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If there's one thing I've learned as a father of two kids, it's that valuable parenting lessons are often hiding in plain sight. When my 17-year-old daughter, Grace, was little, we found out that she had a shrunken optic nerve, a birth defect that made her legally blind in one eye. This meant that she would have to wear a patch for several hours a day over the stronger eye so the weaker one wouldn't atrophy. A rebel even then, Grace quickly figured out that all she had to do was reach up and take it off when we weren't looking. Our wonderful doctor said a common solution was to have her wear splints made out of rolled-up magazines and masking tape so she couldn't bend her arms. Marching around the house, she looked like a cute—though cranky—little robot. But it made me sad, and I felt like a cruel father. In the end, though, those thousands of hours paid off, because today she's regained some of the sight in that eye.
I tell this tale to illustrate the kinds of painful choices her mom and I made through the years with Grace and her kid brother, Joseph, that might have seemed draconian when taken out of context. But our hearts were in the right place. When it comes to parenting, my template is this: Restrict when it matters, give breathing room when it doesn't. The catch is in knowing the difference.
There have been plenty of opportunities for me to learn, like the time when 5-year-old Grace said I was stupid and I forced her to apologize. She did, her way: "I'm sorry you're stupid." I laughed, which some might say is wrong. I say it's picking your battles. Also, it was funny. Then there was the time she rode her tricycle through the back door of our screened-in porch and down the stairs, only minutes after I told her to slow down. I heard the commotion and found her in a tangled heap at the bottom of the steps, whimpering, her arms and legs flailing. I was sure she was grievously injured, but she didn't have a scratch on her. I hugged her close, then punished her by letting her watch her Madeline video only five times that day instead of 12. So as you can clearly see, though I also think consistency is a good rule, it's easier said than done.
But past is prelude, and all of those childhood challenges pale in comparison to that ominous storm cloud sitting out on the horizon now, the one that starts with "b," ends in "s," and has "oy!" in the middle. I started noticing not too long ago that guys seemed to be staring at the space next to me when I was out walking with my kids. Then one day it finally penetrated my dumb dad brain: "OMG! They're looking at Grace!"
Even worse, I started remembering what it's like to be a teenage boy. Growing up in the hills of western Virginia, I was that clean-cut kid who said "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am" and got good grades—just the type, I figured, that any man would want to date his daughter. Boy, was I wrong. Savvy, ornery dads saw me coming a mile away. I was a smarmy, hillbilly Eddie Haskell looking for love in all the wrong places—that is, with their little angels. One met me at the back door with a shotgun when I brought his daughter home an hour after curfew. Another brandished an even scarier weapon: Fruit of the Looms. Wearing nothing but his underwear when I arrived, he summoned me inside, then laid down the law from his recliner—do not touch, do not kiss, do not pass go. I was so freaked that the evening went exactly according to plan—his, not mine.
Well, now that Grace is a tall, beautiful, and strong-willed teenager, I understand the protective instinct that drove these dads. And I'd really like to use their lessons to indoctrinate a new generation of boys in how to behave—or not to behave—around her. But even an army of boxer-shorted gun nuts would have a rough time with fatherhood now. That's especially true in my case, since Grace's mom and I split up several years ago, and her mother does the lion's share of the day-to-day parenting. I'm not around all the time to literally guard the door.
And even if I were, that idea is sort of ridiculously passé in 2010 America. The concept of a "date," as people of my generation would think of it, is long gone. Kids are more likely to just hook up in groups and add and subtract from the pod via texting as the night goes along. Tech has made it possible for them to know exactly where their friends are at all times. When I was growing up, my buddies knew if I was out with a girl too, but for a different reason: I had to call my dates on a party line, and my neighbors could listen in. (For you city slickers, in a lot of rural areas several homes still share the same phone line.) But in today's world, all that teen chatter usually flies under the parental radar. And even if I do happen to be around when Grace is on Facebook, she immediately switches to French, which she understands but I do not. It's enough to make a dad shout, "Sacre bleu!" If only I knew what that meant.
Things were simpler in those halcyon days of yore, or so it seemed. There were only about 200 girls in my high school, and that included grades 8 through 12. In that finite pool of dates to pick from, I'm pretty sure about 198 of them weren't all that interested in being "chosen" by a 6'3" guy who weighed 140 pounds and had a head the size of a pumpkin. (For more information on how it worked out with the other two girls, see guns and boxers, previous page.)
But Grace's choices aren't limited by the mere physical boundaries of which town or even which country she grew up in. She's already seen a lot of the world, not all of it good. She's been mugged in Italy, but she's also bicycled across France, and this summer will spend time in Haiti on a Presbyterian mission trip to help build a school for earthquake orphans. Her experiences at the tender age of 17 rival mine at age 49, and that makes my role as an overly protective father (my default setting) a lot tougher. And as the years pass—far too quickly, I might add—she's away from me, both literally and figuratively, more and more.
I try to convince myself that maybe it's all good and that these life lessons will steel her for the road ahead. I sure hope so, because it's hard out there for dads these days. For a man, trying to figure out adolescent girls is more confusing than the continued popularity of The View. In fact, if I wanted to get rich, I'd write a What to Expect When You're Expecting-style guide, only it would be called You Are an Idiot for Buying a Book About Being the Father of a Teenage Daughter Because Nobody Has Any Idea How to Do That.
But as my favorite singer, Lyle Lovett, likes to say, "What would you be if you didn't even try? You have to try." So I do my best to make the smartest decisions regarding Grace from moment to moment. And I hope she'll realize that when I taped splints on her arms and forced her into that Lilliputian cyclops getup for a few years, it was because I loved her. If I've put the patches on the right places since then, she'll march off into the world clear-eyed, confident, and comfortable in her own skin. She'll know that I have her back no matter what, and that if I should embarrass her in front of a guy...well, I'm sorry I'm stupid.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.