In Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D., lays out her argument as to why a young girl's father is the most important person in her life. Building on over twenty years of medical practice, including counseling girls, Meeker has come to the conclusion that the father is primarily the one who shapes the path of his female children. The subtitle for the book is, 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, and Meeker outlines each secret in the book's 10 chapters. Yet, in reading her book I discovered that, while some of Meeker's claims may run counter to what our culture tells us, most of the methodologies she posits are very intuitive, demonstrating a common sense approach towards the task of fatherhood. Was it, then, a waste of time to read the book? Certainly not! While the points Meeker explains should be common knowledge, in my opinion, I fear that our culture has denigrated the decidedly male role of father to nothing more than that of breadwinner. I also fear that too many men have been derelict in their responsibility of being their children's, and in this context, their daughter's fathers. What Meeker does, so elegantly, is lay out the very real and very important influence that fathers have on their daughters.
That said, here is my review of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.
Fathers, Meeker tells us from the outset, exert an influence on their daughters, the power of which they are completely unaware of. Culture, as she will explain, demeans the role of the father. Yet, despite such negative influences, daughters desperately want the influence of their fathers. Her advice is simple, yet direct: have an honest interest in your daughter; believe in her; let her know you LOVE her; force family time; above all, protect her.
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Most of you out there are good men... but you are good men who have been derided by a culture that does not care for you, that, in terms of the family, has ridiculed your authority, denied your importance, and tried to fill you with confusion about your role. But I can tell you that fathers change lives... You are natural leaders, and your family looks to you for qualities that only fathers have. You were made a man for a reason, and your daughter is looking to you for guidance that she cannot get from her mother.
Chapter One - You Are the Most Important Man in Her Life
A father influences his daughter in a myriad of ways, from small to large. Within a toxic culture, daughters need their fathers. They need the support of their fathers. Meeker notes that daughters, while they may sometimes take their mothers for granted, never do so with their fathers. Daughters, as she sees it, notice their father's every move... and they desperately want their fathers to notice them.
In a culture obsessed with sex, daughters are in special need of their father's direction. For example, beginning in elementary school, children are given sex education and, for children ages twelve to fifteen, the Sexuality Information and Education Council for the United States recommends informing them that some sexual behaviors shared by partners include such activities as oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse.
And it doesn't stop once she gets home, what with the internet and cable TV. As Meeker states, the decadence is all around your daughter - the sexual promiscuity, alcohol abuse, foul language, illegal drugs, and predatory boys and men. Meeker provides several pages of research data results, which provide a glimpse into the current state of affairs with our youth with regards to sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, depression, and media use. Yet, she also provides the research findings regarding the influence of a father with regards to girls, young and old, and such research points to fathers having an overwhelming positive influence. While the job is by no means easy, Meeker asserts that the data, and her experience, indicate that fathers are able to guide their daughters into becoming healthy adults.
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...I have watched daughters talk to fathers. When you come in the room, they change. Everything about them changes: their eyes, their mouths, their gestures, their body language. Daughters are never lukewarm in the presence of their fathers. ...They watch you intensely. They hang on your words. They hope for your attention, and they wait for it in frustration - or in despair. They need a gesture of approval, a nod of encouragement, or even simple eye contact to let them know you care and are willing to help.
...If you fully understood just how profoundly you can influence your daughter's life, you would be terrified, overwhelmed, or both. Boyfriends, brothers, even husbands can't shape her character the way you do. You will influence her entire life because she gives you an authority she gives no other man.
Chapter Two - She Needs a Hero
Meeker argues that your daughter wants - needs - to know that she is worth fighting for. She needs a hero figure in her life and she looks to her father to fill that role. The hero she needs, though, must be willing to stand up to a culture that opposes his role, as well as be willing to take potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable stances in order to protect her. Meeker advises that fathers should be humble, yet courageous, and highlights two qualities they need to master: Leadership, and Perseverance.
Contrary to what many in our culture may affirm, Meeker claims that daughters not only need an authority figure in their lives, they want one. She states that our daughters don't want to see us (fathers) as an equal, but as someone who is wiser, steadier, and stronger than she is. And she says that, based on her counseling experience, one way that a father can alienate his daughter is by losing her respect in not following through to lead and protect her. Quite simply, she wants to know if you think she's worth fighting for. Be strict, but be kind and, above all, loving.
A strong leader must also be one who perseveres and, most importantly, who lives by the same standards he sets. There will be many times when your daughter will test your standards. The easy way out may be to give in and relax the standards you have set. A good leader, however, will remain true to his standards, regardless of whether or not his daughter begins testing him, regardless or whether or not his daughter's friends are allowed certain lax standards, and regardless of whether or not his daughter's friend's parents have set low standards. Be a hero to your daughter by being a father who is a leader that exhibits "true masculinity" as a "moral exercise of authority."
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Let me tell you a secret: many daughters challenge their fathers... They'll dive into a power struggle with you, not to see how tough you are, but to see how much you really care about them. So remember that when she pushes hard against your rules, flailing, crying that you are mean or unfair, she is really asking you a question: Am I worth the fight, Dad? Are you strong enough to handle me? Make sure she knows the answer is yes.
This is a tall order, but I have seen enough heroic fathers to know that it's an order that every good man can fill if he sets himself to it. All it requires is that you be a man, a real man, which means a man of courage, perseverance, and integrity. You were made a man for a reason. You were made a man to be a strong, loving husband and father. So listen to your instincts, and do what's right. Be a hero.
Chapter Three - You Are Her First Love
Building off of the previous chapter, Meeker now posits that a father is his daughter's first love and that she will compare every other man (in her life) to her father. Her choice in men will reflect her relationship with you, whether it be good or bad.
Meeker's admonition to men is that they will have to continually prove, to their daughters, that they love them. While a man might be prone to straightforward thinking, with regards to actions of love, his daughter will react in a much more complex fashion. She will read meaning into virtually all of her father's actions. Meeker recommends the following steps, a pattern, for aiding a father's expression of sincere love for his daughter:
- Words - use them. Use twice what you may think necessary. Tell your daughter not only that you love her, buy why. Then repeat it again, and again. Leave her "love notes", and expect that she'll treasure them.
- Fences - build them. Build them so that she knows you think she's worth protecting. She'll try to knock them down - don't let her. She's still learning how to make good decisions and really won't be able to until she's in her 20s.
- Silence - listen to her. Really listen to her. Be genuinely interested in her and her interests.
- Time - spend it with her and make it count. You don't need to do anything, except be with her, and be attentive to her.
- Will - have an ample supply of it. Her moods will shift and you have to keep from exploding when she's in a mood swing. You must learn to be able to let her know that nothing she does will drive you away.
Meeker has, evidently, seen many a case of eating disorders and, as such, clearly recommends the close relationship between a father and a daughter. At the close of the chapter she reiterates the need for words, fences, silence, time, and will, especially if one's daughter has succumbed to the ravages of an eating disorder.
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You have other loves in your life, but she doesn't. Every man who enters her life will be compared to you; every relationship she has with a man will be filtered through her relationship with you...
...you need, first and foremost, to tell her you love her. ...she needs to hear it even more when she is fifteen. She needs to hear you say it all the time.
I can guarantee you one thing: if you listen to your daughter attentively for ten minutes every day, by the end of the month you'll have a completely new relationship with her.
Chapter Four - Teach Her Humility
Our culture seems to thrive on the notion that we, as parents, were created to entertain our children, making sure that they are, above all, happy. However, your daughter must be taught to be good, rather than to be happy. You, as a father, must do this by example. While our culture considers humility to be a sign of weakness, it must be taught, as it is the beginning of every good virtue.
Teach your daughter humility, and it will impart the following qualities on her:
- It will make her feel significant. Yet, make sure to build up the person, and not the accomplishments. Make sure she knows that the world is larger than she is, and let her fail. She needs to understand that people are valuable simply because they are human, not simply because of what they do.
- It will strengthen her relationships. By learning humility, she will be able to enjoy people for who they are.
- It will keep her balanced. She will understand that happiness is not the goal in life. She will understand that seeking happiness will quickly lead to selfish self-indulgence. She will learn that happiness is truly found when it is routinely denied. Instead of a fleeting happiness, she will get - purpose.
- It keeps her living in reality. Our culture too readily sends the message that our children deserve things and that it is their parent's responsibility to provide it for them. Humility keeps her in the real world.
Meeker couches a caveat in this advice - avoid causing your daughter to think she is the center of the universe simply because of all the attention you give her.
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I know it sounds like an oxymoron to say that humility will make your daughter feel more significant, but here's why it's true. To fulfill her potential, your daughter needs to understand who she is, where she comes from, and where she's going. And her understanding needs to be accurate.
From what I've seen in my office, the evidence is overwhelming: girls who are emotionally solid and intellectually and morally sound are girls with humility, who understand that they have to fit into the family, and that the family doesn't orbit around them.
Chapter Five - Protect Her, Defend Her (and use a shotgun if necessary)
Because of our culture's decadence, you need to actively protect your daughter from its influence. You need to have a set of firmly established and well defined moral codes in place, especially regarding sexual activity, for your daughter to latch onto.
Meeker lays out two main steps that parents (especially fathers) need to follow, with regards to protecting their daughters:
- Establish a plan. She will compare all other boys and men to you, including how she will expect to be treated. Hug her and tell her you love her - all the time (and especially in her teen years). Teach her that modesty is simply another form of self-respect, that it honors her integrity. Set up a dress code.
- Protect her from sex. Meeker is a doctor. She has firsthand experience in dealing with STDs among teenage girls, and she lays out the evidence for the STD epidemic our culture faces. Indeed, she posits that teenage depression is directly related to sexual activity, and that it should be considered a form of STD. Yet, our culture expects, even demands, that our children be sexually active. You can keep her on the right path by teaching her to wait. You need to teach her why and how to stay away from sex.
Inherent in Meeker's advice is the fact that teenagers actually want to know what their parents think. She closes out the chapter with some orthodox steps, as well as some unorthodox ones, fathers should take:
- Teach self-respect early. Let her know that her body is special and that she needs to keep it special. Teaching her modesty will, in the long run, make her feel better about herself.
- When she dates, sweep out the garage. Every boy she dates needs to know that he's accountable to you and that, when he brings her home from the date, you'll be waiting (hence, the "sweep out the garage when she gets home" advice). Meeker notes that this advice is especially useful even for the "nice girls" out there simply because she's seen too many "nice girls" end up having sex with their boyfriends only because they didn't want to hurt their feelings.
- Plan with her. Teach your daughter that sex is for later. Give her the reasons why, which include not only medical data, but moral and emotional reasons as well.
- Say something. Let her know that she is special. Let her know that you treasure her. Let her know that you have dreams about her future.
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I've studied the medical data. I've thought long and hard about my patients. I've talked to kids and parents. I've consulted with my medical colleagues. There is a solution to the problem of girls having sex too soon and with too many boys. The answer is: YOU.
Chapter Six - Pragmatism and Grit: Two of Your Greatest Assets
Men, by their general nature*, have the tenacity to apply pragmatic solutions to many a family problem. This may annoy women, who by their general nature, attempt to solve the problem by first attempting to understand it.
"What can we do?" is the pragmatic question that men tend to apply to a problem. Men see problems and immediately want to do something about them.
Meeker posits that daughters need a father's pragmatism in order to best teach them how to approach and solve their problems. She divides women into two broad categories: Princesses and Pioneers. Princesses essentially think the world revolves around them and, as a result, should serve them. Pioneers essentially know how to work for they want. Unfortunately, our culture tends to produce self-centered princesses (independent of whether or not the person is rich or poor). Fathers would do well to teach their daughters to face problems with the mindset of, "What can I do about it?"
Regarding grit, Meeker argues that men are endowed with the ability to persevere in intense situations (sometimes to their detriment). Fathers need to teach their daughters the fine art of persevering, continuing on, fighting the good fight, and finding solutions to life's problems.
Meeker admonishes men that, in order to teach these two qualities, they must keep their family together, they must be at home, and they must stay married. You need to give your daughter a rock she can hold on to.
* The claim of this chapter, that men and women have inherent qualities, has sparked spirited discussions on this blog (and another). It is not my intent to debate Meeker's claims in this book review. She, note - she, has made the claims based on over 20 years of medical practice which involved counseling girls and their parents.
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Frustrated as wives can be with husbands who are program-driven, goal-oriented, and task-solving, men have these qualities for a reason. It is a father's programs, goals, and actions that can make the difference in solving a daughter's problems.
Chapter Seven - Be the Man You Want Her to Marry
Fathers should be men of integrity by, first and foremost, modeling it. Be honest, tough, and loving. See it, Do it, Teach it. In doing so, your daughter will expect as much in the man she marries (who, most likely, will be a reflection of you).
Have no secrets either in your marriage (with your wife), or in your family (as a father). Related to this admonition is Meeker's advice to put your family first, ahead of your career (how unorthodox is that, in today's culture?).
Good men. They're hard to find. Help your daughter learn how to see men... and their motives. Help her understand how to put family first by modeling and living out honesty, integrity, humility, and relationship.
Keep aware of finding a balance between protecting and smothering. Fight for her, but don't limit her. Give her freedom, but don't let her take unwarranted chances. Especially in today's technologically connected society, teach her the importance of having real relationships vs. having electronic ones.
Meeker adds a section, in this chapter, in which she cautions for extra protection, with regards to "nice girls," who sometimes fall prey to sexual violence, primarily due to their being unaware of potential dangers because of their desire to help another person.
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If you live this way, your daughter will perceive that she, too, is a gift. You might even tell her that on occasion. She is a gift who has changed your life through her love, compassion, and strength. Teach her that she is enough. She needs to know this so that when she chooses a husband, she will look for another man who considers her a gift, who considers her "enough."
Chapter Eight - Teach Her Who God Is
Being humans, we are not perfect. Your daughter needs to have a hope in something greater than you. Your daughter needs to learn about God, and she needs to learn about Him from you. Her perception of you very well could be how she identifies with God. Without directly speaking of the Imago Dei, the image of God, Meeker states that your daughter has the desire to believe in someone more loving than you. Meeker categorically states that she makes these recommendations as a doctor, and then relates research data which supports the notion that there are physical benefits associated with a belief in God. She then clarifies that, when she speaks about knowing God, she is referring to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Meeker also references the book Soul Searching which, interestingly enough, was quoted quite a bit in a talk, my wife and I attended, given by Brett Kunkle of Stand to Reason, a Christian apologetics organization (see this post). Some interesting points, made in the book Soul Searching,
- Today's kids want more religion than we are giving them.
- Today's kids want more traditional religion (grounded in an established foundation).
- Today's kids want to know what is really right and wrong.
Relying on her years of experience, she relates how she has witnessed kids, whether raised with religion or not, have an innate sense of the supernatural. Essentially relying on the argument from meaning, Meeker posits that a belief in God completes us, and gives one a sense of hope. And hope gives your daughter the strength to persevere.
Being human, you will occasionally fail in some aspect of your relationship with your daughter. When you do fail, remember to admit your mistake, sincerely apologize, and move forward. You should model forgiveness, mercy, and a fresh start. You, her father, are the first authority figure for her, so be a good father. If you don't happen to believe in God, or follow much of a tradition as such, then begin - for her sake. If you do believe in God, then take your belief and follow through with action, such as prayer, Bible study, church attendance, service, etc.
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Your daughter needs a faith in God, because life will inevitably take her to a place where neither you nor anyone else can help. And when she gets there, she will either be alone or put her trust in a loving God. So when she experiences this, do you know what your daughter will do?... Will she pray? Will she know who she's praying to? What she does during those pivotal times in her life depends on you.
Chapter Nine - Teach Her to Fight
A father need to teach his daughter how to stand up for principles and what is right. She needs to learn how and when to act. Teach her how to assess her impulses, both the good and the bad, and then how to clarify and weed out the bad. She needs to learn this in order to fight against a very toxic culture. She needs to learn how to do this early on, before her teenage years. Left on her own, she will invariably rely on her emotions to guide her decisions. Teach her how to balance her feelings with reason in order to make wise decisions.
As a father, your goals should be for your daughter to possess emotional depth, intelligence, wisdom, physical strength, and mental prowess. And especially remember that she wants to engage you in discussion about her decisions.
Clarify, and then model your strength and morals, being particularly clear so as not to confuse your message to her. She will be watching you. Teach her to think, decide, and act. The payoff will be in how she responds to crisis situations not only in her high school years, but beyond.
Pay particular attention to these cultural standards which must be fought:
- "I need to be beautiful" (teach her that she is, just as she is)
- "I need to be sexy" (teach her that modesty is beautiful and indicative of self-respect)
- "I need to be independent" (show her that we also need others - note that adolescent behavior as "biologically normal" is a myth - your 13 year-old needs you more than your 6 year-old)
- "I need more" (teach her that no, she doesn't)
- "I can't say no" (this is especially a problem for "nice girls" - teach her to learn to stand up, fight, and say NO)
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...you need to understand that your daughter's emotions are overflowing with impulses that, if acted upon, could lead her toward self-destruction. Your job, as a man, as her father, is to help her keep her emotions in check. It is really quite simple to do, but it takes a tremendous amount of strength and perseverance. And you have to do it, because you will do it better than her mother. Her mother can empathize, but you can guide. You see your daughter more realistically and more objectively than she sees herself. I can't overemphasize how much your daughter needs your direction and authority.
Chapter Ten - Keep Her Connected
Ultimately, a father's connection with his daughter is what matters the most. Children remember. They remember how important they were in your eyes. While a family's connectedness is important, the most important person in a daughter's life is her father. So, spend time with her. Do things with her. Spend time together, doing things that are fun, focusing attention on her. Doing so will help both of you open up and share.
Reiterating the problem of today's technological state of affairs, Meeker warns against allowing too much electronic connectedness. Instead, force, and model, face to face communication and relationships. Be aware that excessive electronic communication leads to poor communication skills.
The point? Connect. Make it simple and a part of your everyday life. Focus on her, as a person. Listen to her, tune in to her. Above all, don't let other "priorities" become more important than her. As Meeker states, "At the end of the day, she's more important than anything else."
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Psychologists, physicians, and researchers spend untold time and money researching what keeps kids on the right track - away from drugs, gangs, drinking, and sex. And what do they find over and over again? What parents already know: you are the key to your daughter's excellence and happiness.
At this point, Meeker presents an action plan, of sorts, summarizing and putting into play the premises of the book. Remember, she reminds us, that what truly makes us complete, as persons, is our family, spouse, children - and God.
As a final action plan, she gives the following steps:
- Realize your importance to your daughter. Are you there for her? She will need, and want, you to be there for her - well into her adult life.
- Open your eyes to her world. Today's culture is wildly different from that of even 20 years ago. Set the example of leadership to keep her on track.
- Fight for her body. Protect her mind and body. Teens are not yet as intellectually mature as an adult - err on the side of overprotection.
- Fight for her mind. Teach her that she is valuable for who she is. Teach her humility.
- Fight for her soul. Teach her about God.
- Fight for your relationship with her. Time - spend it with her. Live life, with her. She needs more time with you than with her friends.
Meeker's closing paragraph hit me very hard. It's an aspect of fatherhood, with regards to having daughters, that I tend to want to sequester. Yet, it's an aspect that is very real, and must be addressed by every father.
One day, when she is grown, something between the two of you will shift. If you have done your job well, she will choose another good man to love her, fight for her, and be intimately connected to her. But he will never replace you in her heart, because you were there first. And that's the ultimate reward for being a good dad.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book for any father, or soon to be father. While some reviewers (e.g., on Amazon.com) have been critical of Meeker's recommendations, painting them as being either too traditional or counter-progressive, I see them as being grounded in the proven reality of our human psyche, especially as it relates to our very toxic culture. For those who complain that Meeker generalizes and introduces too many examples from her years of experience, I give kudos to Meeker for taking the real life examples of her years of counseling and coming to practical conclusions, regardless of whether or not those conclusions fit in with a politically correct crowd. And while many of her recommendations border on that of common sense, it does a father (and mother) good to have such recommendations delineated, substantiated, and presented in such a clear, rational manner.