By Carrie Gress
ROME, DEC. 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The way a father treats his daughter is a strong indicator of how she will relate to men for the rest of her life, says author and teen-health expert Doctor Meg Meeker.
Meeker, who has practiced pediatric and adolescent medicine, as well as teen counseling, is the author of “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know,” by Regnery Publishing. The book highlights how the fundamental relationship of a girl with her father can affect all areas of her life.
In this interview with ZENIT, Meeker, who also wrote “Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids,” talks about the profound role a father plays in his daughter’s life, whether he knows it or not.
Q: A father is a daughter’s best ally seems to be the consensus of your book. While studies say that it is parents who are the key to their children’s happiness, what is the unique offering of a father to a daughter that a mother cannot offer, especially in her relationship to God?
Meeker: I think that one of the reasons I wanted to address this issue head-on, is that a father is a daughter’s great ally, which today is not only overlooked, but is directly attacked. If you look at the typical sitcom, the father is portrayed as someone who is comical, humorous and just plain dumb, and as though he has something to learn from his daughter.
Research shows that a father’s influence builds up self-esteem, helps his daughter to avoid sex, drugs, alcohol, and stay in college. What it is that a father offers is that he carries an authority in his daughter’s eyes. This authority is not ascribed to the mother, not that she is not important, but a father’s influence is different.
When a girl is little, her dad is her primary male love relationship. When he gives her something as a man, she learns lessons about men, setting a template in those early years on her heart about what to expect, to think, to feel, and know about men from there on out, affecting even her relationship to God, because Christ is a man.
Q: What are the specific characteristics of a dad that help daughters in their development?
Meeker: One of the big ones is a sense of protectiveness. It is intuitive in a dad’s heart to protect and guard a daughter. Our culture, however, has been training men not to do that because gender neutrality has become such a big deal.
The reason this is very important is because, particularly in the area of sexuality, dad has an enormous role. Girls are under sexual siege, with aggressive marketing, especially in clothing, from the age of 6 on. If a father, feeling protective, says, “I don’t want my daughter going to school in a jog bra,” and mom says, “No, this is the way girls dress,” a father needs to trust his judgment. Sometimes his intuition is better on this one.
Another is that dads in general tend to be very pragmatic and solution-oriented, discovering first what the problem is, and then how to get to the solution. Sometimes women are insulted, because we think differently, but this difference is wonderful. A man says, “Now, what’s the problem? What can we do?” This pragmatism can serve a daughter well in teen years.
For example, perhaps a boyfriend has broken up with her. A girl will feel sad, think she is too fat, too stupid — all kinds of things get added to the situation in her own mind. But dad compartmentalizes, “What’s the problem? What can we do to solve it? Just because he broke up with you, doesn’t mean all these other things are true.”
However, the most important thing a father can do is live a life of integrity — living truthfully. A daughter, within 15 seconds, can tell if her father is in a bad mood, good mood, telling the truth or not, etc. Those fathers who don’t live truthfully do a great disservice because a daughter doesn’t believe in him, doesn’t trust him. Dads think they need to earn heroism, but they really don’t. The role of a hero is just given to him until proven otherwise. Most dads don’t know this.
One thing I try to do is help fathers get behind their daughter’s eyes, see you as she sees you. If you compared your vision of yourself to how she sees you, your life would never be the same.
Q: You say that there is a clear connection between depression in girls and young women and sexual activity. How can a father’s love help protect against this in our sexually saturated culture?
Meeker: Depression in girls is all about ungrieved losses accumulated in the heart. This connection can be backed up with medical data, although no one has studied it extensively. But what I have found is that as a culture, we are bombarded with sexual saturation. Sexual activity is through the roof and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are at an all-time high.
When girls approach sexuality, a huge emotional component is involved. When a girl is sexually active once, and it doesn’t matter if it is oral sex or intercourse, she incurs a loss. In the physical act, she has lost something in her heart, her virginity, her respect for herself. When girls feel this, if they don’t acknowledge that they are hurt and that something that happened to them, then they will live with unresolved grief, which leads to depression.
Another interesting phenomenon is that if a young person has a bad sexual experience that didn’t meet their expectations, both boys and girls, they will immediately think they did something wrong — not, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” In order to correct this “wrong,” they will try to make up for it in some other experience, which leads to a downward spiral of messy relationships, physical risk and emotional damage.
Ironically, while our culture is now immunizing girls against STDs, we endlessly market sex to them, paying little attention to all the layers of risk. This, incidentally, would never happen with cigarettes or alcohol, where we would give kids an immunization against lung cancer yet promote smoking. This problem is missed by many because sexual freedom has come to be seen as a right.
Q: You suggest the importance of raising a daughter with humility, emphasizing that she should see the world like a pioneer, asking, “What can I do for others,” instead of like a princess who lives with a sense of entitlement. How can this contribute to her long-term happiness?
Meeker: One of the greatest mistakes that parents make in their kids is a misunderstanding of what happiness and joy is in their kids. Parents just want their kids to be happy, but they perceive incorrectly that it comes from receiving pleasure, so when children receive, receive, receive, happiness does not come, resulting in a lot of unhappy kids.
Despite our material wealth, depression rates have never been so high. Clearly we are missing something. Parents have been duped. What works is when we teach kids to serve, to look beyond themselves. Real joy and happiness comes when kids understand that they have a purpose in life, and a mission to fulfill. The only way to get them to understand this is to look beyond self and doing good for others.
This is the source of real transformation, but this can’t happen without humility, the opposite of which is pride. When parents instill humility, a kid understands that he or she is important, and lovable, but not separate from others in their humanity. If a kid really wants to feel good about himself, humility brings people closer, whereas pride separates.
A kid raised without humility will always strive to be better than others, smarter than others, but can only bring a frustrated “happiness” because no one can always be the best at everything. True happiness for kids, then, is to give them a purpose to fulfill through working, striving, giving to and for others.
Q: There is repeated mention in the book that a father should do all he can to keep a family together. Why is this so important, and what can men do to care for their daughters if they find themselves divorced or widowed?
Meeker: First, we as a culture have failed to teach boys to live courageously, which means to live with profound discomfort. In not being taught how to live, men have been failed.
All the psychology, pediatric, and medical literature says divorce is at the top of the list for of putting kids at risk for all high-risk behaviors. It is an enormous factor in kids’ emotional, mental and physical health. My job is to try to help fathers stick it out with difficult wives until their daughters are older. The longer they can wait, the better it is for kids. Kids need full cognitive skills to cope with the trauma of divorce, and men need to call upon courage to gut it out.
A father who is separated from his daughter must maintain as strong a connection as possible, which means big phone bills, letters, pressing his way into her life in a gentle but firm manner. Stick with her over the long haul. Even when the daughter pulls back, the father has to be the grown-up. If you get your feelings hurt, forget it, it’s not about you. Don’t take it personally, maintain your integrity and rely on God to give you the strength to persevere.
And angry mothers need to know that you can divorce your daughter’s father, but she can’t. She has emotional needs, no matter what damage has been done. Give her the right to have a relationship with her dad.
If a father refuses to stop loving, a daughter will respond eventually. A daughter will follow where a dad leads when she knows she is loved.