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Daddy’s Girl: How Fathers Help Shape Our Daughters’ Self Esteem

by Sarah on June 17, 2011

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This is a special post, written a few years back, to honor all the Dads out there who encourage their daughters to grow up strong and proud of their strength.

My daughter just returned from an outing in the woods, stalking imaginary deer.  Her eyes glittered, her cheeks were flushed as she struggled to march her description of the hunt in order, the words eager to jump out of line with her excitement.

At her side is the homemade bow and arrows that she and her dad carefully carved out of black ash that we had found growing in the swampy area of our wood lot.

This is the same girl, who practically shouts in her silent code that she has had a bad day at school by heading straight for her room and emerging in her beautiful blue tulle and sequined, floor-length Cinderella ball gown.

The gown rustles and billows around her as she plops on the floor. She begins to furiously draw a heartfelt story of wronged princesses and nefarious queens.  The blue gown works its magic and eventually washes away the feelings of being left out or a conflict in art class.

As she sits and sketches, she is transformed from a humble eight-year old girl, struggling to find her way through the world, to a beautiful and powerful princess who is admired and confident.

And these princesses in her drawings and in her heart are not the ones of the days of old.

They are not like Snow White who acts like a dumb deer caught in the headlights whenever the wicked queen comes to the door. They’re not snared by simple ribbons and fruit.

No this princess is savvy.

She might just as often save the prince as be saved by one who shares her love of climbing trees and good stories.

She knows that there is no such thing as love at first sight. Because your inside is just as important, if not more important, than your outside in really feeling and giving love.

And yet she knows the power of a shimmering, silky, blue dress.  To her, beauty is not anathema to strength and self-reliance. Womanly wiles are just part of a complicated mix of who she aspires to be as she grows up.  Innately she understands how potent she is with her heady mixture of brains and charm.

I note this because I was a girl who grew up climbing rocks, building forts and wrestling boys.  I also drew boxloads of beautiful princesses.

There was no contradiction between these activities.

And yet when high school hit, that balance was thrown off-kilter.  First my strength and smarts became liabilities that I quickly learned to shift to the background.

Slow down in math class.

Don’t talk about literature or ideas with boys you want to date.

Mask your muscular “thunder thighs” with baggy jeans.

Then as a counterbalance to my high school life of erasing myself, I found the culture of woodswoman in college.  I adopted flannel shirts, no makeup and plainness as tickets to regaining my sense of self as a woman.  Erasing another part of myself nonetheless.

How long did it take for me to regain the pleasure and strength of a beautiful blue dress?  How long did it take for me realize that that dress did not contradict my mind’s and muscles’ desire for challenges?

I was fortunate to meet a man who not only appreciated the thunder in my thighs but also encouraged me to exercise my mind and take pride in doing so.

He is the same man who painstakingly assisted our daughter in whittling her bow and took her crawling through the brush to test its powers.

He is the same person who acknowledges her power with the admiring look he gives her as she swirls through the house in her princess gear.

Her dad is the one who loves her for the complicated princess-ninja-intrepid explorer that she is.

As mothers, we offer our daughters love and guidance, opportunities to build skills and confidence.  Fathers partner in this work.

But they also offer a special affirmation that can set the groundwork for our daughters demanding a full appreciation of who they are – beauty, brains and brawn – in any future relationship.

The other day, my husband and I sat together watching our daughter participate in a game of tag.  She was the youngest in the crowd, but her determination made up for that difference.

As we watched, she was tagged It and took up pursuit of a boy at least two years her senior.  He gamely started loping along and picked up speed to clear some distance between them.  Yet as he glanced back to assess if he could relax, he was caught off guard by my daughter’s fierce look and proximity.

As he put on speed, she matched him.  After triumphantly chasing him down with the determination and ferocity of a lioness, she cruised by where we were sitting and looked in our direction.

“You were speedy!”  My husband shouted to her and her eyes lit up with that final, critical bit of her triumph.

She had pushed herself and felt her strength and power; shattering expectations for a moment in that small schoolyard of what a girl could do.

And, as her father spoke with respect for her prowess, he shattered expectations of what a girl should be.

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