Dad. Vader. Baba. Tatay. Papa. Apu. Babbo. Tata. Abba. Babbas. Pai. Pop.
However you spell it and no matter how you say it, the words all mean the same: Father.
The relationship between fathers and their daughters is both special and complicated.
Although mothers feel softer and are often seen as the nurturers, there’s something special about snuggling with dad. Something about the strength in his arms, the broadness of his shoulders and the sound of his voice, that makes a girl feel safe.
However, by the time she’s 10 or 11, a young girl is likely to create physical distance between her father and herself as she embarks on her journey towards becoming a young woman, and feels less comfortable with sitting on his lap, having him stroke her hair and kiss her soft cheek. The pang of rejection is often difficult for a father as he struggles to maintain the same closeness that a young girl will often reserve for her mother. This is the complicated side of being father to a daughter.
Try not to take this personally by realizing that this has nothing to do with you. This is your little girl’s first step towards defining personal boundaries – with men especially. You are the very first man in your daughter’s life and how you respond to her creating this space will send a strong message about having her needs heard and respected. Try to find other ways to remain close. Settle for being able to hold her hand briefly as you cross the street. Relish the moments when she’s tired and rests her head on your shoulders.
If you show her unconditional love and acceptance, if you listen to and respect her needs, she will expect that other men in her life will too. If you show her unconditional love, she will not allow herself to become engaged in relationships with men who love her only if she looks or acts a certain way. If you show her respect, she will expect other boys, and eventually men, to treat her as their equals. She will choose partners who listen to what is important to her, validate her and encourage her to assert herself.
When a young girl cares about her grooming and is acknowledged for doing so by her father, in particular, this will be very meaningful. So, when you say something like “wow, you’ve cut your hair. I love the way it frames your beautiful face,” she will glow. When you say “you handled yourself so well in that situation. You asserted yourself without being bossy. You expressed your thoughts so clearly,” she will be thrilled that you have noticed. The way in which a young girl sees herself reflected in her father’s feedback can encourage or discourage her towards becoming a self-confident woman.
The way in which a girl’s father treats her mother – whether they are living together or apart – also creates a template for the way in which she will expect to be treated. If she sees her father care for, respect and speak highly of her mother, this will not only foster even greater love towards her father, but will also provide a model for her future relationships.
Biology can help a man become a father, but it takes time, effort and careful intention to be a dad. A dad may have given you life or may have come into your life later on. The person who plays the role of dad may also be dad to your mom. He may even be mom’s brother. Being a dad is a huge responsibility, but also an awesome privilege.
This Father’s Day, take a few minutes to reflect on the role you want to play in your daughter’s life, and the amazing opportunity you have to shape her future. And if your daughter’s grown into a woman, spend some extra time with her on this day too to celebrate the many years that you’ve shared together.