This article was originally published on Fairfax’s Essential Baby site:
I am not sure who said it but I think there is great wisdom in the words: anyone can be a father, but it takes a good man to be a Dad.
As Fathers’ Day approaches, it’s an opportunity to celebrate our own Dads – or for those who don’t have a relationship with their father, to celebrate other people who fill that role such as good step Dads, uncles and granddads.
Being a Dad is not about biology – it’s about the effort, endeavour and genuine caring that comes from a man who knows he can make a difference, and a man who chooses to make a positive difference in a child’s life.
A Dad’s relationship with his daughter can be particularly profound in shaping her life, especially when it comes to her relationships with men.
In fact, research has shown that the closer a girl is to her father the more delayed puberty will be for her and the later she will become sexually active.
Dr Bruce Robinson in his excellent book, Daughters and Dads, talks about what daughters learn from their Dads and in particular from the unconditional love a Dad can offer, and let’s face it sometimes when things get tough that’s all he can offer.
Dads help their daughters feel self-respect and acceptance. They demonstrate that men and women can negotiate fairly, and teach them what to expect from a male-female relationship. They also show a girl how to relax and be affectionate around men without being sexual.
I’d suggest this role has never been more critical as we live in a world where children are exposed far too early to sexual imagery, information and innuendo.
There is a huge need for a Dad’s protection from this over-sexualised world.
It’s something that’s been played out in a classic scenario probably since time began (or maybe when mini-skirts began), when a father says to his daughter: “You’re not leaving this house dressed like that”.
It’s a minefield for modern Dads to know how to react in this situation. Are they stifling their daughter’s self-expression or coming from a patriarchal viewpoint by objecting to her outfit?
Maybe. I know that Dads often get blamed for not protecting their girls when things go wrong, and girls tell me often that even though they act annoyed at Dad’s protective stance, secretly they know he cares. How can he win?
A Dad’s objections can be useful in simply getting a young girl to re-think her choice — or enforcing a boundary around clothes if they are clearly age-inappropriate.
There’s so much pressure on girls about the way they look and this is an area where Dads can help build their daughter’s sense of identity, self-respect and confidence.
A Dad can start early to reassure his daughter that true worth and value come from within by acknowledging and encouraging her on lots of things, not just how she looks.
He can show her how much he values, accepts and loves his daughter. Dads can do this too by being mindful of how they speak about other women, whether that be their daughter’s mother, the mother-in-law, an actress on TV or our former PM, Julia Gillard.
Girls learn so much about men from their fathers, so it’s also wonderful and empowering when Dad is not afraid to shed a few tears, showing not just strength but vulnerability.
This is tough for many modern men, because often their own father came from a generation where it was more common to be distant, grumpy and largely absent.
I was blessed to spend hours with my Dad and he taught me a lot about life and the power of laughter during my time as his constant offsider on our family farm.
I spent days in close contact with a man who loved nature, his family and his community. He was a social justice campaigner on the quiet and a huge ABC radio fan (There was no TV then!).
Little did I know how this rich exposure would give me the same love of nature, language, books and the ABC. I also learnt about the value of effort and endeavour. He also gave me competences that made me feel capable: mowing lawns, changing washers, light bulbs, car tyres and misbehaving fuses in old houses.
It has only been in the last 10 years of my working life that I have realised the most amazing gift he gave me.
My Dad made me feel I mattered — this concept can mean so much more than the over-used term ‘loved’ — it can profoundly shape the way we see ourselves for the rest of our lives.
He gave me the sense that I had value and I was worthwhile. I am deeply grateful for being given the gift of a Dad, not just a father.