Chapter OneMy Princess Is
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
-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
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 wordmelancholy 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
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.