What I Learned at Dad School

When it comes to raising daughters, don’t worry about hormones and periods: Just be a dad

father and daughter

There I was, thinking I would hear all about how to play it cool when my soon-to-be teenage daughter has her first period, her first sign of boobs and her first boyfriend. 

Not even close.

“Dads of Daughters” class instructor Julie Metzger had one clear message for me and all the dads who had fanned out across the auditorium, building the biggest empty-seat buffers possible around ourselves (the opposite, we would soon learn, of the way our daughters will clump together so they can meld into group think).

Don’t worry about what’s happening to them, Metzger told us in her frank but supportive style. Just make sure, she said, to keep being dads to your daughters as they head off to middle school and the hormones of puberty take over their minds and bodies. Just be there, she said.

I let out a little breath and started to relax. That sounded doable. Advice I could use. That was exactly why I came.

Their brains break

When I was growing up, there was no playbook for fathers and certainly no coaching classes for dads. Now there’s a plethora of resources for dads who want to learn to be the best they can be for their kids. With two girls who are around the corner from puberty (9 and almost 11), and a fiery wife who already tends to jump into the hormonal fray right along with our kids, I thought I could learn something helpful about what’s ahead and how to manage it by attending Dads of Daughters.

“Dads outweigh moms in a lot of ways,” Metzger said to the room full of more than 50 intent, nervous dads. “It’s super important that you are positive.” 

Really, what it seemed like she was saying to me was that my two daughters will want someone to listen as they figure things out. Metzger’s exact words were: “Dad’s eyes need to light up when you see your hormonal daughter coming at you.” Cool.

Left unsaid, though, was the implication that while using me as a sounding board, my daughters also will have an endless litany of Titanic-size, “I have to work through this” clashes with their mom.

No pressure, dads, but you need to be her rock, the person who accepts her no matter what emotional state she’s in — even when she directs the fray squarely at you.

My oldest daughter is going into middle school this fall, and when she does, she will be exactly one year away from becoming a teenager. Not to be left behind, my younger daughter already thinks she is a teenager, despite the fact that she will be going into fourth grade. (She has no problem starting early — she takes cues from her sister and multiplies them by 10.)

Slightly terrified and somewhat mystified, I signed up for Metzger’s course at Seattle Children’s Hospital, along with the dads of one daughter’s friends, who were mostly stoic about the class before and after. I took notes furiously, occasionally stealing looks down the rows of seats toward the other soccer-team dads I knew and observing their carefully neutral faces.

Yes, Metzger covered the “oh shit” stuff, including the fact that between ages 8 and 15 our girls will gain 15–55 pounds (better increase the food budget, but never, never talk about their weight), grow breasts (yep), start emitting body odor (yup), grow underarm and pubic hair (uh-huh) and start having periods (yikes!).

She also shared that our daughters’ brains will stop working when it comes to decision-making. Questions like “Should I do the right thing, or do the bad thing my friends want me to do?” suddenly will become legitimate struggles for them to answer. I find it hard to imagine my rule-following, always-do-the-right-thing fifth-grader transforming into a middle schooler who would lie about going to a party or trying alcohol, or, unimaginable now, chase boys.

But it will happen, sometime around age 12 or 13, Metzger told us. Be prepared, she said, because it’s almost like a switch in their head being shut off. 

Just say yes

Dads need to be dads, Metzger emphasized. Think of yourself as a coach who listens and compliments your daughters in authentic ways about the work they’re putting in and not the results, and you’ll be there, she told us.

“When she has a problem, don’t fix it,” Metzger said. “Let her cry. Don’t tell her that life is good or what to do. She wants to be heard and understood. Say, ‘When you’re ready, I want to hear more.’”

When you’re ready, I want to hear more. I can do that.

The goal, she said, is to be a steadying force your daughter can turn to when things get difficult or confusing.

“You want her to think, ‘I don’t know what to do, but I could ask my dad — he gets me.’”

Yes! I want them to think I get them. I want to get them!

No pressure, dads, but you need to be her rock, the person who accepts her no matter what emotional state she’s in — even when she directs the fray squarely at you.

And don’t you dare do the man thing, which is to fight or run when tempers fly. Your biology may tell you that’s what you should do, but it’s the last thing your daughter needs. “Neither is effective,” Metzger said. “Nothing is more scary than a dad who walks away.”

Don’t walk away. Got it. Never.

The physical changes may not be here yet, but puberty has arrived at our house. A sign of the times: Out of nowhere, my daughter recently jumped on an emotional roller coaster, hitting first outrage, then crying and then puzzlement.

I sat down with her and asked what was wrong, and her answer was telling: “I don’t know.”

My answer was: “Well, I’m here for you.”

Hopefully, she thinks I get her. 

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