During a Dads and Daughters® workshop 20 years ago in Little Rock, Arkansas, a father raised the issue: How well do we know—and how much do we know about—our daughters’ girl friendships? It’s the kind of question whose answer seems like a pretty good barometer of where our father-daughter relationship stands.
So, since Little Rock, I’ve made “what do you know about her girl friendships?” a part of my Dads and Daughters® presentations. More often than I want to hear, dads’ answers show that they aren’t very tuned in to the state of their daughter’s and stepdaughter’s friendships. Much of this is due to the still-entrenched roles of father as emotionally-distant provider and mother as primary caregiver for family relationships. And, certainly, there’s a lot of justifiable angst about adult men being on friendly terms with non-familial girls.
Still, when I asked my then 15-year-old daughter Nia what is the greatest influence I’ve had on her friends and her friendships, I was surprised by her answer.
“Well,” she said, sounding just like Jack Benny (look him up!), “you are friends with them. You worked together on New Moon Girls with Marta and Amanda and Liz and Lindsey, and you did stuff together. And you didn’t worry that being friends with them would undermine your authority.”
I was—and still am—on friendly terms with her best friends. In the early years of New Moon Girls, I was the magazine’s managing editor: the person who implements the ideas and choices of the Girls Editorial Board (GEB). The fact that my daughters’ friends were on the GEB meant we spent a lot of time with one another; a fairly rare experience for most fathers. We created issues of the magazine, and regularly traveled together for workshops or talks. I developed my own girl friendships.
But even before New Moon Girls began, I spent time with these kids: reading aloud in their classroom or sharing meals between families or helping with their Brownie troop and Odyssey of the Mind group. Today, we still have connections—Nancy and I now babysit Liz’s son Clark.
I was blessed with opportunities to have a connection with my daughters’ friends—a connection that was, at least sometimes, outside the time and space of my daughters’ own relationship with them. That’s a unique perspective.
Nia’s last comment explains what makes this work: “You didn’t worry that being friends with them would undermine your authority.” The key is in defining authority as an adult, a dad, and a man.
There is authority in any legitimate relationship, no matter the ages of the participants. The words authentic and authority have more in common than their first four letters. To be used properly and morally (or even with any positive effect), my authority must spring from the power I have as an authentic person. The same holds true for the other person.
Too often, when we talk about adult authority, we really mean adult privilege. Adult privilege is, for the most part, unearned—what Nia calls “authority that is a dictatorship.” Because such ‘authority” is unearned, I’d argue that it’s usually illegitimate. Adult privilege gives me social sanction to impose my will on children; e.g., the “authorization” to scold a child in the shopping mall, even though I’ve never laid eyes on him before.
Genuine authority is, on the other hand, earned–even by and from children. Now, some folks claim that the notion of earning authority from kids is absurd and disastrous. “You give up your authority to set limits or to discipline!” they might say. “You’re creating a dictatorship by the kid if you give her that much authority!”
But that’s not what happened in our lives. By working together, being together, and listening to each other, I shared respect and power and authority with my daughters and their friends. I didn’t surrender my ability to say “no” or set limits. And they didn’t have to surrender their authority or autonomy to me, either.
When these girls were preteens, we listened to each other and took each other seriously. We still do that two decades later. That seems wise in any relationship!
Being friends with my kids’ friends gave me friends I otherwise would not have had. Best of all, it brought me closer to my daughters. It’s easy to see why – we share something important to both of us: mutual friends.
Joe Kelly is the best-selling author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter and 5 other fathering books. He co-founded New Moon Girls with Nancy Gruver and was the magazine’s first managing editor.
To bring one of Joe’s Dads & Daughters® workshops to your school or community, click here.