"If human love does not carry a man beyond himself, it is not love. If love is always discreet, always wise, always sensible and calculating, never carried beyond itself, it is not love at all. It may be affection, it may be warmth of feeling, but it has not the true nature of love in it."
So spoke the great teacher Oswald Chambers at the turn of the twentieth century. Love, he taught, is a passionate feeling that needs to suffuse our relationships with others. It can't be calculated, it can't be turned on and off, and it has to be ever-present in your relationship with your daughter.
But as a dad, you know love also requires work and recruitment of the will. If it is to survive, it has to live in the real world. Real love is gritty. It sweats and waits, it causes you to hold your tongue when you want to scream obscenities in anger, and it causes many men to accomplish extraordinary feats.
As natural as the love you feel toward your daughter might me, there will be challenges to that love, from crying squalls when she's a baby, to kindergarten tantrums, to other stresses of growing up that might show themselves in disrupted sleep patterns, moodiness, or ugly language. Your daughter, whatever her age, responds differently to stress than you do. If you're upset, you might watch a football game, go for a jog, or go fishing. Not her. She wants to spill her tensions on you. It makes her feel better. So be ready—and don't be surprised if she does this from an early age.
It's inevitable, too, that your daughter will go through stages. She'll draw close to you, then she'll pull away. She'll adore you, then she'll want nothing to do with you. You need to love her not only when she is your sweet, affectionate girl, but also when she's a real pain in the neck to be around. When she's moody, you still need to communicate with her—and you need to keep yourself from exploding when she's disagreeable.
Always come back
How do you do that? Discipline. Grit. Will.
If you need to distance yourself emotionally for a time, do it. If you need physical separation for a bit, okay. But always come back. Will, patience, calm, and persistence will pay off in your relationship with her. Nothing better expresses serious love than this combination of qualities.
Let her know that nothing she can do, even running away, getting pregnant, tattooing her ankle, or piercing her tongue, can make you stop loving her. Say that if you need to.
Love, as Chambers said, must push us beyond ourselves. It will jab every sensitive part of you and turn you inside out. Having kids is terrifying because parenting is like walking around with your heart outside your chest. It goes to school and gets made fun of. It jumps into cars that go too fast. It breaks and bleeds.
But love is voluntary. Your daughter cannot make you love her or think she is wonderful. She would do that if she could, but she can't. How you love her, and when you show it, is within your control.
Most parents pull away from their teenage daughters, assuming they need more space and freedom. Actually, your teenage daughters need you more than ever. So stick with her. If you don't, she'll wonder why you left her.
A story of one father
When Allison started seventh grade, she changed schools. Her father had recently moved and Allison hated the move. When she got to her new school, she found a few classmates who shared her sour outlook on life. One kid's father drank too much, another's mother had moved away.
She and her friends got into a lot of trouble drinking and smoking dope. After several months of counseling and hard work, Allison's parents decided she needed to receive treatment at a residential home for girls. She was furious. She began lying to her parents and stealing. This was particularly tough on her father, who was a new yet highly respected businessman in the community.
He told me he felt terribly guilty for moving his family and wondered out loud how he had failed Allison.
The weekend before she was to be admitted to the program, John did something brilliant. Painful, but brilliant. He told Allison that the two of them were going camping on an island with very few other people. I'm sure that this wasn't exactly fun to think about for either of them, but he took charge. Miraculously, Allison packed her own things (John was expecting that he would have to). She even put her gear in the car, and off they went.
Neither spoke during the almost four hours in the car. They ferried to the island and set up camp. Over the weekend they talked only occasionally. They went for hikes, made pancakes, and read books. (I'll bet John chose an island because he knew she couldn't run away.) No earth-shattering conversations occurred between them. As a matter of fact, John said he didn't even approach the subject of her bad behavior or the treatment program. They just camped.
After they returned home, Allison left for an eight-month stay at the nearby residential home. She improved, her depression lifted, and eventually she pulled her life back together. Nevertheless, her early high school years were tumultuous, and John's relationship with his daughter remained strained.
But by the time she turned 18, their relationship had turned around. And by the time she graduated from college, he said, his friends were envious of his relationship with Allison.
When she was in her early 20s, Allison talked to her father about those difficult years. She felt guilty for causing her parents so much hurt. She told them she was sorry and that she couldn't believe they had put up with her.
I asked her what had made the difference in her life. Without hesitation, she told me it was the camping trip with her dad.
"I realized that weekend that he was unshakeable. Sure, he was upset, but I saw that no matter what I did I could never push him out of my life. You can't believe how good that made me feel. Of course, I didn't want him to know that then. But that was it—the camping trip. I really think it saved my life. I was on a fast track to self-destruction."
You will always be your daughter's first love. What a great privilege—and opportunity to be a hero—that is.
Taken from Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, copyright © 2006 by Meg Meeker. Used with permission of Regnery Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, "The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids," part of The Strong Parent Project.
1. Read “My First Daddy Daughter Date” and other FamilyLife articles for fathers.
2. Of all the relationships a girl may have, the one with her father is the most critical. Listen as pediatrician Dr. Meg Meeker talks to FamilyLife Today® listeners about the powerful influence of a father.
3. To become a strong, confident woman, a daughter needs her father’s attention, protection, courage, and wisdom. Order Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and learn 10 secrets every father needs to know to strengthen or rebuild bonds with his daughter and shape her life–and his own–for the better.