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Fathers and daughters

June 17, 2012

It’s Father’s Day, so it seems the right moment for this post. Back in January, I posted a question to Facebook:

Women of Facebook, help the father of a daughter: she’s tiny, but she’s already rapidly figuring out the world. I’m aware of (but maybe not always alert to) cultural biases that make women feel dumber, more dependent, less capable, and less valuable. My wife is brilliant in this regard, and ready for anything, but I’m curious to hear stories or tips: what do you think a father should do OR avoid doing? Feel free to talk to me like an idiot on this issue. I hope I’m not, but I’d rather be talked down to that be wrong.

The responses were fantastic. About three dozen women (and a couple of dudes) offered their advice. The next day, my friend Andrea, a teacher, wrote:

Dave, you have amazing friends. Putting all of this information into a blog post or article will help out parents, teachers, and caretakers of the world’s young females immensely.

OK! Here it is. The combined wisdom of three dozen anonymized women (and two dudes). I had intended to arrange them by category, but it turns out many of my friends covered a great deal in their responses, and I’d hate to slice and dice their responses. Then I tried to simply rearrange the answers, to add some headers that indicate major topics along the way, thinking I could make it slightly-better organized than a Facebook thread. I only made it worse.

So in the end, the only edits I’ve made have been to capitalization & punctuation, and then to remove personal references, and off-topic comments. Otherwise, I’m posting responses as-is. If I cut part of your response, it’s not because I don’t appreciate it, it’s because the readers Andrea has in mind won’t know what we’re talking about, or it was a personal note to me. Even the off-topic stuff, I appreciate. When people disagreed, about say, Barbies or pushing math and science, I’ve left the disagreements in place, since I think it gives a fuller picture of the complexity of the issues.

I’ve simply numbered the responses. Some people responded more than once.

1.

Avoid pink and avoid barbie. Let her do everything she sees boys doing on the playground. And when she turns 5 go to the Natick Outdoor Store and get her the XS pair of kid boxing gloves.

2.

My dad did a lot of things wrong, but when he did, he would always apologize afterward. That helped me recognize that A) I am worthy of an apology, and B) it’s important to acknowledge your mistakes and try to fix them.

3.
Make sure she enjoys math and science, english guy.

4.

Also, when she takes her craft scissors to her hair — which she will — don’t freak out. Because if it was a boy, you wouldn’t freak out.

5.

Not to get crass and all, but i suggest using the words for her anatomy that she is going to eventually use in real life.

6.

I know sounds stupid, but smother her with love and never forget to tell her how strong and important she is. Never hurts to tell her she is also beautiful.

7.

I have an older brother, and a super-masculine dad who was actually incredibly egalitarian without even realizing it, I think. I really admire it in retrospect. He invited me to do all the same things he would do with my brother — not in a self-conscious way, just treating us the same. I fished, I watched football, my brother and I did the same kinds of chores (yardwork, etc). He treated us the same intellectually too. He never acted like anything I wanted to achieve academically or career-wise should be any different from what my brother wanted. He didn’t make some big show of it; he just talked to us about our career goals and academic goals in the same way. He also helped me develop something I value most about myself — my sense of humor. He joked around with me ALL THE TIME, and he seemed to genuinely think I was funny too. He encouraged funniness and talked me up in public as being funny and smart. This sounds goofy, but I think being actively funny (which is a fairly masculine trait and is actually different from simply having a sense of humor) is radically feminist and very powerful/empowering.

8.

Let her know that sometimes we all do things that make us feel dumb, and that it’s OK. And let her be who she is. If she likes pink and Barbies, then give her pink and Barbies. If she like Legos, give her Legos. If she wants to hack code, get her the computer she needs and books to learn from. If she likes a combination thereof, go for the Barbie laptop.

And there’s also sort of general people stuff that I think affects both women and men, but often differently. Assertive people need to know when to dial it back. More reserved people need to know when and how to stand up for themselves. It’s OK, though, for a person to be assertive or to be reserved. A woman doesn’t need to have a certain kind of personality in order to be happy. She just needs to know that who she is is OK.

Maybe what I’m taking the long way around saying is that Anna doesn’t need to be a math and science person in order to be successful as a woman and as a person in general. What she needs is the *option* to be a math or science person, or whatever kind of person she is inherently. Be supportive and encouraging, push her to give all sorts of things a try, be on the lookout for any opportunity you think might help her develop her interests, and when she finds what she likes, be happy for her.

9.

My parents gave my sister and me the best lesson: to argue for what we want. That our opinions are valid enough to fight for. Note: they regretted this decision briefly during the teenage years… We had few rules, but those were to be followed. Everything else was up for negotiation.

10.

Let children explore whatever interests them. At times, my sister is horrified when her daughter insists upon only wearing pink and purple dresses or asks for Barbies and nail polish for her b-day. She is a girly child. Sis knows the more she resists what her daughter wants, the more rebellion is coming in her teen years.

As strict as my parents were, they never got mad at me for taking (very expensive) things apart to see how they worked including a grandfather clock, the tv and a car.

Try to distinguish between bad behavior for any child and what is viewed as unacceptable for a girl. Curiosity, exploration and risk taking are all part of learning.

Hopefully you can teach your daughter to be confident and self-assured. Then she won’t have to pursue comedy.

11.

What lovely responses. The main thing is having a support system of family that tells you you really CAN be whomever you want goes a long way. The points about allowing a woman to be funny (if that’s her schtick – sp?) – or more generally to accept any more “masculine” trait, and being worthy of an apology (no schtick required) are subtle but crucial.

12.

With a two (soon-to-be three) year-old daughter, I ask myself these questions ALL the time. Right now, she’s insisting on a dinosaur blanket and a bug catcher as her gifts of choice for her Pinkalicious (also her choice) birthday. And she knows we love her to bits, so I think (*hope*) we’re striking the right sort of balance! Incidentally, I’m always asking myself similar questions about how we raise our SON! If nothing else, you’ve reminded me to find whomever let me believe that parenting is easy. They’ve got it coming.

13.

Encouraging the necessary skills for financial independence is also liberating.

14.

I’d recommend reading the book Delusions of Gender if you want the scientific side of the myths that are likely to come up from some of the other people around you.

15.

As someone who grew up without a father, I cannot begin to tell you how much the simple fact that you are asking this means to me. My best advice is to just be there for her. Love her and never forget to show her that love so she will never have to question it. Show her that she is worth something and treasured for being exactly who she is. I suppose this goes for all children, but I truly believe that the bond between a father and daughter is special and significant and should be treated as such. I do not have children yet so I know my perspective is limited. However, I needed to put it out there that the consequences of having a father that abandoned you, a father that did not show you love and kindness, can last forever.

16.

Be generous with verbal and physical affection. Treat Anna the way you want her future husband to treat her so she’ll expect respect – open doors, value her opinion, surprise her, don’t criticize, cultivate her natural talents even if they don’t interest you personally.

17.

I need to chime in on the Barbie/pink thing. I was really actively discouraging it, but then I read “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and it pointed out that if you discourage what she associates with being a girl (which society tells her is pink and Barbies) you are essentially telling her you don’t want her to be a girl. Obviously, I think being a girl is awesome and I wouldn’t want to make my daughter feel like I don’t want her to be one so I stopped pushing the boy toys on her. Luckily, my daughter seems equally drawn to cars and dolls at this age. I do feel it is important to draw a line though. Someone gave her a pack of princess dress-up toys for Xmas that came with what I would call “stripper shoes.” It caused a giant tantrum on Xmas but I wouldn’t let her play with those. I think it’s important to decide what you think is appropriate in terms of girly-culture (ie the early sexualization of our daughters) and stick with it because YOU are the one raising her. Many people I know let their 3yos wear nail polish. That’s fine for them, but I won’t being allowing that for many, many years.

18.

I think encouraging Anna to follow her interests, but also letting her in to enjoy your interests with you goes a long way. I have always valued highly the times my father included me in watching sci fi, attempting the NYT crossword puzzles, wandering by foot around his neighborhood, engaging in conversations with his friends, planning and cooking dinner, and living his version of life. He still does. I love him for the simple act of letting me in and treating me respectfully.

19.

Oh please. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing Barbie or wearing Princess dresses so long as the little girl knows she can still cure cancer or solve complex math problems while doing it. To me, telling a girl she can’t dress up or play barbie sends a message women can either be smart OR beautiful. I think that does more of a disservice to women. Celebrate her for being BOTH beautiful and smart and let her know though it is fun to play dress up…true beauty comes from how we treat others. (But really–bottom line–it’s your unconditional love that will make a difference.

20.

We are now entering the twilight zone known as adolescence, and are hoping we’ve laid the groundwork well for our daughter to blossom. Tough to do in this culture, which I think is toxic to girls; if I learn anything particularly useful I’ll share. Meanwhile, just ignore the screaming coming about 4 blocks north of you; “I hate you! You’re the worst mother EVER!” is code for “thanks, mom, you’re awesome.”

21.

What I would offer is have some dedicated father/daughter activities that are just for the two of you. My dad was definitely not that guy. One of my friends has a daughter and she and her dad belong to this organization called Path Finders (It sounds like a cult, but it’s not) it’s like scouts for fathers and daughters. They go on hikes, camping trips, geo-caching. So much cool stuff, and I grind my teeth in envy whenever she talks about it. I think it makes all the difference to have special experiences like that. It will serve her well in the long run and give both of you incredibly priceless memories forever!

22.

Never punish her for standing up for herself, ever. It is your job to teach her best practices and to use her words, but no matter what you can’t put being lady-like and well-behaved over self-preservation because you don’t ever want her to NOT stand-up for herself or do something socially unacceptable to protect herself because the fear of reprisal is too great. I would say this to anyone who deals with children or young women and not just parents. If I had listened to their BS advice, I might not be here today.

23.

Having a fun weekly activity that’s just you and your daughter is so valuable. I’d also add that helping her feel comfortable to talk with you from a very young age about her worries, fears, problems (especially when she isn’t treated well in the outside world) as she grows up is important and something that is sometimes left to mothers to take care of.

24.

My parents were really good at a getting me to think of myself as simply a person, rather than my gender. I had Barbies, and legos, and a Tonka dumptruck. I learned to bake a killer pie and how to replace a fender on a 66 Fastback. The one thing that keeps coming into my mind as I’ve been reading theses posts – is a question I asked Mom when I was probably 5 or 6. I asked her why Jesus was a man and not a woman. Mom told me that people used to not take what women said seriously, but now they do – so if Jesus came today he probably would be a woman. Theology aside – this simple comment has stuck with me for 30+ years, so it must have meant something. Mom also told me when I was in the boy crazy years that the worst way to get a guy was to pretend like I was dumb. She said that a lot of girls do it, and a lot of boys fall for it but nobody ends up happy in the end. And – Dad never treated me like some delicate flower. He treated me like a smart, capable, useful person. I say – just BE present, be your wonderful self, and treat her momma with love and respect.

25.

Also, don’t totally freak out when her skirts are too short. That said, i don’t know what you should do when her skirts are too short.

26. (in response to 25)

Give her a “leggings-only” gift certificate at Forever 21…

27.

This might be a repeat (in essence) of what’s already been said but, let her find her voice and to speak up when necessary. Girls are “taught/expected” by society to not be troublemakers. Nice in theory but in reality, I’ve never pushed for more money in jobs because I didn’t want to make a stink…even if I deserved it. Unfortunately for women (especially in the work force) there is a fine line between being strong in your convictions and being a bitch. I once had a male co-worker (higher in status) call me Sweet Pea for a week before I finally had the nerve to tell him to stop. I was just as nervous about telling a more senior level employee to stop calling me that as I was about him thinking that I was ungrateful (he was helping me on a project). Ridiculous when you step back and look at it but when you are in the moment… you don’t want to make a stink. It took my male boss at the time (who is an incredible mentor and father figure) to tell me that it was not something I should stand for, regardless of how powerful this guy was at work. The difference is in the delivery (between being seen as a bitch and strong in my convictions). There is a double standard for women in the workforce so learning how to negotiate tough situations in a reasonable manner can come from your interactions with her and the level of respect you show Anna for her ideas.

28.

Tell her that putting other girls down doesn’t diminish them, but her instead, and a strong woman seeks allies, not enemies…this lesson is as important at 5 as it is 25…when most women realize it could have been that way all along. Also, it is vital to be direct- people are not good at reading other peoples feelings/ emotions or even facial expressions (though many people think they are psychic, they are not). If you are mad/upset at someone, you have to talk to them about it because they will NEVER guess otherwise.

29.

When I think back to the most valuable things my dad did, some of them included teaching me how to take care of my car, and our yard, showing me that school was a priority (He always showed up for my various school concerts and conferences. He stuck my report cards on the fridge, and he grounded me for that “B-” because I was an “A” student.), making it clear what was and was not appropriate attire, behaving as a responsible adult role model (working hard, relegating activities like drinking to hours when I was asleep etc.), teaching me to cook and cooking with me, calling me “daddy’s little girl” and making me feel like I was special, but never coddling me. He had standards for my behavior. Oh, and I never wondered if he was a parent or a friend. Whether he was or not I always felt like I had an authority in the house on most topics.

30.

My advice? Show up. I remember my Dad taking time to help me with my homework when I was little, and I felt so important & loved (he worked long hours at Polaroid), and I remember the field hockey games he was on the sidelines for – the best!! If your intention is love, you can’t go wrong! And I recently heard – make sure your face lights up when she (or anyone you love) walks into a room. Love that!

31.

Always ask her what she means if you don’t understand her point of view on something…take time to think about your approach if you need to, just because she is a kid it doesn’t mean her problems are simple. By the time she is 7 or 8 she will be as capable as any of us at telling you what she needs from you — the problem is, she’ll be 7 or 8.

32.

Show her that you are proud of her when she tries things (especially make the effort to show up to things that matter to her – sports games, recitals, etc.). To me, trying is the most mportant thing to encourage. I think that girls especially have so many fears, probably a lot to do with society’s insistance that they behave angelically and appropriately at all times, often deferring to others rather than have any attention at all upon themselves. Help her feel less fearful. I wish that my absent father had done that for me. That is what I am most envious of. I think that there lies a balance in parenting between a child feeling like they’re on their own (as I did – very scary) and too sheltered. A child should know that their parents are there for them, to help them become their best selves.

33.

* Give her the toys that she wants, whether they be LEGOs or Barbies. Kids are smart enough to know that your house doesn’t look like LEGOs and that women don’t look like Barbie.

* Let her wear the clothes that she wants (within reason). Until she’s aware enough to realize what she’s doing, I wouldn’t let her wear a bikini in the snow, but don’t get worried if she wears tutus or camo pants. Or both.

* Compliment her on things that don’t involve her appearance. Let her see you give those compliments to the other women in her life too.

* Share the decision-making with Lisa, and let her see you do it. I’m sure you do this already, but you want her to know that the choices in your lives are being made by both of you. Make sure there’s nothing that she only sees men do. (Driving is a big one that comes to mind.)

* Always listen to her opinion or side of the story and consider it. Make sure she knows the difference between being rude and being confident or assertive. Never reprimand her for the latter.

34.

Be sincere with her, and keep doing the things you’re doing and invite her to join along. Be honest with her about who you are. Please don’t forget that she could be totally like one of her parents, or both, or neither AT ALL. But that that’s OK too. So MANY things happen along the way from now until 20 years from now, that really, giving her Barbies or Legos, in my opinion, won’t matter much in the end. Treating her respectfully as a separate human being is worth SO much more.

OH! but most importantly: have fun in whatever you guys do together.

35.

Good that you’re asking. Keep asking.

36. (received by email, from a friend who was NEVER a jock growing up)

My advice, believe it or not, is to encourage her to play sports or get an active hobby like running or hiking or martial arts or whatever.  Shocking, right?  I think I spent half my life being anti-jock.  But hear me out: sports (for lack of a better word) teach the rewards of hard work and, at least for me, made me appreciate and value my body in an entirely different way – for what it can do, not what it looks like. As a female, I cannot overstate what a revelation this has been. There was a recent news segment on Good Morning America – I didn’t see it, but I read about it.  Anyway, I can’t speak to the scientific bona fides of this study, but it said that over 50% of girls ages 3-6 (yes, 3-6) think that they’re fat.  And no matter how hard you try, Anna will receive those messages from society, her friends, everywhere.  When I think sometimes about all the time I wasted when I was younger fighting my body with diets, calorie counting, etc. etc., I’m incredulous.  I think that if I had played sports or had an active hobby, instead of being only a book worm, I would have saved some of that time.

Thanks, everybody, for all the advice. There are a number of things I started doing differently almost immediately, and many other things I’m keeping in mind for later years as they become immediately relevant. Most of the things I do differently relate to the kind of praise I give her. I also bite my lip about her playing in the mud and such, and have developed a habit of letting her follow me around the lawn with gardening tools. I’ve absolutely implemented the end of Item 30. Even if I am having a LOUSY day, I make it a point, before coming into the house or getting her at day carre, of dropping that mood and giving her a huge smile and excited hello. It’s amazing how she responds.

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