Monday, November 2, 2015

Daddy's Little Girl?

I spend a lot of time with Piper— around the house, at the playground, running errands, etc. People (especially women of a certain age) sometimes see us together and smile, heads cocked just so. What a wonderful thing to see a dad with his daughter, the smile says. I appreciate it, even as I recognize the double standard — my wife gets no such heartwarming looks. But sometimes someone will say, “Oh, she’s daddy’s little girl, isn’t she?”

Um, no, she’s not. And God forbid that she ever becomes one. Just as I wouldn’t want to raise a sniveling, wimpy “Mama’s boy,” I have no intention of raising a spoiled, dependent “Daddy’s little girl.”

The “Daddy’s little girl” idea is a powerful one – it is embedded in our language, it is written into our stories and movies, it’s emblazoned on our t-shirts and tutus. As fathers, we see ourselves as the Protector, our girl’s shield from the big, bad world. We love being the hero, the one to save the day with a bottle of milk or a comforting word or a helping hand when she needs it. That desire comes from a deep and wonderful place, but we dads have to resist it whenever possible. Because when we step in to protect our daughters from danger, we are undermining their ability to build their own defenses. When we swoop in to solve the problem, we short-circuit their learning process. When I play the hero, she becomes the damsel in distress.

But don’t we dads have an “instinct” to protect our children, especially our daughters, from all harm? Maybe, but the emphasis on a dad’s “instinct” to “protect” his daughters is just too simple and convenient. Too often, “instinct” is just an excuse we use to justify all sorts of behavior that ultimately cripples our girls’ ability to develop into tough, resilient human beings. “Instinct” often really means “I love being the hero.”

There may have been a time in a previous century when the budding “damsel in distress” model of girlhood fit the reality of the lives that girls would grow up to lead. Before the long women’s rights movement in this country – I’m talking about going back to the 1830s, not the 1960s – girls and women really were dependent on the men in their lives. They often could not vote or own their own land or file for divorce or even get an education. They worked only menial or subservient jobs, and they needed (and often longed for) the protection of a good man. It was the fathers, and later the husbands, who were culturally and legally responsible for the women in their household, so it made sense, perhaps, for fathers to act as the “protectors” of their daughters.

Those days are long gone, thanks to a century and a half of persistent pushing by women’s rights advocates. Our daughters are not growing up in a world that expects them to be dependent. When they come of age, their opportunities are limitless – they can seek and explore and discover any number of different careers and destinies. In this world, a girl needs to be adventurous and tough. She needs to be able to stand up for herself and assert herself and rely on herself. It does her little good for her to be dependent on some benevolent male to help her out whenever she needs it. We need to consistently challenge our daughters in a variety of ways – physically, intellectually, emotionally – to prepare them for this wonderful kind of world. Twenty-first century America does not need damsels in distress or “daddy’s little girls”; we need courageous, thoughtful, bold, tough, adventurous women. It’s our job as fathers to raise those girls.

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