So, Dad, You Are the Mirror

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.

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3 Responses to So, Dad, You Are the Mirror

  1. Trudy says:

    I grew up with a devoted and hard-working father, but he was emotionally
    distant, uncomfortable with feelings and showing affection. As an adult, I’ve
    tended to get involved with similar men, which always became frustrating.
    Yet when I meet someone who’s outgoing and gregarious, comfortable with
    being emotional, it scares me, and I find myself backing away. Have you
    heard this from other women and ever addressed it in your writing?

  2. Rajiam Pursifull says:

    Love freely given is a powerful influence. Your children are you greatest works of art. This poem is for my daughter Mary, a gift from the Great One.

    My Mary
    She’s just Mary
    How fortunate to have a place in her heart
    This one who was so innocent and small
    Now grown and on her way to who knows where
    How wonderful to have shared a special time with her
    Two travelers walking hand in hand on Life’s path
    Diverging now and then on different forks
    Then intersecting once again
    Such a daughter is a joy
    To her dad

  3. Dave Leineweber says:

    As the father of a thirty-two year old daughter, I find your columns in the Oregonian to be extremely useful…even if many of them might relate to the earlier phases of our lives. I just copied and mailed yesterday’s column to my son, the thirty year old father of an adorable two year old. While I see nothing but an excellent relationship between him and our granddaughter, I felt it was important that he read your words and use them as a blueprint for the coming years. I told him to keep it stashed for future reference, as it will surely come in handy!
    As my generation is slowly becoming a bit of an anachronism (we actually read the newspaper!) I wish there was a way to get your column in front of those who might need it the most, today’s younger parents. While it’s possible that you already have a decent following among “generation whatever” I don’t know how many of them get the chance to see your Twitter or FaceBook handles at the bottom of your column without your more “mature” readers forwarding the info to them. Regardless of my possibly misplaced concerns, I find your words to be very meaningful. Just wish I’d had the chance to read them decades ago.

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