One of my running buddies has a 16-year-old daughter, a lovely young woman. Not surprisingly, Andrea has become as articulate as she is opinionated. While she has adopted many of her father’s beliefs, they disagree about a fundamental issue—appropriate attire.
Andrea feels strongly that she should wear whatever she wants. “It’s incumbent”—I told you she was smart—“on the boys to behave appropriately.”
Her father, to the contrary, insists that Andrea cover up.
“You want me to be a nun,” Andrea complains.
“I wouldn’t mind if you dressed like one,” her father replies.
“Boys are stupid. They should keep their eyes to themselves.”
“They should, but they don’t.”
“That’s not my problem. I didn't make this sexist world with its outdated mores.”
“I look at you with love. Boys look at you with lust.”
“It’s a free country. It’s my body. I can dress how I want.”
The conversation continues along this predictable path. Finally Andrea’s dad says, “this is my house. These are my rules. While I am paying the mortgage and buying you food, you will do as I say. You have to respect your parents.”
Andrea goes silent as her father continues, “That’s the end of the conversation. We will not discuss this again.”
It’s those last two sentences that I want us to consider. I have no strong opinion about Andrea’s clothing choices.” I agree with her that she should feel comfortable in her own skin. I also agree with her father that Andrea may be sending the wrong signal. Of course I agree with both father and daughter that adolescent boys sometimes make poor choices and behave badly.
I would quibble with dad‘s statement, “that’s the end of a conversation. We’re not going to discuss this again.” To the contrary, I would advise dad to communicate, “let’s talk about this more tomorrow. I’m glad you came to me with your concern. I appreciate the eloquent way you have expressed your opinion.”
Ultimately the choice of T-shirt is a minor issue. Andrea has to feel comfortable coming to her father with information, testing the limits, asking for opinions. Because the importance of the issues escalates soon enough. Choice of clothing today; getting in a car with an impaired driver tomorrow.
Communicating with her father has to be the top of Andrea’s list. The haberdashery discussion is not the ultimate “are we there yet?” or even “can I have a pony?” There's a more important agenda. “Cover your tummy” is the minor point. The critical take away is “we can talk about anything; your concerns are my concerns.”
Dad doesn't have to change the rules; he just has to listen. "Because I said so," is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one. Because if Andrea’s Dad is not willing to listen, accept, and discuss Andrea’s views, there is an entire industry—tobacco salespeople, opioid producers, to name just two—who will be happy to fill the void.
Dad has to stand firm. If this is the hill on which he is willing to die, then he can win the battle of the bulge. (Sorry.) But he must win the war: we can talk about anything.
Children learn what they live. Teenagers also. And the last thing you want is an articulate, insightful, brilliant daughter who has learned that her opinions don’t matter to her father. Because soon enough, dad's opinions won’t matter to her. Caring about what her father says trumps an exposed belly button every time.