they have no doubt about their mother’s love, that of their father is not so clear.
“If fathers fully realized the influence they can have … they would be terrified, or overwhelmed, or both at the same time.”
Times have changed, and so has the father-daughter relationship
Dr. Meeker is adamant. She knows that today there is a tendency to relativize the importance of the father in the family and that there is confusion around the role he plays in it. Undermining the father’s role makes it doubly hard for men today who want to participate more than their own fathers did in the life of their children.
This is corroborated by Father Alain Dumont, who organizes group sessions for men, many of whom are fathers. “They ask me for advice on being a father,” says the priest. “After the explosion of the educational framework in the 60s, the role of the father has become more difficult to delineate. However, I have noticed that, since the beginning of the 21st century, new reflections have started to carve out paths that clarify the mission for men. Regarding specifically the father-daughter relationship, it has clearly come a long way since the First World War. It is not a question of criticizing previous models, but rather reconstructing them for our era.”
And times have definitely changed. Today we know, for example, how sensitive a newborn is to the presence of the father. And how necessary it is for a man to come to terms with his past as a child in order to live his role as a father more fully. We prepare our daughters as much to be mothers as to successfully train for a professional life. The relationship between father and daughter needs to guide the interpretation of this new society.
From her earliest age, you prepare your daughter for her life as a woman
“There was a reason you were born a man,” says Dr. Meeker, “and your daughter needs that which only you, not even her mother, can give.”
Let’s begin at the beginning: your first mission as a dad consists of helping your daughter open up to the outside world. Being at her side also introduces your daughter to “difference.” She will discover “the other,” in general, and the masculine identity in particular. Through you, she learns what a man is.
“She will compare all the important men in her life to you and will emulate in her relationships with them the kind of relationship the two of you had,” advises Dr. Meeker. “If that relationship has been good, she will choose a man who will treat her well. If you have been open and warm, she will trust him. If, on the other hand, you have been distant and not very affectionate, she will find it difficult to express her love.”
From her earliest age, you will prepare your daughter for her life as woman and spouse, giving her the keys to construct her relationships with men. That is why the way you behave with your wife is so important: your daughter will not miss a single detail. She needs to see what you value and respect in her mother. She needs to be able to extract from that a model for a harmonious relationship with her future husband.
Regardless of how old she is, your daughter has an enormous need for security. She wants to feel that you are strong, that you protect her, and that is why you need to set limits. In other words: she expects you to be an authority figure for her. “Asking a man to be an authority is difficult nowadays because it is politically incorrect. Some psychologists say that it asphyxiates a child,” Dr. Meeker laments. “Nevertheless, your daughter recognizes in you an authority that she recognizes in no one else. Girls that come to me are not the ones who have an authoritative father, but rather are the ones that have a father who does not worry about them, does not argue with them, who does not scold them when they make a bad decision.”
Psychologist Yves Boulvin points out that “parents are often afraid to be firm. However, it is enough to use authority with your heart and love in your gaze.” Empty rules, bereft of love, are the rules that rebellious children produce. Establishing rules is “the great task of the 21st century,” comments Dr. Meeker, who advocates that dads give very specific rules. And there is a very delicate topic in which the father is important: sexuality. “Fathers are the most important person in this area. But the father has an even more important impact on the daughter,” Dr. Meeker affirms. “Every day she hears false information on sexuality. And it is up to you to set her straight.”
There is another mission, and by no means the least, for the father’s involvement: the transmission of faith. “Daughters love to have real debates about the existence of God, about faith, with their father, and not only about moral questions. And, of course, it is important that they see how their parents pray and practice their faith,” affirms Father Alain.
It also falls to the father to transmit to his daughter confidence in herself. “A father sees his daughter as a diamond in the rough, and helps her identify her best qualities, to discover who she is,” explains psychologist Yves Boulvin, who is surprised by the inability of some of her patients to name at least one of their good qualities. Nevertheless, they do remember the words of belittlement that they have received or indifference they’ve been victims of.
“Hurtful words from a father can leave deep scars and create ugly ducklings who don’t know they are beautiful swans,” she warns. In order to evoke this question of self-worth, Dr. Meeker speaks precisely about humility, in the Christian sense of the word: evaluating oneself in the right measure. “Humility allows your daughter to understand her potential, know where she is coming from and where she is going, and live in reality. Do not hesitate to praise her strong points, her intelligence, her openness to others, etc.”
Express your love
And lastly, do not be afraid to show affection and tell your daughter that you love her! “I always ask my young patients, ‘Who loves you?’” recounts Dr. Meeker. “Half say: ‘My mother and my father, I suppose’; a quarter look at me questioningly, and the rest say ‘I don’t know.’” You love your daughter, it is clear to you, but that does not mean that she feels loved by you.
“One day, I saw a young girl ask her father to tell her he loved her,” recalls Father Alain Dumont. “The father was taken aback and replied, ‘But you know that already!’ And his daughter responded: ‘Yes, but I love it when you say it.’”
A father is a mix of strength and tenderness. “It’s an art,” comments Boulvin. “There’s a lot of talk about women’s liberation, but we also need to talk about men’s liberation. We no longer ask men to be warriors, and they can finally express their sensitive side, and show that their heart is full of love.”
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