August 29, 2013

You Are the Most Important Man in Her Life

Men, good men: We need you. We—mothers, daughters, and sisters—need your help to raise healthy young women. We need every ounce of masculine courage and wit you own, because fathers, more than anyone else, set the course for a daughter’s life.

Your daughter needs the best of who you are: your strength, your courage, your intelligence, and your fearlessness. She needs your empathy, assertiveness, and self-confidence. She needs you.

Our daughters need the support that only fathers can provide—and if you are willing to guide your daughter, to stand between her and a toxic culture, to take her to a healthier place, your rewards will be unmatched. You will experience the love and adoration that can come only from a daughter. You will feel a pride, satisfaction, and joy that you can know nowhere else.

After more than twenty years of listening to daughters—and doling out antibiotics, anti-depressants, and stimulants to girls who have gone without a father’s love—I know just how important fathers are. I have listened hour after hour to young girls describe how they vomit in junior high bathrooms to keep their weight down. I have listened to fourteen-year-old girls tell me they have to provide fellatio—which disgusts them—in order to keep their boyfriends. I’ve watched girls drop off varsity tennis teams, flunk out of school, and carve initials or tattoo cult figures onto their bodies—all to see if their dads will notice.

And I have watched daughters talk to fathers. When you come in the room, they change. Everything about them changes: their eyes, their mouths, their gestures, their body language. Daughters are never lukewarm in the presence of their fathers. They might take their mothers for granted, but not you. They light up—or they cry. They watch you intensely. They hang on your words. They hope for your attention, and they wait for it in frustration—or in despair. They need a gesture of approval, a nod of encouragement, or even simple eye contact to let them know you care and are willing to help.

When she’s in your company, your daughter tries harder to excel. When you teach her, she learns more rapidly. When you guide her, she gains confidence. If you fully understood just how profoundly you can influence your daughter’s life, you would be terrified, overwhelmed, or both. Boyfriends, brothers, even husbands can’t shape her character the way you do. You will influence her entire life because she gives you an authority she gives no other man.

Many fathers (particularly of teen girls) assume they have little influence over their daughters—certainly less influence than their daughters’ peers or pop culture—and think their daughters need to figure out life on their own. But your daughter faces a world markedly different from the one you did growing up: it’s less friendly, morally unmoored, and even outright dangerous. After age six, “little girl” clothes are hard to find. Many outfits are cut to make her look like a seductive thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl trying to attract older boys. She will enter puberty earlier than girls did a generation or two ago (and boys will be watching as she grows breasts even as young as age nine). She will see sexual innuendo or scenes of overt sexual behavior in magazines or on television before she is ten years old, whether you approve or not. She will learn about HIV and AIDS in elementary school and will also probably learn why and how it is transmitted.

When my son was in the fourth grade at a small parochial school, the teacher gave his class a science assignment. Each student was to write a report on any one of the infectious diseases from a list she gave them. My son chose to write about HIV and AIDS. (This was a popular choice because it is so widely talked about.) He learned about the virus and about drug injections and medications used to battle it. After I picked him up at school, we stopped by the grocery store. As I pulled into the parking lot, he was telling me about his findings. Then he said, “Mom, I just don’t get it. I know HIV is really dangerous and that people who get AIDS die. And I get, you know, how men and women give it to each other, but what’s this stuff about men giving it to other men? I just don’t see how that can happen.”

I took a deep breath. Now, I am not a squeamish person. I am a doctor. I’m used to talking to patients about sex-related health risks. And I believe strongly in treating all patients the same, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. But here’s what grieved me: I know from child psychology that it was too soon to detail specific sexual acts (beyond simple intercourse) to my son. It was one thing to teach him how children are conceived. It was quite another to talk about sexual acts that he cannot understand and should not be confronted with at his age. I felt as though his right to innocence had been invaded. I never withhold information, because knowledge is important, but timing is crucial.

Shocking young children breaks their healthy sense of modesty. That modesty serves a protective function. There, in the grocery store parking lot, I spoke as gently as I could, but my son was rightly upset. This knowledge and the mental pictures it drew for him taught him something he didn’t want to know, and was not and could not be prepared to know at his age. In today’s world, we adults do a terrible job of letting kids be kids. Our children are forced prematurely into an adult world that even our own parents or grandparents might have considered pornographic.

When your daughter hits fifth or sixth grade, she will learn what oral sex is. Before too long, she will have a pretty decent chance of seeing someone engaged in it, as the new trend in sexual behavior among adolescents is public display. She will feel comfortable saying the word condom and will know what they look like because she has either seen them on television or at school. Many well-meaning teachers will pride themselves on speaking openly and honestly to her about sex, determined to break the taboo about adults talking to kids about sexual activity. The problem is, many health (sex) educators are woefully behind in the information they use—and this isn’t their fault. Their materials are often outdated. And many celebrities don’t help. Sharon Stone, for instance, recently remarked to the teens of our nation that they should participate in oral sex rather than intercourse because, I guess, she believes it to be safer. Does she understand that any sexually transmitted disease (STD) a kid can get from intercourse, she/he can get from oral sex? I doubt it. Sure, she probably felt that she was on the cutting edge of the new era of sex education, but the problem is, her assumptions are outdated and she hasn’t taken the time to learn the scientific facts. She doesn’t see what we doctors see. Yet she and celebrities like her reach millions of teens with their various messages of “safe sex,” which unfortunately aren’t safe.

Teachers in most schools are no better informed. They know that a high proportion of kids are sexually active, and that many parents don’t know what their kids are up to. But the teachers rely on government-mandated curricula, and government bureaucracies move slower than our knowledge about medicine. Moreover, the government’s standards are not based entirely on science but on principles that many parents might not share.

Sex education curricula generally follow the guidelines of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. SIECUS is a nonprofit advocacy group that proposes to “assist children in understanding a positive view of sexuality, provide them with information and skills about taking care of their sexual health, and help them acquire skills to make decisions now and in the future.” Let’s review just a few of the guidelines written in the manual so that you can make your own decision about what your daughter is learning at school.

For children ages five to eight (kindergarten through second grade):
• Touching and rubbing one’s own genitals to feel good is called masturbation.
• Some men and women are homosexual, which means that they will be attracted to and fall in love with someone of the same sex. (This is in the manual for the older children.)

For children ages nine to twelve (third through sixth grade):
• Masturbation is often the first way a person experiences sexual pleasure.
• Being sexual with another person usually involves more than sexual intercourse.
• Abortion is legal in the United States up to a certain point in pregnancy.
• Homosexual love relationships can be as fulfilling as heterosexual relationships. (This is in the manual for the older children.)

For children ages twelve to fifteen (seventh through tenth grade):
• Masturbation, either alone or with a partner, is one way people can enjoy and express their sexuality without risking pregnancy or STDs/HIV.
• Being sexual with another person usually involves different sexual behaviors.
• Having a legal abortion rarely interferes with a woman’s ability to become pregnant or give birth in the future.
• People of all genders and sexual orientation can experience sexual dysfunction.
• Some sexual behaviors shared by partners include kissing, touching, caressing, massaging, and oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse.
• Nonprescription methods of contraception include male and female condoms, foam, gels, and suppositories.
• Young people can buy nonprescription contraceptives in a pharmacy, grocery store, market, or convenience store.
• In most states, young people can get prescriptions for contraception without their parents’ permission.
• Both men and women can give and receive sexual pleasure.

For children ages fifteen to eighteen (tenth through twelfth grade):
• Some sexual behaviors shared by partners include kissing, touching, talking, caressing, massaging, sharing erotic literature or art, bathing or showering together, and oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse.
 • Some people use erotic photographs, movies, or literature to enhance sexual fantasies when alone or with a partner.
• Some sexual fantasies involve mysterious or forbidden things.
• People can find creative and sensual ways to integrate contraception into their sexual relationship.

Now let me be very clear here. I don’t care what adults do regarding their sexual behaviors. But I’m a kid advocate and these guidelines bother me, as I hope they do you. First, they are scientifically illiterate. Kids can and do get STDs through mutual masturbation and oral sex. Herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV), for example, are transmitted through touch. Second, these guidelines normalize the bizarre. Sexual fantasies with mysterious things? Are we talking porn-shop stuff here? Third, they lead kids. Note the position of the later statements, which imply that if you want to enjoy pleasure, here’s how to have it. Fourth, they encourage behavior (such as anal sex) that is inherently dangerous. Fifth, whatever one thinks about controversial issues like abortion, it is misleading, to say the least, to downplay the seriousness of the procedure on not only a girl’s body but also on her mind and emotions.

In elementary school your daughter will learn about drugs, the dangers of sniffing glue, why she shouldn’t smoke marijuana, and how bad cigarettes are for her. She will meet her friends’ mothers’ boyfriends. Some will be nice and some won’t be. She will be taught to let someone know—a teacher, a parent, a police officer—if an adult man touches her pubic area or breasts (even if they haven’t developed yet). She will be taught why her friend Sarah has two moms, or two dads, or two moms and one dad, or no mom or dad and only grandparents or foster parents. Most of this she will learn before sixth grade, while you’re at work trying to get through the day and fighting your own battles.

You drive home at the end of the day, walk into your house, and there she is. Twelve years old, chasing her nine-year-old brother, screaming because he took her iPod. Then she sees you and either stops screaming or runs away, because she doesn’t want you to see her ugly behavior.

Or you come home and see her watching television. Chances are, the minute you walk into the room she will grab the channel changer and flip through numerous stations. Why? Because she doesn’t want you to see what she is watching—she’s afraid you will be either angry or disappointed in her. Why? Because the shows aren’t Bewitched or the Cosby Show. They aren’t like the shows you watched growing up. The programs on television have changed right under your nose. Studies show that the amount of sexual content increased from 67 percent in 1998 to 77 percent in 2005. If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, the amount of sexual content was, comparatively, virtually nonexistent. We’ll look at this in greater detail later, but imagine: three-fourths of the shows your little girl sees have sexual content (unless she still watches Dora the Explorer at age twelve, which I doubt). In addition to this, the intensity of the sexual content has gotten worse. In the 1960s, sexual content was Barbara Eden showing her navel on I Dream of Jeannie. By the 1980s, prime-time television was up to heavy kissing or allusions to petting. But that’s become boring. Now, prime time offers numerous allusions to intercourse and oral sex.

For young kids—particularly early preadolescents—such sexualized images and talk can be nothing short of traumatizing. Remember, your daughter will most likely begin puberty before her male friends. This means that from about the third grade on, you need to be very careful about what she’s exposed to. While you and I might not even notice a scene of two people heading beneath the sheets, you can be sure that it raises all sorts of questions in her mind. She is forming her impressions about sex and about how teens and adults behave. If she is forced to form these impressions too young, more often than not, they will be overwhelmingly negative.

When Anna was ten and halfway through her fourth-grade year, her mother brought her in for her annual physical. She was an excellent student, played soccer, and was very well adjusted. Her mother said, however, that she had recently been acting very antagonistic toward her dad. Her mother had no clue why. Anna’s father had had long talks with her and went out of his way to be kind and attentive. This didn’t help. Neither her mother nor I could figure out what was going on. Anna just shrugged her shoulders when I asked why she was so angry with her dad. Perhaps she was just having early pubertal “rebellion,” her mother and I concluded. (Be careful when you hear this term, because nine out of ten times, this -isn’t normal. More is brewing beneath the surface of her behavior.)

Two more months went by, and Anna and her mother reappeared in my office. Things had gotten worse at home. Anna didn’t want anything to do with her father and her mother felt crazy. Was she missing something? Was he abusing her? The very thought made her feel guilty and nauseated. But she was so worried about Anna’s behavior that even such terrible possibilities had passed through her mind. After the three of us chatted, I spoke with Anna alone. We retraced recent events in her life to try to pinpoint when the anger had started. School was okay. She had gotten along fine with her dad and brother. She hadn’t gotten into a tangle with anyone at school. I gently probed for evidence of physical or sexual abuse from anyone. Nope, she said. I believed her. Finally she fell forward and her head dropped level with her shoulders. “I saw this show,” she started. My ears perked up. “Well, I didn’t want my parents to know because they would’ve been really mad at me.”

“Anna, what kind of show was it?” I asked.

“I don’t know the name of it or anything. I was just waiting for dinner. I had finished my homework and Mom said that I could watch TV, so I did. While I was flipping through the channels, I just saw this stuff happening. I knew I shouldn’t watch, but I just kind of couldn’t help it.” She stopped, hoping that I would allow her to stop there. Clearly she was upset. She felt guilty, angry, and sick.

I waited. She wasn’t going to talk, so I did. “Anna, who were the people in the show?”

“I don’t know, just this guy and this lady. Yuck. She was kinda, you know, like, naked.”

“I see. What were they doing?”

“Uh. Um. I’m not really sure, but I didn’t like it at all. She had really big boobs showing and this guy was on top of her. But, see, I know all about that stuff ’cause my mom’s told me. But, it was just so weird. I mean, this guy ripped her shirt and he had her pinned down. She wanted to get up and he wouldn’t let her. He was really strong-looking and he was holding her hands down really tight.”

“Anna, I’m so sorry you saw that. That must have made you really upset.”

“I dunno. I guess so. I mean, it’s just a show and all. You’re not gonna tell my mom and dad, are you? They wouldn’t let me watch TV for a long time.”

I changed the subject, knowing that her parents had to know if they were going to help her. “Anna, why did you get so mad at your dad? Does this have anything to do with the show?” I knew, but I wanted her to see the connection.

“Well. I guess I never really thought of it that way. I mean, I know my mom and dad had to have sex once—you know, to have me. Do you think that my dad was like that to my mom? I was just thinking that she had to put up with him being mean and stuff and if she did, it would be my fault. Because if they didn’t have me, then my dad wouldn’t have been mean to my mom. Do you think he hurts her like that?” She looked terribly worried.

“No, absolutely not. Your dad would never do anything like that to your mom. Honey, that’s not normal. That’s television. Sex is really wonderful and is nothing like that at all. I’m sure that your dad would never in a million years hurt anyone that way.” I had to repeat myself to help her believe me.

Anna was having a tough time, but think about her poor dad. For the last two months, in her mind, he had been a sex-crazed, woman-abusing rapist. And he didn’t have a clue what was going on. Does television have an effect on your little girl? You bet it does. But you hold all the power.

Perhaps you come home and notice that she is in her room. You’re exhausted, and even though you assume that she is watching shows you don’t approve of, you feel relieved that she is home and safe, and you’re just too tired to intervene. (A word of advice to make your life easier: don’t let your daughter have a TV, or a computer, in her room. Save TV time for family time when you or your wife can decide what to watch.)

You’re tired a lot. If you’re reading this, you are a motivated, sensitive, and caring father. You are a good man, but you’re probably exhausted. For you, there is great news and bad news.

The great news is that in order to experience a richer life and raise a fabulous daughter, you don’t need to change your character. You need only to indulge what’s best in your character. You have everything you need for a better relationship with your daughter. You don’t need to “find your feminine side,” or stop watching football or drinking beer, or talk about the details of sex, birth control, and condoms with your daughter. Sure, your daughter needs your guidance, attention, and instruction, but talking to her about the serious issues of life is easier than you think.

Here’s the bad news. You need to stop in your tracks, open your eyes wider, and see what your daughter faces today, tomorrow, and in ten years. It’s tough and it’s frightening, but this is the way it is. While you want the world to be cautious and gentle with her, it is cruel beyond imagination—even before she is a teen. Even though she may not participate in ugly stuff, it’s all around her: sexual promiscuity, alcohol abuse, foul language, illegal drugs, and predatory boys and men who want only to take something from her.

I don’t care whether you’re a dentist, a truck driver, a CEO, or a schoolteacher; whether you live in a 10,000-square-foot home in rural Connecticut or a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Pittsburgh—ugliness is everywhere. Once upon a time ugliness was somewhat “contained”—gangs, drug pushers, and “the bad crowd” stayed in defined pockets, in certain neighborhoods and schools. No more. The ugliness is all around.

Believe it or not, I’m not a doom-and-gloom doctor. I always hope that kids have dodged the ugliness or have been “tough enough” to buck the bad stuff. Many times—especially over the last ten years—I’ve had a beautiful thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl in my office and wondered whether I should ask her about sexual activity. I don’t want to. I know that if I find out she is having sex, my heart will sink. She is too young. The risks are too high.

Finally the wiser, clinical physician part of my brain wins. I ask, “Are your friends sexually active?” (That’s the easiest way to find out if she is.) “Do you have a boyfriend?” “What about sex—have you thought about it? Done it?” Here is where the tricky part comes in. “Sex” to kids means sexual intercourse. So I can’t leave it at that. Sadly, I have to ask very specific questions about her sexual behavior.

Here is my point. Over the last ten years I’ve had hundreds of these interactions, and I can’t tell you how many times a “good kid” looks down at the ground and nods.

As sad as this is, it makes sense, and we will go into detail as to why in a later chapter. But, fathers, you need to know that your daughters are growing up in a culture that is yanking the best right out of them. Am I exaggerating about the world your daughters face? You decide. Let’s look at some national data about girls, and some about boys as well.

Sexual Activity
• One in five Americans over age twelve tests positive for genital herpes.
• Herpes type 2 infections increased 500 percent during the 1980s.
• 11.9 percent of females will experience forced intercourse.
• 40.9 percent of girls fourteen to seventeen years old experience unwanted sex, primarily because they fear that their boyfriends will get angry.
• If a teen girl has had four sexual partners, and her boyfriend has had four partners, and the two have sex, she is exposed to fifteen sexual partners.
• If the above number increases to eight partners each (not unusual, particularly in college), your daughter is exposed to 255 partners.
• 46.7 percent of students (girls and boys) will be sexually active before high school ends.
• There are five to six million new cases of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections annually.
• HPV is spread through sexual contact. Some HPV strains cause cancer, some don’t. HPV is responsible for approximately 99 percent of all cervical cancer cases in women.
• A teen girl is at greater risk for dangerous sexually transmitted diseases because the skin overlying her cervix (epithelium) is immature. While she is a young teen, her cervix is covered with a layer called columnar epithelium. As she matures into her twenties, this is replaced with squamous epithelium, which is more resistant to viruses and bacteria.
• If a girl takes oral contraceptives for more than five years, she is four times more likely to develop cervical cancer. This is most likely due to an increased number of partners and poor condom use.
• As many as 90 percent of people infected with herpes type 2 do not know they are infected.
• Forty-five million people in America are infected with herpes type 2, and one million become infected each year.

Depression
• 35.5 percent of all high school girls have had sad, hopeless feelings for longer than two weeks. Many physicians call this clinical depression. 12.4 percent of African American females, 18.6 percent of Caucasian females, and 20.7 percent of Hispanic females have made suicide plans in the last year.
• Engaging in sex puts girls at higher risk for depression.
• 11.5 percent of females attempted suicide last year.

Alcohol
• 27.8 percent of high school students (female and male) drank alcohol before age thirteen.
• Within the last year, 74.9 percent of high school students (female and male) have had one or more drinks each day for several days in a row.
• Within the last month, 44.6 percent of high school girls have had one or more drinks per day.
• 28.3 percent of high school students (female and male) had more than five drinks in a row on more than one day in the last month.

Drugs
• 8.7 percent of high school students have used cocaine in various forms.
• 12.1 percent of high school students have used inhalants one or more times.

Media Use (TV, computers, DVD, video games, music)
• Kids spend, on average, 6.5 hours per day with media.
• 26 percent of the time, they are using more than one device. This means that 8.5 hours’ worth of media exposure per day is packed into 6.5 hours. (This is equivalent to a full-time job.)
• Kids spend more than three hours a day watching TV.
• They read an average of forty-five minutes a day.
• Kids with TVs in their bedrooms watch, on average, an hour and a half more TV per day than kids who don’t have TVs in their bedrooms.
• 55 percent of homes get premium cable channels like HBO.
• HBO and Showtime had 85 percent (the highest amount) of violent programming.

The disturbing data goes on and on, but some trends do appear to be reversing. Many schools have anti-gang programs, as well as programs that discourage underage drinking and programs against smoking or taking illegal drugs. The number of teen pregnancies—and the rate of teen sexual activity—might be declining. But whatever hints of progress we might have, they’re not nearly enough. Your daughter is still at terrible risk—and fathers are what stand between daughters and this toxic world.

Don’t think you can’t fight her “peers” or the power of pop culture. Exactly the opposite is true. Yes, the four Ms—MTV, music, movies, and magazines—are enormous influences that shape what girls think about themselves, what clothes they wear, and even the grades they get. But their influence doesn’t come close to the influence of a father. A lot of research has been done on this—and fathers always come out on top. The effects of loving, caring fathers on their daughters’ lives can be measured in girls of all ages.

Young Girls
• Toddlers securely attached to fathers are better at solving problems.
• Six-month-old babies score higher on tests of mental development if their dads are involved in their lives.
• With dads present in the home, kids manage school stress better.
• Girls whose fathers provide warmth and control achieve higher academic success.
• Girls who are close to their fathers exhibit less anxiety and withdrawn behaviors.

Older Girls
• Parent connectedness is the number-one factor in preventing girls from engaging in premarital sex and indulging in drugs and alcohol.
• Girls with doting fathers are more assertive.
• Daughters who perceive that their fathers care a lot about them, who feel connected to their fathers, have significantly fewer suicide attempts and fewer instances of body dissatisfaction, depression, low self-esteem, substance use, and unhealthy weight.
• Girls with involved fathers are twice as likely to stay in school.
• A daughter’s self-esteem is best predicted by her father’s physical affection.
• Girls with a father figure feel more protected, have higher self-esteem, are more likely to attempt college, and are less likely to drop out of college.
• Girls with fathers who are involved in their lives have higher quantitative and verbal skills and higher intellectual functioning.
• 21 percent of twelve- to fifteen-year-olds said that their number-one concern was not having enough time with their parents. 8 percent of parents said their number-one concern was not having enough time with their kids.
• Girls whose parents divorce or separate before they turn twenty-one tend to have shorter life spans by four years.
• Girls with good fathers are less likely to flaunt themselves to seek male attention.
• Fathers help daughters become more competent, more achievement-oriented, and more successful.
• Girls defer sexual activity if their parents disapprove of it, and they are less likely to be sexually active if their parents disapprove of birth control.
• Girls with involved fathers wait longer to initiate sex and have lower rates of teen pregnancy. Teen girls who live with both parents are three times less likely to lose their virginity before their sixteenth birthdays.
• 76 percent of teen girls said that fathers influenced their decisions on whether they should become sexually active.
• 97 percent of girls who said they could talk to their parents had lower teen pregnancy rates.
• 93 percent of teen girls who had a loving parent had a lower risk of pregnancy.
• A daughter from a middle-class family has a fivefold lower risk of out-of-wedlock pregnancy if her father lives at home.
• Girls who lived with their mothers and fathers (as opposed to mothers only) have significantly fewer growth and developmental delays, and fewer learning disorders, emotional disabilities, and behavior problems.
• Girls who live with their mothers only have significantly less ability to control impulses, delay gratification, and have a weaker sense of conscience or right and wrong.
• When a father is involved in his kids’ day-to-day activities, they are more likely to confide in him and seek his emotional support.
• Parental control and monitoring are effective deterrents against adolescent misbehavior.
• Kids do better academically if their fathers establish rules and exhibit affection.

Your daughter takes cues from you, her father, on everything from drug use, drinking, delinquency, smoking, and having sex, to self-esteem, moodiness, and seeking attention from teen boys.

When you are with her, whether you eat dinner and do homework together or even when you are present but don’t say much, the quality and stability of her life—and, you’ll find, your own—improves immeasurably. Even if you think the two of you operate on different planes, even if you worry that time spent with her shows no measurable results, even if you doubt you are having a meaningful impact on her, the clinical fact is that you are giving your daughter the greatest of gifts. And you’re helping yourself too—research shows that parenting may increase a man’s emotional growth and increase his feelings of value and significance.

Your daughter will view this time spent with you vastly differently than you do. Over the years, in erratic bursts and in simple ordinary life together, she will absorb your influence. She will watch every move you make. She might not understand why you are happy or angry, dishonest or affectionate, but you will be the most important man in her life, forever.

When she is twenty-five, she will mentally size her boyfriend or husband up against you. When she is thirty-five, the number of children she has will be affected by her life with you. The clothes she wears will reflect something about you. Even when she is seventy-five, how she faces her future will depend on some distant memory of time you spent together. Be it good or painful, the hours and years you spend with her—or don’t spend with her—change who she is.

At age eighteen, Ainsley left her small Midwestern hometown and began life at an Ivy League college. She enjoyed her first year, but during her second year something shifted inside her. Now, at age fifty-one, she still can’t explain why she changed that year.

During her sophomore year, Ainsley began acting wild. She drank too much, and was eventually kicked out of school. She had to call her mother and father to tell them that she was returning home. She packed up her posters, books, and disappointment, and drove home alone.

Ainsley spent the next twenty-four hours behind the wheel of her Jeep, frightened, relieved, and anxious. What would her parents say? Would they cry, scream, or both? In the midst of her wondering, something felt peculiarly good. She didn’t know how or why, but she wanted her parents to help her figure out life for the next six months.

When she finally parked in the driveway of her parents’ house, she saw her dad’s Chevy in the garage. No one met her outside. She walked up the steps and peered like a stranger through the window to see them before they saw her. They were drinking coffee in the kitchen. Somehow this made her feel more in charge.

The door was unlocked. Ainsley said that the next few minutes changed her life forever. As she pushed the door open, she saw her mother first, her face puffy and red from crying. She looked tired, angry, and sad. Ainsley went to her and hugged her.

Then she saw the look on her father’s face. Anticipating anger and disappointment, she was confused by his expression. He looked strangely calm and kind. She hugged him and wanted to cry but she couldn’t.

Her mother shouted that Ainsley had been foolish. She had thrown away her future. She had shamed their family. Ainsley stood quietly and listened. Then, in the middle of her mother’s lecture, her father came toward her and whispered, “Are you all right?” She burst into tears.

Ainsley realized at that moment that her father knew her better than she knew herself. While she felt confused, she understood that he saw right through her; he recognized, as no one else could, that something was broken inside the girl he cherished. Ainsley’s father didn’t make her work the night shift at McDonald’s or at the local gas station. He waited, he listened, and he kept his hurt to himself. He wasn’t concerned with what family and friends would think. He didn’t worry about how the expulsion would change her future. He was worried about her.

“You can’t imagine how that felt,” Ainsley told me. “It was over thirty years ago. The love I felt from him is as fresh and new as it was then. I knew he loved me. Sure, he was proud of me, but that was always on the periphery of our relationship. He didn’t let his disappointment or anger ever supersede his love. In those moments after I walked through the door, I got a glimpse of who I was in his eyes. I knew then that I, not what I accomplished, was what he cherished.” She stopped abruptly and her nose and cheeks turned red. She smiled through a few plump tears and shook her head, still marveling in disbelief at the man she loved and missed so dearly. Her father made the difference in her life. You will make the difference in your daughter’s life.

You have to—because, unfortunately, we have a popular culture that’s not healthy for girls and young women, and there is only one thing that stands between it and your daughter. You.

Fathers inevitably change the course of their daughters’ lives—and can even save them. From the moment you set eyes on her wet-from-the-womb body until she leaves your home, the clock starts ticking. It’s the clock that times your hours with her, your opportunities to influence her, to shape her character, and to help her find herself—and to enjoy living. In the chapters that follow, we’ll look at how fathers can help their daughters: physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

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