Read an Excerpt
Daddy’s Little Girl
Human beings accelerate through the greatest number of developmental changes in the shortest period of time before age eight. Take language acquisition as one example.
Have you ever learned (or attempted to learn) a second language? For most people it takes years of dedicated effort just to reach basic proficiency. Your daughter masters her language in just two or three years while also learning other remarkably difficult things—like how to feed herself, walk, understand cause and effect, and more. And that’s just for starters.
Infants, toddlers, and young children can learn this vast array of skills and information because their minds are flexible, open (yes, even two–year-olds!), and hypercurious. This way of being also makes most children very receptive to and skilled at playing!
Your fatherly key to successful play with the preschool crowd is to adopt and reflect your daughter’s flexible, open, hypercurious attitude. Embrace how creatively she connects the dots between point A and point Q. Avoid using playtime to enforce rules, make a point, or impose gender stereotypes.
During your daughter’s early years, she doesn’t think of herself as “a girl.” Gender concepts come soon enough, often with attendant baggage. Now is the time to celebrate and reinforce her value as an individual person, not specifically as a girl. Encouraging intellectual curiosity and physical activity is especially important. Later on, when the gender straightjacket attempts to exert its influence on her, she’ll need to feel comfortable in her body and confident in her brain and heart.
1. Our Time
All Ages / Solo
Psychologist and author Dr. Margo Maine wrote a fabulous book called Father Hunger. I think her metaphor is an ideal one for stepdads and dads to remember—our daughters hunger for our attention, no matter how young or old they are. And, let’s be honest, we hunger for our daughters’ attention, too!
Spending time with your daughter or stepdaughter is the best way to let her know you are paying attention to her.
Set aside some inviolate time for you and your daughter to be together without interruption. Having a daily “Our Time” is ideal, but it works on a weekly basis, too (or anywhere in between).
One divorced dad I know has shared custody of his young daughter. Since she’s not always with him, he knows the value of Our Time.
To make the most of my time with my 6–year–old daughter, I organized our evenings so that the half hour before bedtime is Our Time. During Our Time, I brush my daughter’s shower–wet hair and we might simply watch TV, or play a game. Our current favorites are Who Took the Cookie from the Cookie Jar, Candy Land, and Uno. We also talk about school or why some kids are bad or why people lie or something she saw that bothered her, or whatever. Mostly, we talk.
A few weeks ago, I began to think that Our Time felt forced and decided to simply not say anything. Shower time came and went, and I said nothing about Our Time. Fifteen minutes hadn’t passed before my daughter approached me with brush in hand to ask what was wrong. “Daddy, why aren’t we having Our Time?” I almost teared up as I said to her that we will ALWAYS have Our Time. My hope is that Our Time will grow to become a time for her to share with me what’s on her mind—her fears, concerns, worries, passions, etc.—a time for us to truly bond. Granted she’s only six now, but I can hope that Our Time will last forever!!
The point is that dad and daughter are together and that daughter knows that during Our Time, no phone calls, work, or other distractions will interrupt. She has Dad totally to herself. Even thirty minutes can feed the hunger a dad and a daughter have for each other. So make it a habit!
Remember that Our Time can happen even if dad and daughter are not in the same place. If you live or work away from your daughter, set aside regular Our Time during which you:
• Talk to each other on the phone or over a free Internet telephony system like Skype or Google Talk.
• IM or e–mail each other.
• Play an interactive online game together.
• Communicate with each other over Ham radio (you can even use Morse code).
Get creative and come up with your own ideas, too.
In other words, don’t let distance interfere with Our Time. Fortunately, there are constantly expanding ways to communicate and connect over distances. Make them work for you!
2. Fast Fun for Daughters through Three Months
Birth to Three Months
Fast Fun is a list of activity ideas that a pop, father, dad, padre, pappa, or daddy–o can pull out any time. They don’t require a lot of preparation or explanation. But if you’re stumped for ideas of what to do today, this list can get you started.
When you bring your daughter home from the hospital, you are hypersensitive and may be afraid she will break if you handle her wrong. Well, that’s a good thing—a father’s natural instinct is to meet the needs of this completely dependent little creature. You may feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster (because you are), but you can still play and have fun with your baby.
The following suggestions are only starters. You have a lot more ideas inside you—be creative, loosen up, and most important have fun! She’ll love it, and so will you.
Make faces at each other.
Let her grip your finger with her hand.
Blow very lightly on her face.
Very gently and slowly stretch her arms to her sides.
Make googlie sounds and watch her smiles.
Massage her feet and hands.
Sing softly to her.
Watch her eyes move in response to you.
Tip: I’m not a big fan of parents (or other adults) using “baby talk” all the time with babies. Make funny sounds, be lyrical and musical with your voice—but also make conversation with your baby in your normal tone of voice. She wants to get to know you: your sound, smell, expressions, and the comfort of snuggling up against you to fall asleep. Talk like you normally do and she’ll get to know you faster.
3. Fast Fun for Daughters from
Six Months to One Year
As toddlers get more independent, they get more willful—and more creative, silly, adventurous, and fun. When our twins were born, people told us that the “terrible twos” would be exponentially awful because we’d have two two–year–olds at once. Well, two and three turned out to be a blast! The lesson for me was: Don’t let other people’s expectations determine your own unique experience with your own unique daughter.
The following suggestions are here to jump–start you. You have a lot more ideas inside you—be creative, loosen up, and most of all, remember to spend this time having fun!
Make goofy faces at each other.
Play in the bathtub.
Take her to the store with you.
Read picture books.
Crawl around on the floor together.
Pound on boxes.
Hide in boxes.
Mimic sounds back and forth.
Roll a ball back and forth.
Play in the sand.
Go on a picnic together.
4. Story Time
Four to Eighteen / Solo
Everybody loves a good tale, whether it’s tall or very, very short. Creating and writing stories together is great fun and can tap into your best inventive, inspired imagination. Plus, this activity grows with your daughter—you can make up stories together, no matter how old she is. As the years pass, the tales tend to get longer and more interesting—and no less fun. Below are some simple ways to start.
Don’t get bogged down in “traditional” rules about plot, characters, or even logic when creating stories with your daughter. There is no “wrong” direction for the stories to take. Cut loose and have fun, even if logic has completely left the premises.
Below are some simple ways to start Story Time.
The Talking Story Riff
Pick a topic, any topic. Then simply start telling a story about it. After about a minute of riffing on the story, turn it over to your daughter and listen closely to where she takes the characters and plot. After another minute, she tosses the story back to you, to add your next minute of detail and plot. Back and forth you go, wherever your joint imaginations and the characters lead you.
Keep in mind that the first few times you do this activity, it may seem a little flat. And the first few exchanges in any particular story may (or may not) be a little flat. Don’t sweat it or think you’re failing. Instead, think of these initial efforts as first drafts. Many professional writers tear up nearly every first draft—we do first drafts to get the pump primed and the juices flowing.
When our daughters were ten, we drove from northern Minnesota to Disney World and back, with some detours to visit relatives, friends, and historic sites in Atlanta. That trip was the first time the girls ever saw a Waffle House restaurant (a fixture in Southeastern states), and they were fascinated—because they loved waffles. So when we started making up a fairy tale in the car, it became known as “The Waffle Story,” starring Ann Tellet, a work colleague of my wife’s who took a real shine to the kids. In “The Waffle Story,” Ann solved mysteries and went on adventures. Her biggest adventure was into the world of dinettes. Why? Because we drove past a store that was called (really!) World of Dinettes.
My point is: There is nothing too silly, illogical, spontaneous, or tangential to include in a talking story riff. Run with it as long as it feels like you’re both still being creative and stimulated. Long road trips are a great time to trot this activity out. You may have so much fun that you and your daughters will remember that story decades later!
This is basically a written variation of the Talking Story Riff. Instead of creating the story out loud, take turns advancing the plot on paper.
Let your daughter start writing down the story and, depending on her age, have her pass it over to you after she’s completed a paragraph or a page. Then you take it for a paragraph or a page. Be sure you are completing entries of about the same length as hers, so that you don’t start dominating the story.
Tag–Team Telling is often more flexible than making up a story out loud. For example, live–away dads can Tag–Team a story with their daughters through e–mail, snail mail, or during the times they spend together in person.
Even when you live with your daughter or stepdaughter, you can have one or more Tag–Team Telling stories under way for days, weeks, months—or even years. Just be sure that the paper (or computer document) is where you and she can both access it readily—in case either one or both of you come up with an inspiration in the middle of the night or middle of the day.
Readers of just about every age like illustrations in their storybooks. Go ahead and draw pictures or take photographs to accompany the tale you and she are creating together. Her drawings can be wonderful and fun, and also give you insight into her images of the characters, environment, and story line.
You can even tag–team illustrations! For example, here’s a wild way to draw a character:
• Fold a piece of paper in thirds.
• Have her draw the character’s head on one third, while you look away (no peeking). When she’s done, she folds that third of the paper over so you can’t see the details.
• You then draw the character’s torso and arms on the middle third of the paper (no peeking by your daughter), then fold it over so she can't see your contribution.
• Then, she takes back the paper and draws the legs and feet on its final third. When she’s done, unfold the paper and see what wacky and creative images you have drawn together!
You can also share illustration duties in a slightly less chaotic manner. For example, you can alternate drawings to accompany your joint story, or else each of you can take photographs to use in illustration.
The possibilities are endless, as long as you stay in touch with your three I’s: Invention, Inspiration, Imagination.
5. Your Own Private Camp
Four to Ten / Solo
My wife once said, “A good test of how good a friend you are with someone is whether you can still stand each other after going camping together.” Yes, like most things that change the pace of our daily routine, camping can bring out the best in us, or something else.
However, one of the best things about camping is that you can do it almost anywhere—including your own backyard. Plus, it doesn’t have to be complicated or cost a fortune.
The essentials for backyard camping are:
• Tent or screen–house to keep out the rain and bugs
• Sleeping bags, whether store–bought or create–your–own
• Flashlight (to find your way back to the house)
See how short that list is? You can use an old tent from the garage, or borrow one from a friend. You can use any sleeping bag (even the one from back when you were a Boy Scout), or else make your own by folding up a couple of blankets, wrapping them in a sheet, and then layering other blankets on top for a cozy place to sleep.
The most important elements of backyard camping are the rituals you develop together. Make sure the two of you work together to put up the tent, arrange the sleeping bags, pick out the snacks, and so on. It probably won’t qualify as “roughing it” (after all, a fully plumbed bathroom is only steps away), but that’s not the point. The idea is to break up your usual routine, do something out of the ordinary together, and see what develops.
If it’s safe, build a small campfire and roast marshmallows while you sit around it and talk. You can even just fire up a charcoal grill to serve the same function.
To make the traditional camp snack “s’mores,” roast a marshmallow until its center begins to liquefy. Then quickly insert it between two graham crackers along with a thin piece of chocolate candy bar. The chocolate starts to melt as you pop the whole sweet, messy delicacy in your mouth. Mmmmm!
Make sure to do other traditional camp things like singing songs, telling tall tales, and sharing “scary” stories. Sit or lie on the grass and look at the moon and stars. Stay up late and just chat with each other.
Odds are that the memories you both create in your own backyard will outlast any that come from going away to camp.
Tip: You can easily create a camplike experience indoors by pinning and draping blankets over pieces of furniture, then snuggling underneath for the night. Such homemade “forts” make great places to play no matter what time of day or season.