Want to get fathers of daughters quickly engaged in a passionate conversation? Just ask them: “When is your daughter old enough to date?”
There’s always someone who answers “30,” and only half jokingly. But after that, the dads will be off to the races, arguing over what constitutes dating these days, with most insisting that for a boy, dating has only one purpose—sex. I recently listened in on one of these conversations, which included a few exchanges on how to resist the temptation to hunt down the boy with a weapon (“Go bowling, and pretend each pin is him”).
Then one father piped up with his story:
“My daughter began wanting to date a boy her age earlier this year (she was 14). Having no established rules for this, my response was, ‘Oh boy, Kiddo, I can see this is really important to you. It’s too big a decision for me to make without some thought and support from the parents I trust.’
“The feedback I got confirmed my need to understand the high pressure adolescents are under to be sexual. So many girls are out there ‘servicing’ their boyfriends with oral sex, and believing that it is somehow not really sex.
“Talking to my daughter, I realized that having a boyfriend was a status symbol for her—and that aspect was as important as experiencing the relationship. After a week or two of listening to her tell me that she is the only kid in her whole school who can’t date, we finally reached an agreement. I told her that I believed that she isn’t ready to date, and that there’s too much pressure on kids her age to do things they’re not ready for. I said that I respect that she really wanted to spend time with this boy, and that we could invite him over for pizza and a movie so that she could do so in a family context.
“She was a little disappointed but did invite him. After he accepted, but before his visit, she told me that actually not everyone in her class gets to date, and, in fact, named a few girls who couldn’t date until they were 18. In my view she was telling me on one level, ‘Thanks Dad, I wasn’t really ready for dating.’
“The boy came over a couple times and they went to a school dance together. He asked her several times if she could come over to his house, but it seemed clear after meeting his parents that there would not be appropriate supervision there.
“We negotiated limiting phone time and the rest. After a few months, the boy basically dumped her, though she maneuvered quickly to ‘technically’ break up with him first to save face. She was a little down, but not much.
“I considered it a complete success because she got to experience this relationship. My own take is that the boy did not get the sex that he wanted (of course I can’t know that for sure) and finally moved on. And I believe that she got to know this boy without any sex clouding her vision, and that’s why she wasn’t heartbroken over the loss.”
This father’s approach worked because it was built on trust and respect—the keys to any successful relationship. He didn’t belittle his daughter’s immature need for a “trophy” boyfriend; he understood that being immature is part of being 14. With help from mentors, his respect for her needs helped create a safe environment in which to meet those needs. Because they trusted each other, dad and daughter negotiated limits fairly, which made her more open to respecting the love and security those limits represented.
If you base your fathering on fear, chances are you’ll get defiance. If you base your fathering on trust, chances are you’ll get respect, along with the foundation for a deepening relationship. And when you need time away to figure things out, go bowling—and strike up a conversation with the fathers you find there. Maybe they’ll also have advice about when girls are ready to date!
You can learn more strategies about dads, daughters and dating in my book Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter.
About the author: Joe Kelly is the author of several books including Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She’s Growing Up So Fast (Broadway, 2003) and The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Build a Great Relationship (Broadway, 2007).