A daughter who starts to date can scare the blazes out of a dad. It's how we respond to those fears that makes all the difference. Listen to the wise words of Carla, a 35-year-old married mother and professional.
"My dad always greeted every boy or man I dated with the same gentleness he extended to me. I always felt that if I saw good in someone, my dad would do his best to find the same.
My gentle dad was a perfect model for the kind of guys I wanted to date. So most of the guys I dated were gentle and approached dating with the same excited awkwardness as me.
We grew up, had fun, and learned a lot together and always treated each other with respect—so much so that many of the men I dated are still some of my greatest family friends (their kids even play with our kids!).
Sure, I dated a loser or two, but my dad and mom let me sort that out on my own, supporting me but never fighting my battles. I grew confident and clearheaded about the kind of partner I wanted. I viewed sex as something to be shared between loving, committed adults, and I never allowed myself to be emotionally coerced into sexual activity by an unscrupulous partner. I communicated with my mom and dad about my relationships.
Best of all, I married a man with the same dignity and gentleness as my father.
I suspect that my situation is what many of you would hope for your own daughters. If you keep your daughter under lock and key and try to control her, she just might look for a partner who does the same. On the other hand, if a girl has a gentle, respectful dad, most of the guys she'll bring around her will probably be pretty nice too. And the bad ones, well, she'll probably be able to peg them pretty quickly, because the standards she has for how she should be treated will make her stick her nose up at guys who don't treat her well.
Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't help her develop some common sense rules—like not getting into cars or houses with men she doesn't know well. But helping her develop rules of engagement, rather than being her male protector, is really important.
When our oldest was born and I was up every night watching him breathe, I called my dad and asked, 'When am I going to stop losing sleep from worrying about my child?' He chuckled and said, 'I'll let you know when I reach that point, honey.' That was the first time it clicked that all those times my parents let me grow my own wings must have been excruciating for them. Traveling the world and forgetting to call home; missing curfew; hanging out with people they'd never met; all the questionable things I did.
Now that I'm a parent I'm glad I didn't know how worried they were, and I'm glad they didn't stop me from doing those things, because it made me believe that they trusted my judgment, and so I trusted it too. I still do, and it has always served me well. "Now when I stay up at night thinking about our young son and daughter, I really hope that their wings grow as long as mine have.
I hope that they believe that my husband and I have faith in their judgment. I hope that they learn from their own life experiences rather than hiding from them. And I hope that it takes them until their thirties—when their wings are fully grown-to figure out just how much sleep we actually lost because of them.
Dads: I think the best protection your daughter can ever have in life isn't you—it’s her own strength, confidence, and common sense. To the extent that you help her develop those traits, you are being her protector."
Thanks, Carla. You remind me that one of fathering's greatest joys is learning from our daughters.