Doctor gives fathers a 30-day challenge

Dads everywhere were saying the same thing: “This book was great. I understand the principles. Now, can you give me an action plan?” 

That, in various forms, was the reaction Dr. Meg Meeker’s best-selling book, “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know” (Ballantine, $14.95) received after it came out in 2007. Fathers loved the book, but as Meeker said “in typical male fashion” they wanted more specifics about how to live the lessons it contained. 

This summer, she’s giving them what they want. 

“Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: The 30-Day Challenge” (The A Group, $14.99) is designed to give busy dads the nuts and bolts of raising healthy daughters in today’s culture. Part devotional, part “how-to” manual, it walks men through what they need to do, on a day-to-day basis, for their girls as they grow from toddlers to teens. 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor sat down with Meeker to talk about the book, as well as the challenges fathers face.

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you think it’s harder to be a father to daughters today than in the past? 

Meeker
Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker: Unquestionably. First, because our culture has marginalized dads. Think of the characters played by Adam Sandler or Ray Romano, where dad is the play guy, the fun guy, the not very smart guy and mom is the disciplinarian. Kids pick up on that. Dads pick up on it too, and far too many shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, that’s who I am. I’m not needed, not important.” At the same time, I think many dads feel overwhelmed at what their kids are going through in today’s culture. There’s a lot coming at kids, a lot of negative forces, and dads feel like they don’t stand a chance against all that. There’s also a lot of competition for kids’ attention: outside activities, other voices and especially the media. Far too many kids are attached to electronics all day, which makes it harder for dads to feel like they can get through and make an impact. 

OSV: But of course that’s false. As you point out in the book, fathers are critically important in every aspect of their daughters’ development. 

Meeker: Exactly. Dad is the key figure in the formation of a healthy identity. Sports don’t make a girl feel better about herself. Academics don’t make her feel better about herself. Excelling at gymnastics, dance, art, none of that makes her feel better about herself. What makes her feel better about herself is the belief that her dad likes who she is and takes the time to want to be with her. If a daughter sees that her dad believes she’s smart, valuable and beautiful, that’s what she starts to believe about herself, and that’s who she becomes. 

OSV: That’s especially true when it comes to her sexual identity, right? 

Meeker

Meeker: Yes. When a dad is involved and giving her the attention and affection she needs, a daughter feels good about herself and takes care of herself. If he doesn’t do that, she doesn’t believe she’s valuable and is more likely to throw herself away on any guy because she wants male attention. Girls in their teen years aren’t sexually active for the physical payoff. They’re sexually active because they crave male attention. For girls who spend time with their dad and get positive affection from him, the risk of getting sexually active in the teen years plummets. There’s a clear correlation between the two. 

OSV: What are two things fathers need to remember about their daughters?

Meeker: First, their daughters want them. Dads don’t realize that a daughter, regardless of age, always wants her dad’s admiration and affection. Dads perceive that girls want new clothes, money or a car, but deep down it’s attention, admiration and affection. Second, daughters are much more open to communicating with their dads than dads realize they are. Men bond through activity, so they’ll say, “Let’s go for a bike ride or a hike.” But daughters are relational people and bond through conversation. Conversation is how she feels closer to her dad, so if the dad makes a regular effort to draw her into a conversation, she’ll respond and it will bring them closer together. 

OSV: What are some easy ways dads can build that bond with their daughters? 

Meeker: I’m a big fan of dads doing outdoor activities with their daughters, like hiking or renting a canoe for half a day. It’s an activity, which dads like, but they can use the time to talk, which daughters like. Plus it keeps both the kids and dads away from electronics. It’s hard to answer the cell phone when you’re on a bicycle. Another thing they can do is take their daughters on a date. Taking them out to dinner or a movie is special event time with dad, and also gives dads a chance to teach their daughters how they should expect men to treat them. Finally, if dads have a mundane errand to do, they should ask their daughters to join them. Dads need to live life next to their daughters. Girls like to know that they’re needed and that their dad enjoys their company. Even boring activities with dad can be life-changing moments for a girl. 

OSV: What about when a daughter pushes her father away? What do you have to say to dads in those situations? 

Meeker: The first thing to remember is not to take her attitude personally. It’s about her, not you. When she stiffens up when you go to hug her or walks away from a conversation, that signals something is wrong with her, and she needs you more than ever. Spend more time, not less time with her. She needs you to sit down, ask her how she is and listen without interrupting. Don’t use the conversation as a teaching time. Just be her sounding board. If she understands that you really want to hear what she has to say, that’s huge. 

OSV: What about dads who don’t live with their daughters? 

Meeker: Even if your daughter lives across the country, she still craves your attention and admiration. So find a way to reach out to her: phone, email, seeing her as often as possible. Also, as tempting as it is to make all your time together special and well-planned, don’t take on that kind of pressure. That’s your need. Your daughter just wants to be with you. She doesn’t want to be razzle-dazzled. Also, if you know or suspect your daughter is getting an earful of negative stuff about you from her mom, don’t fight back. Don’t malign the mom, and don’t say what she says isn’t true. Just be kind and patient. Your daughter will be attracted to that and will ultimately come around and want to be closer to you. 

OSV: How important is it for dads to set boundaries for their daughters? 

Meeker: Very. Dads have been buffaloed into believing that their daughters will feel closer to them if they let the rules go and give them whatever they want. But daughters feel loved and protected when their dads set down firm rules, especially about things like dating and driving. There is, however, a trick to doing this. Daughters will put up with just about any rule you have as long as you offset the rules with times of fun and joy. If you’re domineering or constantly talking about the rules, they won’t. So, set the rules, be clear about them, then, when your daughter breaks the rules, don’t get drawn into a fight about it. Deliver the consequences and move on with life. If your daughter knows your heart, if she knows you’re setting the boundaries because you love her and want to protect her, she will behave in the ways you want. 

OSV: Any last thoughts for fathers on this Father’s Day? 

Meeker: Just that being a great dad is so much easier than many men think it is. They just need to be themselves and be present without getting hung up on the details. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.