June 13, 2014 — The stereotypical US father is crazy about his “little girl”—and thinks of her as precisely that, regardless of her chronological age. He treats her like a princess, and she, in return, uncritically adores her Daddy.
Nearly every family-centered US sitcom ever made features at least one episode in which a father intimidates his daughter’s would-be suitor (there was even a sitcom called “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”—#1 was, “Use your hands on my daughter and you'll lose them”).
Real fathers and daughters experience love and anxiety far deeper and more terrifying than anything felt by their cartoonish TV counterparts. Of course good dads treasure their daughters and want to keep them happy and safe. But treating your daughter like a little girl forever isn’t the best way to do that.
In honor of Father’s Day, which is observed around the world, I’ve been thinking about my own father, whom I adore unqualifiedly, if not always uncritically. What makes my dad so special?
He loves me. He’s proud of me. He’d do anything for me. But the best thing my dad ever said wasn’t, “Whatever you want, Princess.” Nor was it, “I’ll kill that [guy/girl/spider] if [he/she/it] hurts you.”
It was, quite simply, “I trust you.”
It’s not that my father wouldn’t give me advice if I asked for it or protect me if I needed him to. But from adolescence to adulthood, the sentence I remember him uttering most often—second only to “I love you”—was made up of those three other little words.
And that sentence has made all the difference. Because my dad trusted me, I made smart decisions as a teenager and a young woman. Because he trusted me to choose, I chose to make him proud. Because he trusted me, I trusted myself—and learned to stand on my own two feet (and, when necessary, to land on them).
Last December, President Obama shared his primary piece of dating advice to his daughters in an interview with the comedian Steve Harvey: “As long as [a] young man is showing you respect, and is kind to you, then I'm not going to be hovering over every second.”
Like the Obama girls, all daughters should be taught to expect respect and kindness as their due (as Lauryn Hill put it, “Respect is just the minimum”). And fathers should learn not to hover.
But such expectations aren’t only applicable to dating (although having a father who trusted me certainly helped me make better romantic decisions).
The best fathers raise their daughters to be confident, powerful women—not permanent little girls. They teach them to have self-respect, to be self-sufficient, and to maintain the best kind of high standards: those related not to money or power or status, but to how we treat others and how we expect to be treated ourselves.
My dad gave me those traits and standards, and he has made me a much happier, healthier, and more secure person than I would otherwise have been. (It helps to have a wonderful mother, too.)
Happy Father’s Day to my dad, the best man I know—and to all the other fathers out there who love their daughters enough to let them go.