September 12, 2013

You Are Her First Love, Part 1

Thomas Aquinas regarded love as the root of all other passions—hate, jealousy, and fear—and when I talk to daughters about their fathers, the conversations are almost always emotionally charged. They adore their fathers or hate them—sometimes they do both simultaneously. Your daughter yearns to secure your love, and throughout her life she’ll need you to prove it.

A daughter identifies easily with her mother, but you are a mystery to her. You are her first love, so the early years of your relationship with her are crucial. The love you give her is her starting point. You have other loves in your life, but she doesn’t. Every man who enters her life will be compared to you; every relationship she has with a man will be filtered through her relationship with you. If you have a good relationship, she will choose boyfriends who will treat her well. If she sees you as open and warm, she’ll be confident with other men. If you are cold and unaffectionate, she’ll find it hard to express love in a healthy way.

When your daughter was born, oxygen was forced into her lungs so she could breathe. So too must love be pressed into her being if she is to grow into an emotionally sound woman.

You will naturally feel love toward your daughter—especially in those first years of life—but that doesn’t guarantee she feels loved by you. Daughters’ reactions to words, actions, and situations are more complex, reflective, and diverse than those of fathers. She will read a litany of possible meanings into everything you do. When you buy your daughter a bracelet for her birthday, you’ll think of it as a straightforward gift. But she will think of it as fraught with meaning, good or bad.

One of my standard questions when I’m examining a girl is, “Tell me who in your life loves you.” About half the girls respond, “My mom and dad, I guess. You know, they have to.” A quarter of them look at me quizzically. And the remaining quarter shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”

My observations aren’t unique. A nationwide survey by the National Commission on Children found that when asked whether their parents “really cared” about them, 97 percent of kids between the ages of ten and seventeen from intact families believed their fathers really cared. For children in stepfamilies, 71 percent said their fathers really cared. In single-parent families, the number was 55 percent.

If you’re in a stable marriage, you have done your daughter an enormous favor. But with the culture the way it is, you need to be vigilant. To be certain your daughter feels loved by you, here are some practical steps you can take.


Use them. One of the major differences between men and women is how they use words. Woman like to talk; men don’t. That’s just the way it is. You might spend three hours watching a football game with your son and never say a word—and both of you would be happy. But your daughter isn’t wired like that. You have to talk to her. A good rule of thumb is to use twice as many words as you normally would, even if it means just saying things twice. Daughters can be prone to self-doubt. Pay her compliments repeatedly, so she knows you’re sincere.

When she talks, she wants you to respond. Your daughter is sensitive not only to herself, but to others, and is always asking herself: Does he like being with me? Is he quiet because he’s thinking about something? Is he angry? Is he depressed? She wants you to be happy because then her life is better. She’ll often act as your personal aide, doing what she can to improve things. You are the center of her world.

In return, you need, first and foremost, to tell her you love her. Not just on special occasions, but regularly. That might be easy when she’s five, but she needs to hear it even more when she is fifteen. She needs to hear you say it all the time. When a daughter hears “I love you” from her father, she feels complete.

But your job doesn’t end there, because her next question might be: “I love you too, Dad, but why? Why do you love me?”

You might find this exasperating, but she needs to hear the words. She wants to know why you feel the way you do, to test your sincerity. Men can find this frustrating, but I’m giving you fair warning. Girls who are seven years old might be satisfied with “I love you.” Girls of seventeen will want an explanation. She’s not trying to push your buttons. She genuinely wants to know.

So you need to be ready. Reflect on your daughter’s character, praise her best attributes, talk about her sensitivity, compassion, or courage. Your daughter will draw a picture in her mind of how you see her, and that’s the person she’ll want to be.

Be extremely careful. Many times fathers make innocent comments that are hurtful to daughters. If you comment on her weight, physical appearance, athletic prowess, or academic achievement, she’ll focus on her “external self” and worry about retaining your love through her achievements and appearance. Your daughter wants you to admire her deep, intrinsic qualities. Keep your comments positive, keep them on these qualities, and you can’t lose.

Instead of saying, “I love you because you’re so beautiful,” tell her that you love her because there is no one else in the world like her.

Expressing emotions can be tough for men. But loving people is tough. If you aren’t comfortable verbalizing your love, you can write her a letter. Girls of all ages love letters and notes. You might think they’re corny, but I guarantee that she -won’t. Ponder your love for her, write it down in a very simple way, and leave the letter on her bed, in her backpack, in her drawer. It doesn’t matter. She’ll take praise from you anywhere, anytime. If you doubt my advice, do an experiment.

Write a note affirming her in any number of ways. Leave it where she’ll find it. Then six months or a year later, go look for it. I’ll guarantee you’ll find it tucked away in a special place. She’ll save it because she wants to be connected with you and loved by you, always. Even if your feelings toward one another change as she grows older, the words on the paper won’t change. She needs these words.


In general, men are better at building fences than women are. I don’t mean literal fences, but the walls and boundaries your daughter needs around her world.

When she is two years old, you define your daughter’s territory: what is safe to do and what isn’t. You establish how she can behave and how she can’t. You create borders around her movements, language, and behavior because you don’t want her to get hurt. As she grows older you take some fences down or move them back. You give her latitude to roam, but she is always under guard. When she is thirteen, some fences need to be reinforced—especially because she might try to break them. You can’t let her do that, because she’s still a kid. And because the boundaries make her feel loved.

Daughters with a curfew know that someone wants them home and is probably waiting for them. Daughters without curfews wonder. Girls who are told to mind their language know their parents want them to grow up to be well-spoken women. Girls who grow up swearing in front of dad don’t believe that.

Teenagers often try to manipulate fathers by accusing them of not trusting them. And this kind of manipulation often works. Tell your teenagers that the boundaries you’ve erected aren’t about trust, but are about keeping them safe and moving them in the right direction. We all have boundaries that we respect because life is safer that way.

I recently spoke with Steve, a police officer in California. He can tell story after story of teens getting in trouble because their parents either were absent or -weren’t tough enough to put up the boundaries they should have.

We talked about how difficult it is for parents to be realistic about their own children. Because we want them to make good decisions, we assume they will. We want to believe our kids are stronger, more mature, and better capable of handling situations than other kids. And that’s when mistakes happen.

Steve told me that he remembered when his sixteen-year-old daughter, Chelsea, wanted to go to the movies with her seventeen-year-old boyfriend.

“I knew him,” he continued. “He was a great kid. They both were.”

He told Chelsea that she could go, but only after they had a chat. “She rolled her eyes and groaned.” He laughed. “I know she thought I was going to lecture or preach to her. So I simply said I had a few questions to ask her.

“We sat down and I asked her what she would do if her boyfriend suddenly changed his mind and decided to go to the drive-in instead of the theater. ‘I’d go to the drive-in,’ she said.

“‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s say you go and he jumps out of the car, opens the trunk, and pulls out two six-packs of Budweiser. What would you do then?’ “Chelsea told me she wouldn’t drink. She got a little agitated. She told me I knew her better than that, and that she’d proven that she could be trusted. She started to get up from the table, but I said, ‘Hang on, Chelsea, we’re almost done. Only a couple more questions. Would you let him drive you home?’

“‘Well,’ she said, ‘I would if he wasn’t drunk, and if he was, I’d call home and ask you for a ride.’ She smiled and thought that was it, but I said, ‘Good. I hope you’ll always call home when you need to. But how many beers do you think would make Tom unable to drive?’

“‘Come on, Dad,’ she said. ‘It’s not hard to tell: maybe six or seven beers.’”

Chelsea’s answer, he admitted, caught him off guard. She had given the right answers all along. Then, bingo, he was reminded she was sixteen, and that meant he needed to move in the fences. Loving Chelsea meant no drive-in, no beer, but one movie at the theater, and then straight home afterward.

Fathers often overestimate their daughters’ maturity. We’re all taught that girls mature faster than boys, which is partly true. But researchers now know that some girls don’t develop adult cognitive skills until their early twenties. This is explained in an article published by The Medical Institute:

Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, has spent more than thirteen years performing MRIs and studying the brains of more than 1,800 kids. Through high-powered MRI technology, he has discovered that the adolescent brain, while fully grown in size, is still a long way from maturity.

Long after the size of the brain is established, it continues to undergo major stages of development. One of the last regions of the brain to mature is the pre-frontal cortex—home of the so-called “executive” functions—planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses, and weighing the consequences of one’s actions. This means the part of the brain young people need the most to develop good judgment and decision-making develops last!

 According to new studies, the pre-frontal cortex usually does not reach a level of genuine maturity until someone reaches their mid-twenties. “It’s sort of unfair to expect [teens] to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision-making before their brains are finished being built,” says Giedd.

This is another reason fathers need to be protective of their daughters. Many fathers fear that enforcing rules on their daughters will only make them rebel. Some daughters do rebel—but not because of rules. They rebel because the rules aren’t balanced by anything else. Rules can’t be the center of your relationship. That’s where love comes in. But you do need the rules. I have seen girls whose parents set no limitations end up in juvenile detention centers. And I know most conscientious fathers (and mothers) err on the side of being too lax.

The risks to your daughter can be close to home. For example, no seventeen-year-old girl—no matter how well behaved—should be at home alone overnight. Why? Because other kids will find out she’s alone and come over to the house. Chances are, she won’t call any adult (let alone the police) for help—and no seventeen-year-old has the cognitive skills to make consistently good judgments. This has nothing to do with character or intellect. It’s simply too easy for a girl to assume that having a few friends over is no big deal. Sure, maybe nothing will happen. But what if it does? She shouldn’t be put in that situation.


Most daughters tell me their fathers listen better and preach less than their mothers do. But there’s a catch. It’s harder to get a father’s attention. Mothers are better at reading a child’s mood and are more likely to ask questions.

But it is your attention she wants, because she senses the strength and concern behind your silence. She senses that you are genuinely interested in what she has to say—and that makes a daughter feel significant, mature, self-confident, and loved.

Many fathers complain that their teenage daughters won’t talk to them. They’re usually wrong. It’s just that these fathers have discouraged their daughters from talking to them. Daughters won’t talk if they know the result will be only constant reprimand and correction. Daughters want their fathers to listen while they unravel their own tangled feelings and beliefs. If a daughter can trust her dad to listen, she will come to him again and again to talk.

Listening is tough, particularly when the words don’t make sense and the ideas seem superfluous. But listen anyway. Sit down. Look her in the eye. Don’t let your mind wander. And you’ll be rewarded with a daughter’s trust, love, and affection.


Being a father means giving up your time without resentment. It’s hard, I know. Men spend most of their time working for someone else. When you come home and there are even more demands on your time, you might feel like distancing yourself from your own family.

Your daughter realizes this, and because she wants to please you, she might not tell you how much she needs your time. So you have to take the initiative to spend time alone with her.

I realize that many good fathers feel pressured regarding time. There isn’t enough, for any of us, and the lack of time or misuse of it causes great anxiety. We carve out time slots for our kids, and we don’t want to waste that time. We want to ensure that it’s productive and meaningful. And that only adds to the pressure.

But spending time with your daughter shouldn’t be full of pressure, because she doesn’t need you to do anything; she only needs to be with you. So don’t worry about finding activities to entertain her. She doesn’t want to hitch a ride on your golf cart. (And she certainly doesn’t want to share you with the television.) All she wants is your attention. And she needs it on a regular basis.

Many fathers are uncomfortable being alone with their daughters. One-on-one time can be tough. But if you start dad-and-daughter time when she’s young, it will bring you closer when she’s an adolescent. The rewards can be enormous. Daughters often say the most meaningful conversations of their lives were one-on-one with their dads. Keep one-on-one time simple. Avoid activities that put you in competition with your daughter. Always use this time for emotional balance, for relaxing and having fun. You can work out conflicts later.

If you think this is a waste of time, think again. One of the primary treatments for girls with eating disorders is to spend time like this with their dads. These fathers learn not to harp on problems, but to focus on having fun together, which helps daughters center themselves on this healthy relationship and disassociate their illness from who they are. Eating disorders can make girls agitated, manipulative, and volatile; they can make them lie, yell, break down in tears, and be disrespectful. In short, they can be really hard to deal with. So telling a dad to spend time alone with his daughter might not be what he wants to hear. But spending enjoyable time with her teaches father and daughter that beneath her illness, and the misbehavior it can cause, she is still a girl to be loved, and that’s the first big step toward her recovery.

“Family time” has diminished over the decades. One result of this is that communication between family members is worse than it used to be. Over the last forty-five years, the amount of time kids spend with their parents has gone down by ten to twenty hours per week. At the high end, that’s almost three hours a day gone from your relationship with your children.

For divorced parents, the challenges are even greater. And for fathers (who usually don’t have custody of the children) the time lost can be enormous. But you need to find those small pockets of time to be with your daughter. That time can make an enormous difference to her. Your physical presence alone can make her feel protected.

Some of the best medical literature about keeping kids out of trouble comes from the Add Health Study. With overwhelming evidence, the study shows that kids who feel connected to their parents (and who spend more time with them) fare much better than kids who don’t. Parents keep kids out of trouble; parental influence can be more important than pressure; and specifically, daughters who spend more time with their fathers are less likely to drink, take drugs, have sex as teenagers, or have out-of-wedlock babies. Your time with her matters.


“If human love does not carry a man beyond himself, it is not love. If love is always discreet, always wise, always sensible and calculating, never carried beyond itself, it is not love at all. It may be affection, it may be warmth of feeling, but it has not the true nature of love in it.”

So spoke the great teacher Oswald Chambers at the turn of the twentieth century. Love, he taught, is a passionate feeling that needs to suffuse our relationships with others. It can’t be calculated, it can’t be turned on and off, and it has to be ever-present in your relationship with your daughter. But as a dad, you know love also requires work and recruitment of the will. Romantic feelings wax and wane between lovers. Even the most perfect love requires an act of the will. If it is to survive, it has to be nurtured, cared for, developed, and practiced. And it has to live in the real world. Real love is gritty. It sweats and waits, it causes you to hold your tongue when you want to scream obscenities in anger, and it causes many men to accomplish extraordinary feats.

As natural as the love you feel toward your daughter might be, there will be challenges to that love, from crying squalls when she’s a baby, to kindergarten tantrums, to other stresses of growing up that might show themselves in disrupted sleep patterns, moodiness, or ugly language. Your daughter, whatever her age, responds differently to stress than you do. If you’re upset, you might watch a football game, go for a jog, or go fishing. Not her. She wants to spill her tensions on you. It makes her feel better. So be ready—and don’t be surprised if she does this from an early age. Many parents ask if daughters can experience PMS before puberty. My answer is yes. It doesn’t make good medical sense, but I see it repeatedly.

It’s inevitable, too, that your daughter will go through stages. She’ll draw close to you, then she’ll pull away; she’ll adore you, then she’ll want nothing to do with you. You need to love her not only when she is your sweet, affectionate girl, but also when she’s a real pain in the neck to be around. When she’s moody, you still need to communicate with her—and you need to keep yourself from exploding when she’s disagreeable.

How do you do that? Discipline. Grit. Will. If you need to distance yourself emotionally for a time, do it. If you need physical separation for a bit, okay. But always come back. Will, patience, calm, and persistence will pay off in your relationship with her. Nothing better expresses serious love than this combination of qualities. Let her know that nothing she can do, even running away, getting pregnant, tattooing her ankle, or piercing her tongue, can make you stop loving her. Say that if you need to.

Love, as Mr. Chambers said, must push us beyond ourselves. It will jab every sensitive part of you and turn you inside out. Having kids is terrifying because parenting is like walking around with your heart outside your chest. It goes to school and gets made fun of. It jumps into cars that go too fast. It breaks and bleeds.

But love is voluntary. Your daughter cannot make you love her or think she is wonderful. She would do that if she could, but she can’t. How you love her, and when you show it, is within your control.

Most parents pull away from their teenage daughters, assuming they need more space and freedom. Actually, your teenage daughter needs you more than ever. So stick with her. If you don’t, she’ll wonder why you left her.

I know this is tough stuff. But it’s worth it. Here’s the story of one father who recruited his will to love his daughter at a tough time and won.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. Having grown up with numerous sisters, I should be keenly aware that the father-daughter relationship frames how she sees every male in her life. But it took seeing the effects of good/bad fathering on my female friends for me to realize this. I guess I was too close to the subject.

    Now, as a father of two daughters (and one son), I thank God I get it.

    Still, I hadn't seen that thought expressed so comprehensively as it is here.