I mentioned before that I was a teenager in the 90s. This was a bad thing even for those with an innate fashion sense and wads of cash.
For those of us who were nerdy, broke posers, it was catastrophic. I distinctly remember buying a worn-out pair of Umbros at a thrift store because Maia Matthews wore Umbros and she was awesome. I had pink flannels from Caldor and chunky heels from Payless. And I’m pretty sure I wore them all together.
I think my best outfit of that cringe-worthy era was a fabulous combination of oversized men’s jeans with a cropped tank top. Oh, and because showing your boxers was cool for boys, I bought plaid underwear to sag my jeans over. Pretty much, I was awesome.
So that my 13-year-old pudge could be admired by as many people as possible, I would get all dolled up in this outfit and ride my bike around the neighborhood. It was a disaster.
And my father thought I looked beautiful.
Okay, objectively he was wrong (and probably ought to have told me to put on more clothes). But my daddy always thought I was beautiful. Until I moved out of the house, I modeled every new outfit for him. And every time, no matter how ridiculous the ensemble was (why did I WEAR terrycloth?), his jaw dropped and he said, “WOW!”
Now, I’ve had my share of body image issues. Like every teenage girl I’ve ever met, at some level I hated myself. But let me tell you: at the deepest level, I knew I deserved to be loved. Because my daddy loved me so well.
Gentlemen, you are hands down the most important person in your daughter’s life. Forget moms (sorry moms–you matter, too), friends, boyfriends, teachers. Aside from God, there is no more important relationship. I mean, no pressure, but so much of the woman she becomes comes down to the way you treat your little girl. So in honor of my daddy and fathers everywhere, I want to give you my top five rules for dads based on years of working with teenage girls and even adult women who are, largely, as broken as their relationships with their fathers set them up to be.
1. Love her. I know this is obvious. Hopefully it goes without saying. But guys, you’ve gotta love that little girl like your life depends on it. Because hers does.
I sure hope you’re captivated by her. I hope you think she’s beautiful and smart and clever and worth cherishing. But if you don’t, learn to. Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. If you don’t think your little girl (whether she’s still in the womb or 60 years old) is incredible in every way, figure out how to. Make a list of everything you love about her. Sit down with an album of pictures of her and marvel at how she’s grown. Write down all your favorite memories. Pray for her, Every day, without fail. You can’t always be who she needs you to be, but you can always pray.
If your daughter is older and has hurt you, I’m sorry. But I’m going to need you to be the grown up here and learn to forgive. It’s hard to love a sullen teenager. Believe me, I know. That’s what I do for a living. But this isn’t just feelings–this is a lifelong battle for the everlasting joy of the little girl you created. You do what it takes to love that girl. Because if you don’t, she’ll find someone else to. And unless you’ve set a high standard, whatever man she finds to to love her like you were supposed to is just going to crush her spirit more.
2. Tell her you love her. I don’t care if you think she already knows. Tell her. Tell her every day. Really, a woman can’t hear it enough. My mom says she wanted to tell her kids she loved them so often that it was commonplace. “Sure, Mama, whatever. Can I have 10 bucks?” And there were times when I found it annoying as a child. But when I didn’t have a date to homecoming, I knew somebody loved me. When I put on the freshman 15, I knew somebody thought I was beautiful. And as much as I love my mom, it wasn’t her affirmation that I remembered. A woman needs that affirmation from a man. Blame the Fall if you want, but the fact remains that a man’s words mean much more to a woman than another woman’s words do. If you don’t give your daughter this love, she’ll do whatever it takes to get it from some other man.
So tell her you love her. But tell her in a thousand different ways. Tell her she’s beautiful. You don’t have to go all awkward goo-goo eyes on her (and please don’t ever, ever use the words hot or sexy to talk about your daughter), but tell her she looks nice in that sweater. Tell her she has a sick jump shot. Tell her you love her drawing or her dimples or her poetry or whatever. Don’t limit your affirmation to her appearance–girls need to be more than pretty–but compliment her appearance. Most men don’t need to hear that; most women do. Don’t just compliment her on things she’s accomplished, either. She needs to know that your love doesn’t depend on her corner kicks. Do NOT call her names–even behind her back. You say positive things or you say constructive things. Then tell her you love her again.
Buy her flowers. Write her a letter. Write her a poem if you can. I roll my eyes every time my dad writes me a poem (I told you he was amazing) but I keep them because they tell me what I’m worth. Sometimes, just look into her eyes and tell her she’s everything you ever wanted in a daughter. When she’s little, she’ll just run off to play. When she’s a teenager, she’ll probably roll her eyes. But those words will change her life. She needs to know that you love her always and forever, no matter what. She needs to hear you say it.
3. Show her you love her. It doesn’t matter what you say to your little girl if you don’t put your money where your mouth is. So hold her while she’s little. I don’t care if you don’t like to cuddle. If she likes to cuddle, you cuddle that child. Carry her when she asks.
Show up to everything. Every game, every recital, every awards assembly. No meeting is as important as her debut in the school play. Cancel whatever you have to cancel–your vocation is not to make money. Your vocation is to love your daughter. Nothing is more important than being there for her. You never know how long you’ll have with her. No regrets.
And while you’re at it, don’t just show up–do something! Take her on a daddy-daughter date. Go to a zoo or a museum or just the playground–just you and her. When she gets older, take her on her first “real” date–show her how a date ought to treat her. When she moves out, call her just to talk. Chicks love that. Show up to help her move. Treat her like a lady–holding doors and carrying things–so she knows that’s how a gentleman behaves. Convince her not to waste her time with worthless men. Listen when she complains and don’t try to fix it for her. Most women just want to be heard, not to be solved. She’s a person, not a puzzle.
Hold her when she cries. Hug her often. Kiss her on the top of her head. Buy her presents that mean something. Do NOT try to buy her love. Change her tire or teach her to change her oil or let her give you a makeover or play ball with her in the driveway or take her fishing or read books together or take her to see the Rolling Stones (how are those guys not dead yet?) and then go with her to see Taylor Swift. There will be moments in there that are boring or awkward or awful but what she will remember is that you loved her that much. Get to know your little girl and love her the way she needs to be loved. She deserves nothing less.
4. Love her mother. John Wooden is famous for saying, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” The relationship you have with your daughter’s mother sets the standard for every relationship she will ever have with a man. She needs to know that a woman deserves to be cherished and protected and adored. So if you yell at your wife or roll your eyes or demean her, stop. Right now. Maybe yelling has to happen sometimes, but not in front of your kids. You need to treat your wife the way you want your daughter to be treated. If you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry a man like you, be a better man.
Showing her how a woman ought to be treated also includes romance. Take your wife on dates. Kiss her often–in front of the kids. Don’t be gross, but let them see that love can stay alive in a marriage. A friend told me recently that her 2-year-old niece saw a picture of two people gazing at each other and said, “Dada and Mama!” The picture looked nothing like the girl’s parents, but when she saw love, she thought of her parents. Your daughter deserves to see marriage as beautiful and romantic. And she needs to see that the place for romance is in marriage. Make her believe that her knight in shining armor won’t just slay the dragon and ride off into the sunset, he’ll kiss the princess awake every morning afterwards. She deserves to believe in fairy tale love. Your wife deserves it, too.
I know this is a complicated world and maybe you’re not married to your daughter’s mother. You can still treat her kindly and talk about her respectfully. If you don’t have custody, you fight for all the time you can possible get with your baby. If there’s a stepmom, treat her like a queen. If your daughter’s mom has passed away, you can tell wonderful stories and explain how much you loved her mom. She identifies with her mom, whether they have a good relationship or not. She needs to know that you’re not going to stop loving her if something terrible happens. The mother of your children deserves to be respected in front of them even if that respect doesn’t go much further. Do it for your kids.
5. Love all women. Treat every woman with dignity. Every one. The cashier, the obnoxious little girl on the playground, the politician on screen. You’ve got to be consistent in the respect you show for women. This means especially that you run from anything impure. If you’ve got a problem with pornography, get help now. Even if she never finds out (and she will), porn makes you look at women differently and she’ll start thinking men ought to see women as objects. No porn. Change the channel when something inappropriate comes on TV. Talk about the positive things you see in women–and mention their beauty even if they’re heavy. If you only think skinny girls are pretty, your daughter will think she’s fat and ugly even if she’s a size two.
Open doors for all women, not just pretty ones or old ones. Step up and be a servant. Look at women like they’re human beings–you’d be surprised how many “decent guys” can’t even look kindly at a stranger. If you can look at every woman the way you look at your little girl, she’ll know what a real man is and you’ll be a saint.
This is a lot to ask. I know it is. But not only do you set the standard for her relationships with men, you set the standard for fatherhood. Christians have been taught to call God Father; I’ve met too many women who can’t love God because they’ve been so hurt by their fathers. Don’t do that to her.
This daddy thing isn’t something you can compromise on. It will take the rest of your life to become the kind of dad your daughter needs. It’ll take a lot out of you. But don’t you think she deserves it?
P.S. Happy Father’s Day–I love you, Daddy!