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A few years ago, as I winged across the country on a commercial flight, I was blindsided by the reminder that my daughter and I are intimately and powerfully linked together.
Accompanying the airline's chicken salad croissant was a showing of the film, Father of the Bride. I'd seen it in a theater, and like most of the men I know who have daughters, I was moved as I watched that little girl become a woman in less than two hours. But on the airplane, one glance at the screen was all it took before I was hit with a roundhouse of emotion like none I'd ever felt. I had just kissed my daughter Katie goodbye, and I was perhaps only slightly aware of those mixed feelings I carried of longing and guilt for leaving her behind. There before my eyes was the cinematic evolution of child to adult, of princess to queen. The director took no prisoners. He knew his trade and milked the moment. As I watched the scene where the father (Steve Martin) remembers his daughter as a small child, then a preteen, an early adolescent, a high school beauty, and finally a woman, I saw my daughter. And I cried. No-I wept!
I was embarrassed and confused. I am not a man who cries lot-those guys whom I verbally admire but often secretly disdain. Yet that day I had hard time controlling myself. I'd been doing exactly what my culture told me to do-"provide for and protect" my family, the life task of the father-and yet I felt an emptiness and a deep sense of loss as I considered my little girl growing up. She's leaving me, I thought, and I can't stop it! My little "Angel Eyes," the special name we gave her when she was three years old, was growing up and leaving me behind.
I know that most fathers care, at least little. But something happens to those men who love to be called "Daddy," whose hearts miss a beat with every hug, and whose eyes tear up when she says her prayers. A price must be paid for that kind of caring. As our daughters grow up, the wonder of innocence and the freshness of spirit are like a narcotic we want to harness, bottle, and keep handy for when we need a dose of goodness and a taste of heaven. Of course, mothers feel this way, too. But it's different for dads, because what we feel goes beyond pride to something it seems we're barely allowed to feel in our world-affection, tenderness, and intimacy. Our daughters represent a kind of intimate, innocent connection that gives us hope in an often lonely, hectic world.
What is your pet name for your daughter? The 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best made popular the name "Kitten", but "Princess," "Angel," and "Pumpkin" all describe that same feeling a father has for his daughter: "You're something small, simple, and helpless. You are cute and warm and bring me great pleasure. You are my own treasure, to guard and protect, to cherish and hold, to watch over and defend."
This sense of fatherly protection/affection is fine when your daughter is three years old, or maybe even six. But soon she'll begin to want to break out of this "box" of love you've built and become more than a beautiful pet or a painting to be admired. She wants-and needs-to become a woman.
I know you love me, and that I can always count on your love. But I feel so small around you, like I'm your toy or something. I'm not a child-I'm fifteen-but to you I am your "little girlfriend." I'm not your little girlfriend! I want you to hold me and tell me you love me, but you have got to realize that you need to let me go!
Please don't hate me for telling you this, but I would rather have you leave me alone than treat me like a child. -Susan, age 15, Arkansas
Susan's letter reflects a conflict of powerful emotion for both a daughter and her father-an emotion neither one is prepared for. The move from child to woman is a confusing process at best, yet every family with a daughter goes through it. For most of these families it hurts a little, for some it hurts a lot. A few families pretend it makes no difference. But it always makes difference for the daughter!
As his daughter grows up, these years make their mark on a father's heart in three ways: (1) the realization of lost innocence, (2) the stark reality that nothing stays the same, and (3) the confusion of conflicting emotions and relational roles as his precious little girl is becoming a woman.
The Realization of Lost Innocence
Dee and I have spent our adult lives working with and caring for young people. Although I should be used to it, there remains for me an emotional struggle as I watch girls enter sixth grade as (usually) wide-eyed children with sweet, innocent faces, and leave eighth grade as savvy veterans of growing up in America.
by the time today's children have reached high school, no dark corner of humanity's shadows remains that they have not heard and learned about, if not seen and experienced firsthand. The innocence of childhood is being lost in today's uncensored society. Author and speaker Mike Yaconelli tells the story of two five-year-olds talking. One says to the other, "I found a condom on the patio," to which the other replied, "Neat! Uh, what's a patio?"
Consider for a moment what your daughter was like at age seven. Do you remember conversations with her about the complex world into which she was entering? Did a television show or commercial cause her to ask a question about sex, divorce, racism, hatred, or human cruelty? Perhaps she hardly ever asked, but you knew that she wanted you to help her understand how life can sometimes be so ugly, dark, and random. You are not alone if those conversations were rare or even nonexistent because most men in our culture are uncomfortable when it comes to these types of discussions. But can you remember having the feeling that you really wanted to say something? Can you recall a time when you first woke up to the fact that the little girl whose diapers you studiously avoided changing was suddenly and forcefully being "thrown to the wolves" of contemporary culture? Were you scared? Sad? Or, as with so many fathers, did you attempt to turn off the internal switch of despair, hoping your fear would just go away?
Jennifer is sixteen going on twelve. Her parents have always been afraid of what the culture might do to their daughter if it wrapped its ugly tentacles around her soul. From the time she was a little girl, Jennifer was told about the dark, hostile world that awaited her innocent and tender spirit. Her pastor was aware of this parental fear, and the youth minister at their church felt the pressure to help protect Jen from anything that might damage her God-given innocence. To date, Jennifer has not been allowed to watch television without her parents, to go on a date (or even to consider a romantic relationship), to attend youth group meetings without prior parental consent regarding content, or to have any friends whom her parents deem unacceptable (defined as those whose families do not conform to their family's standards). She was allowed to go to a conference this past summer, but her parents came with her, "to make sure she was not exposed to anything that might harm her."
Jennifer came up to me following a message I had delivered. She wasn't crying, but she displayed a chilling sense of despair. In explaining her family to me, she first wanted me to know that her parents loved her. Her dad, however, had such a fear of the "world" that she felt smothered, overly sheltered, and ill-prepared for life. She was speaking to me because I had referred to those who have received Christ as "bread to a starving world." She said that she didn't know many nonbelievers, and those she did know she had been taught to avoid. She went on to explain that she wanted to go to college in two years, but her parents were afraid for her. The more she talked, the more desperate she became. As she walked away, I felt sad-for her and for her family. Fear had surrounded them like a blanket. Life was not a "grand adventure" as I had proclaimed during my talk; it was a defensive struggle for survival against a powerfully hostile world.
Perhaps Jennifer's story sounds extreme to you. Maybe you identify more with Meagan. She talked to me at the same conference.
Meagan says that her parents so completely trust her that she hasn't had a curfew or any parental restrictions since junior high school. With the skin around her nose ring slightly infected and her sagging pants indicating what has come to be known as an "alternative" lifestyle, Meagan was still a warm, sweet fifteen-year-old who carried a sheen of toughness as a consequence of her life choices. Meagan had a gentle heart underneath the makeup and, not unlike Jennifer, her story also made me sad.
Meagan told me that she knew her father loved her but he "wasn't very good at expressing it-he's a guy, you know?" When she was in seventh grade, her first boyfriend wanted her to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and have sex with him. She felt uncomfortable with the situation and a bit confused and out of control, but she liked him. She thought about talking to her dad and even tried a few times, but he was obviously nervous about such matters and told her that whatever was bothering her, he had confidence she would do the right thing. However, Meagan wanted and needed more.
She decided to take one day at a time and do the best she could. This began for her a journey that included experimentation with alcohol and some drugs ("nothing real bad"), unhealthy friendships and social alliances ("I guess my friends haven't been the best"), and several sexual encounters ("It's hard to go back once you've been there"). Meagan lost her innocence at thirteen. Now a junior in high school, and all grown up, Meagan lived with the emotional and relational calluses of growing up too fast and too soon.
Two girls, two parental responses to a daughter's adolescent journey: Jennifer, sheltered to the point of being socially inept; Meagan, left to fend for herself without boundaries or guidelines. Two girls who are gently bitter, each believing they were let down by parents who love them.
Earl Palmer, pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, recently stated in an address to youth workers and parents: "We cannot nor should we try to prepare the road for the child. It is our job to prepare the child for the road." This is the task of parenting in a world where innocence is quickly lost. We must help our daughters know and understand how deeply they are loved and give them the foundational security to slowly take off the glasses of innocence in order to see the world as it is. We must be there with them and for them, as they slowly learn the difference between the ideal of God's desire in creation and the stark reality of humanity's selfishness and consequent brokenness.
Our role as parents is neither to throw a protective cover over our children's eyes and minds, as with Jennifer's family, nor to leave them to figure life out on their own, as with Meagan's parents. Rather, our role as fathers-and mothers-is to maintain a family environment where love, mercy, and kindness are the rule without closing our eyes to the plight of the world. When we love our "little girls," our role is hard to acknowledge and even more difficult to balance. But as our daughters grow up, we must be there to help them deal with the complex and confusing transition from the warmth of parental protection to the exposure of grown-up life.
Nothing Stays the Same
There is no better demonstration of the word cute than a young girl all dressed up. When my daughter started dance lessons, I would find myself choking back tears every time the biannual recitals rolled around. Not tears of sadness, really. The word melancholy better describes it. Those precious, tender, sweet five-year-old darlings in makeup and lace were a stark reminder of what happens in every family. Those events were a wake-up call for me to life's ultimate reality: nothing you cherish stays the same (except, of course, for the consistent love and character of Christ; and as I change, even my understanding of that changes!).
This principle of change presents one of the most difficult aspects of being a daddy: The little girl who fell asleep on my lap, the precious angel who loved to finger paint personalized Picasso-like originals, the innocent cherub who couldn't wait for the kiss and the present when I came in from out of town now has a miniskirt in the closet, a boyfriend with an earring, and a nearly psychotic fear of being seen with me in public! My baby is changing right before my eyes!
In 1991, pollster George Barna offhandedly remarked on a syndicated radio program, "The next decade will be the most important decade in the history of humanity." He went on to assert that the rapid changes in information distribution, financial complexity, and societal structure would cause a fundamental shift in how every person orders his or her life. "Change is inevitable," he claimed, "and we must be ready for the changes that come."
For fathers, this obvious truth meets emotional, if not intellectual, resistance. Everyone knows that life is about change and movement and growth. But when you love something, when you cherish what is happening right now, it's hard to accept and honor change. Like the video collage in Father of the Bride, we all want to grab hold and not let go of the process of our daughters growing from little girls into women. Although each stage of life has its own set of unique joys and lasting memories, in the midst of one of these stages-especially with girls-many fathers will want to wrap the memory, store it away in a safe place, and preserve it. We want to render it untouchable by time and life experience.
Inevitably, little girls become big girls, then young women, and, eventually, fully grown women. The father who understands this and has the resolve and emotional energy to accept life's changes and prepare for them will be able to build a deeper, more powerful set of memories of life with his daughter. And he will send her off into the world of adulthood a healthy, capable woman.
Change is inevitable. A daughter will become a woman. As she begins to think for herself, to assert herself, a father's role changes. He can be a friend, an ally, and a trusted confidant if he recognizes that change will come. The stakes are high. The woman God has given you needs to know that you believe in her, trust her, and care enough to help her to experience the fullness of God's dream for her.
Excerpted from Daughters & Dads by Chap Clark Dee Clark Copyright © 1998 by Chap Clark and Dee Clark. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1: My Princess Is Growing Up
Chapter 2: "I Need You, Daddy!"
Chapter 3: Trust-The Glue That Holds Relationships Together
Chapter 4: Closeness-The Adolescent Safety Net
Chapter 5: Communication-The Heart of Father-Daughter Intimacy
Chapter 6: "Why Am I? " A Daughter's Search for Identity
Chapter 7: Letting Go-Helping Her Become Autonomous
Chapter 8: A Father's Love as a Model of the Father's Love
Chapter 9: Being Her Teacher When You Want to Be Her Judge
Chapter 10: Being Her Guide When You Want to Be Her Boss
Chapter 11: Being Her Friend When You Want to Be Her Protector
Chapter 12: Setting Her Free