I vividly remember my fear turning to confidence one Saturday in September when my dad taught me to use a circular saw. My high school girl scout troop made everything we sold at our annual fundraiser – a holiday gift bazaar – and we started months ahead. Our goal of $1000., to pay for the whole group to do a 4-day houseboat trip on the Potomac River, was huge in 1968.
I’d bragged that I could raise $125 selling plaques with decoupaged art and quotes, more than 10% of our troop goal. I knew how to do all the steps except for power sawing a long pine board into plaque-sized pieces. I asked my dad to saw the wood and instead he said he’d show me how to do it myself.
Even though I already knew how to and liked using all kinds of manual tools, and a power hand sander, a circular saw was a big step up. It was obviously a dangerous machine with an intimidating whine. A vision of blood and a missing finger lodged itself in my mind. I decided to just cut the boards with a hand saw. After laboriously sawing 2 plaque pieces by hand it was obvious I’d never finish 25 of them in time. But I had to do it – my pride was at stake. I’d bragged that I could raise $125 with the plaques alone, more than 10% of our troop goal.
So I gathered my courage, and my trust in my dad, and asked him to teach me how to use the circular saw. I ended the afternoon with 25 approximately evenly-sawed boards, all ten still-attached fingers, and my fundraising promise intact. It turned out I loved using power tools and eventually even taught my husband how.
What my dad did that day was be my ally. He didn’t solve my problem by sawing the boards for me as he would have when I was younger. He knew my level of ability with hand tools from all the projects I’d helped him with around the house. He decided I was ready to safely use a dangerous power tool. And when my fear held me back, he let the combination of my ambitious goal and my pride motivate me to risk handling the power saw. Then he showed me how to saw one board, helped me saw another, and coached while I sawed a third. That was it.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. For girls to grow to adulthood with strong confidence in their own abilities and problem-solving, parents need to switch from being problem solvers for them to being allies who support their actions and their decisions. This is complicated for all parents. And I hear from dads that it feels particularly difficult to them. They feel their first responsibility to a daughter is to protect her. But as she grows older, that’s not what she needs most.
As fathers, stepfathers and grandfathers are celebrated this Father’s Day, let’s be sure to celebrate them for the challenging practice of transitioning from problem solvers to allies in their daughters’ lives. This is how all of us, including other dads, can be allies to dads.