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Dads and Daughters

Between two parents, who owns what in terms of a daughter’s sense of who she is or can be?


Mothers—or Momperson in not traditionally gendered relationships--tend to get most of the credit and blame for mental health outcomes. This is not just a Freudian bit of unfairness, as neuroscience of the late 20th century better explained how the primary social-emotional experience in the first 18 months to 3 years of life is highly predictive of future mental health outcomes.  And the majority of the time,  that's mom-territory.

In as brief a summary as I can muster, the maternal attachment experience sets the template for the child's appraisal system, meaning whether their brain is primed to assign favorable, fearful, or negative expectations about him/herself or others or to generally assume the safety and goodness of their own self and others. Additionally, the warmth and consistency of the mother's attunement influence whether the structures and neural circuitry nascent in those earliest months are robust, capable of producing the right quantities of the neurotransmitters needed for optimal signaling, and ensure the health of receptor sites for same.  This early brain development determines the cohesion of our self-structure, which resides in the emotional memory of the Right-brain.  For the sake of simplicity here let’s just call that “self-worth” and agree that the Mom-people kind of own this category.


The fathers of daughters are less central to this early scaffolding, the core sense of inherent value I described on the Momside, but they do quite a bit in the esteem category.  Esteem is a Left-brain construct, related to a learned sense of self that begins to develop in childhood based on successes or failures in social, academic, athletic, and other performance-based domains.  From my perspective, Dads own the dimension of self-esteem I’m calling altitude. Altitude describes what a girl imagine she can be in the world, as in, how big or how high is it okay to go?  How legitimate does a girl feel her opinions are, and to what extent does she have the right to express them?  To what extent will she have the right assert herself and to disagree with men, even men older than she (like in the workplace, or anywhere in which a man might believe he has power over her)?  To what extent does she believe she can take care of herself and practical things?  Here are some ways altitude gets operationalized, expressed here from the perspective of a daughter:


If you are a daughter whose father teaches you about the world, things like how electricity or a standard combustion engine works or how to determine unit pricing at the grocery store to know whether something on sale is a bargain or not, or the use of those various tools at Home Depot, or how to build a fire and/or grill stuff, or about what he does for a living and why that job matters to the consumer ecosystem, the message you’ve received over the years is that you’re able to both understand and handle practical things, including navigation of and the “business of” the world, which ultimately translates to your confidence that you won’t need a man to take care of certain things, up to and including making you safe (but, since your dad did make it possible for you to believe that men are pretty good overall, you might like to someday have one around for companionship or procreation or whatever).


If you are a daughter whose father asks your opinion on things, and then challenges you to explain how you arrived at that opinion, not only has he taught you that you have a right to one, but also that he believes you have the intellect to formulate a defensible one, and the fortitude to not be a simpering idiot that goes around saying things like “I just FEEL…” (whatever) or completely inane shit—recently evangelized by social and the mainstream media--about “my truth.”


If you are a daughter whose dad told her to stand up straight, look people in the eye, and taught you to deliver a firm handshake, the message he conveyed was that you—your presence and your power--are not less than others because you are a girl.


If you are a daughter whose father demands that you not be intellectually lazy, or refuses to commend you for your participation in a sport in which you didn’t really try and thus never really won, or demands that you “figure it out for yourself” even when everyone else’s parents are taking care of that thing for their kid, he has shown respect for your capability and capacity, and is teaching you to expect the same from yourself.


If you are a daughter whose father listens to you brag about your wins, and not only doesn’t chastise you with some foolish prattle grounded in Christian piety about “not getting a big head” but instead high-fives you on your greatness, your dad has taught you that you can and should expect to win, and that you can be as big as you want to and can be, and you need make no apologies to those who did not put in the work like you did, and those you outpace in the meritocracy.


I am optimistic that many of my FaceBook Friend Dads are contributing to their daughters’ altitude pretty well (based on “about what” they brag on their daughters about on this platform). But if any of you dads are being held back (i.e. NOT making effort to this end) due to any residual notion that men/you can’t relate to their/your daughters—“because they’re girls”—as well as their sons, I’ll encourage you to basically STOP THINKING LIKE THAT.  Leave it to Mom to relate to your daughter “as a girl.”


It’s your job, Dad, as the owner of altitude, to relate to her as a person, one whose arc and experience will not be unfavorably circumscribed by her female gender, and that you, as the proxy for the “world” that will receive her, believe in her wits, courage, decisiveness, and potential for greatness.


In loving memory of Terry Ihlenfeld, to whom I owe much gratitude for my own experience of altitude as I have here defined. Originally posted to Face Book on Father's Day 2022. (Yes that is my dad and me in the picture.)


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