“My way or the highway.”
I used to antagonize her with that phrase when she was a toddler and on one of her epic rants. The terrible twos were … terrible. And joyous. Wow, was she cute. I mean, when she wasn’t going Chernobyl.
To be clear, I did not say those words to her as a command, but rather to mock her need to always get her way. She’s almost 15 now and has mellowed a bit since then, although the girl whose ass she kicked to win gold in the national karate championship last month might disagree.
She’s always been tough. She has a brother who is three years older who is also a black belt in karate, and I’m pretty sure he’s never won a fight with her. That’s because he’s kind and restrained, but also because she just won’t quit. I remember when he was six and she was three, and they’d fight, like siblings do, and she’d come flying at him and there was nothing he could do to stop her. She was like the Terminator, willing to absorb ten shots if it meant she could get in one good one.
Parenting is fun.
Sure, she’s always been a little badass, but even if she were not it’s not my job as her father to be keeper of her virtue. I don’t even like that word used in this context: “virtue.” It implies that when she has sex she’ll have lost her virtue, making it something negative.
Here’s a photo that went viral last year. It fills me with disgust.
I’ve seen other T-Shirts that say things like “Guns don’t kill people, dads with pretty daughters do.” And then, of course, there is this:
Setting aside the fact that these warnings aimed at boys ignore the possibility that their daughters might be interested in other girls instead, as well as the implicit double standard that parents don’t get equally protective of their sons’ virginity, such messages present a seriously warped view of the relationship between fathers and daughters.
And I’m not just talking about those icky “purity ball” things.
Throughout history it has often been the role of the father to enforce his daughter’s chastity, which heralds back to times when she was viewed as property to be sold, because if she wasn’t a virgin she’d be considered worthless (Note: there are cultures where this is still practiced). The fact that there are men in the modern, developed world who seem to take pride in this medieval role of controlling their daughters’ reproductive equipment is shameful.
Here’s my position: Her body. Her rules.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have an important role as her father. These are the things I do take pride in as dad to a teenage girl:
- Providing a role model of what a man can be and how he should treat a woman by showing both her and her mother love and respect.
- Teaching her skills that she is interested in learning, like Frisbee, skiing, cooking, lifting weights, kayaking and driving.
- Being emotionally supporting and sharing in her victories and defeats, and providing a shoulder to cry on when she needs it.
- Respecting her boundaries and her privacy (she approved this article).
- Spending time with her just to have fun, playing games and doing other enjoyable activities together.
- Helping with homework and being a taxi service.
My daughter is still learning what she needs to about her body and her choices. If she has questions she is welcome to ask me, but being that her mother is a woman and also a family doctor, she’s more likely to discuss things such as birth control and disease prevention with her. Not being protector of her virtue doesn’t mean you throw the child to the wolves and let them sexually fend for themselves. We provide information and there are age (and maturity) appropriate limits that are set for certain activities.
Life is not a Liam Neeson movie. The chances that I’ll need to travel to Paris and go on an Albanian-sex-trafficker killing spree are remote. And yet, these so-called “rules” for dating one’s daughter present imagery that barely differentiates between boyfriends and kidnappers.
As responsible and loving parents we can provide her with information and support, and act as role models, but we cannot deny her agency.
I’m her dad, and I’ll always be there to help her cope with the harsh realities of the world when she needs me to, but I’ll not stand in the way of her choices on her journey to becoming a woman.
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James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.