When I was sixteen years old, I decided that I was going to be a physician and getting there became my singular goal. My parents never pushed me academically, but they supported my interest. During my senior year of college, I submitted applications to fifteen medical schools. Each one returned to my mailbox with a simple answer: we’re not interested in you.
At twenty-one, I felt that my life was over. Plan A failed and I had no Plan B. After the rejection letters, I went to stay at my parents’ home for a month to try and figure life out. One Sunday afternoon I went for a jog, and when I came back into their house, I heard my father talking to a friend on the telephone. Since I am a nosy sort, I leaned against the door of his study to eavesdrop. I heard my father say to his friend, “Yes, my daughter Meg will be going to medical school in the next few years.”
I was stunned. Why would he say such a thing after I had been rejected fifteen times? Had he bribed a medical school admissions director, or did he know something about me that I didn’t know about myself? It didn’t matter. I heard the words he spoke, the tone that he used with them, and in an instant I realized something profound: I would indeed go to medical school because my father believed that I would.
The following year, I was accepted to medical school and began my lifelong career. But the words that my father spoke about me that Sunday afternoon changed the woman that I became. They gave me an unshakable confidence and certainty about myself that I could do anything or be anyone I wanted to be. Several years later I thanked my father for saying those words and, imagine this, he didn’t even remember having the conversation with his friend. I was dumbfounded. He said something that changed my life yet he didn’t even remember saying it.
Here is a lesson for every father reading this: your daughters are listening to your words, your tone of voice, and they are waiting to hear you communicate what you really believe about them. They don’t want false encouragement or insincere compliments. They want to know your deep beliefs about them, because when they find them, they will internalize those beliefs and become the woman you believe them to be. This is the power that a father has in his daughter’s life.
When you walk into a room, your daughter searches for clues about what you think, like, and admire about her. She needs to find those clues because they will shape her identity and character. If your daughter comes home from kindergarten and shows you the alphabet she drew but you keep texting on your phone, she learns that she isn’t worth your time. If your teen daughter goes on a date with a guy and you insist on meeting him, looking him in the eyes, and shaking his hand, she feels loved (embarrassed, but loved.) If you are frequently angry with her, she concludes that she is a bad person.
Daughters have a way of uncovering their father’s true feelings, beliefs and hopes for them. They feel encouraged when their mothers compliment them, but a mother’s words don’t carry the same weight; not because daughters respect or love their mothers any less. Daughters simply believe that their mothers are supposed to say positive things about them because that’s their job. But when a father says encouraging words, they penetrate right to the heart. This phenomenon gives fathers an authority in a daughter’s eyes that begins with a capital “A.”
I am convinced that if every father could see himself from behind his daughter’s eyes, he would never be the same. He would know that he is loved, admired, and deeply wanted. He wouldn’t worry about making enough money to buy her a car, send her to the right school, or buy a bigger home. Instead, he would focus on spending more time with her because he would see that being with him is what she really wants. He would play more, go on more bike rides, take more walks in the woods, and closely examine every single boy that she wants to date. He would protect her fiercely because he would know how much she loves seeing that she is worth fighting for. He would hug her more often because he would realize that her self esteem stems more from feeling loved by him than from any measure of success she has in sports, at school or in the arts.
Many fathers don’t realize that they are the most important man in a daughter’s life. A father is a girl’s introduction to male love. She hears his deep voice, feels his scratchy hands on her face, and knows that he is different from her mother. If she receives love and affection from her father, she learns that male love is good. If she learns to trust him to care for her and meet her needs, then she realizes that men are trustworthy. Her father sets a template for her regarding what she should expect from boys and men. If her father is loving and kind, then she will expect her brothers, teachers, coaches, boyfriends, and eventually her husband to be so as well. Most importantly, she learns that God the Father can be trusted.
But the flip side is also true. If a daughter learns that her father is cruel, unpredictable, and unworthy of trust, then she approaches all male figures this way. In fact, many married women have difficulty with genuine intimacy and trust with their husbands because of unresolved issues with their fathers. We adult women superimpose the character of our fathers onto our husbands. Sometimes this is a good thing, but many times it causes serious tension in the marriage.
Fathering a daughter is one of the toughest jobs but greatest joys a man can experience. If you are a father of a daughter and feel disheartened with the relationship, know one truth: it is never too late for you to reconcile with your daughter. Because every daughter- regardless of her age wants either more healing and reconciliation or simply more time to enjoy her dad.
We encourage you to explore Dr. Meeker’s new resource for dads: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters Devotional. Father’s Day is coming!