Ask any man, “What do you do?”and he’ll tell you about his day job. But if he’s a dad, he’s also by definition a software programmer. Every day, he’s coding his daughter’s (or son’s) mind, particularly during the first dozen years of that child’s life.
Everything a father says and doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do, leaves an imprint. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s profound. Those imprints shape your daughter into the woman she becomes.
Michelle Watson, a Portland psychotherapist and author, works with dads and daughters. She uses the phrase, “More is caught than taught” to describe how this programming works. By showing up or not as a father, by loving or abusing, you are laying down the beliefs that form your daughter’s identity. In the early years of her life, the deepest core beliefs are programmed, and they are excruciatingly difficult to rewrite, for better or worse. “Men are frightening. My world is unsafe. Men are my equal. The world is my home…”
As I began writing this column, I met a young woman I’ll call Gina. She’s in graduate school, smart, attractive, open, and kind. She was raised by a father who belittled her and told her she was worthless. How does she view herself? As worthless, unattractive and undesirable. Low self esteem is her constant companion.
If not for her supportive mother, who knows how far Gina would have sunk. And who knows how her life will play out with men—at work, in love, or anywhere else she enters into relationships with them. The first and most important man in her life wrote the software that left her emotionally scarred and no doubt angry and resentful as well.
I see these fathers in countless women I’ve interviewed and come to know in recent years—drug addicts, homeless women and others. Jails are filled with them. I’ve also seen the great dads who did the work that led to women such as Cheryl, whom I wrote about last month; the daughter of a well-known scientist, she never questioned her ability to thrive in a male-dominated field when she began working in high tech decades ago.
There is also a great father behind Lucille, now in her eighties, who was a professional musician and conductor. Blanca, the daughter of a farm worker from Mexico, went on to earn her law degree from Santa Clara and MBA from Berkeley to honor her father. There is a calm, confident father within Mariah, a similarly calm and confident actress who shared her story with me.
Programming the software of a daughter’s mind takes place in the nooks and crannies of everyday experience. Lucille told me childhood stories of her father taking her into his woodshop at night so she could hang out with him while he worked. It was during the Great Depression; his salary had been cut in half and the family lost its home, but Lucille grew up emotionally rich. Her dad told her stories, showed her how to use tools, and just listened to what she had to say. The real dialogue wasn’t about wood working; it was the subtext she internalized from her father’s interest in her. She took away the message, without being conscious of it, that she was interesting, and that she mattered.
Here are just a few of the ways dads program their daughters’ minds every day.
If you belittle your daughter, she grows up knowing herself as small.
If you tune her out, she comes to see herself as unimportant.
If you don’t care about her, she’ll grow up craving attention from men, many of whom won’t
care for her as much as their own impulses.
If you degrade her mother, she grows up believing that intimate relationships with men are precarious and unsafe.
That list goes on and on. So does this list:
If you listen to her intently, she sees herself as someone who matters.
If you take a deep and genuine interest in her, and do things as simple as play catch or go to movies together, she sees herself as interesting.
If you hold her accountable, she learns responsibility.
If you play with her, she becomes more playful.
If you live with dignity and grace, she probably will too.
Every day as a father raising a daughter, you’re laying down another coat of paint. It’s either a color of death or a color of life. By the time she enters adulthood, she’s either black and blue from your work, or a work of art. You are the mirror, Dad, in which she comes to see herself.