How Fathers Can Help Daughters Develop Healthy Sexuality

Today’s post, the last in our #OwnTheTalk series, comes courtesy of Timothy L. Sanford, M.A., L.P.C. Tim’s experience includes working in a residential treatment center for youth, as an experiential therapist, and in his own private practice for more than 25 years:

One of the many hats I get to wear in life is my DAD hat. It’s probably one of my favorites too. I got it out the other day, ran my hand around the worn brim and reminisced once again the family camping trip when an ember lighted on it and left a small burn hole on the top.

The house is quiet now. Both of my daughters are married, each to a truly great man (for which this dad – AKA “protective Kodiak bear” – is very grateful!). They have own careers and their own lives. It’s heart-comforting to see them grow, live and choose wisely.

Which begs the question, “How did they turn out so healthy when they grew up in this sex-crazed culture we live in today?”

Tim Sanford and family

I willingly state outright, much of the credit for my daughters’ healthiness – especially on the topic of sexuality – belongs to my wife, Becky. I’m the token male in the house (yes, even the dog and cat were female – no joke). It was Becky who took the lead when it came time for “the talk” with each of them. Becky is the one that fielded all those “female” questions that; (1) I know nothing about and (2) my girls would be mortified if they had to ask their dad. Hats off (pun intended) to my wife for all her parenting work.

Still, as a licensed professional counselor with more than 20 years’ experience, I know the value and importance a dad plays in his children’s lives – sons and/or daughters. It got me thinking, what was my contribution to their sexual development? Really?

Sexuality is a whole lot more than sex. Sexuality is part of who we are, while sex is something a person does in private with their spouse. You’d never learn that by watching a popular 30-minute sit-com these days.

They were my girls. They are my daughters. They are female. I never did wish either to be a boy so I would have a “little guy following in my footsteps.” They were girls. They were my girls. They were OK. They were good enough (even when some of their actions weren’t so good). They could be emotional or rough-and-tumble, it didn’t matter. They mattered to me (the major and pivotal male during their growing up years). Over and over again I would tell my older daughter, “You’re my favorite brown-haired daughter,” and with my next breath I’d let her sister know, “You’re my favorite blond-haired daughter.” I wanted each of them to know beyond a shadow of a doubt they were my favorite, acceptable to me as a human being, as a female and as my daughter.

I worked hard to show them respect and honor. Notice I said “show” not just “tell.” When we wrestled or played, I was mindful of two things: first is that children need good healthy touch from their father and second, children need to be treated with respect, gentleness, kindness and honor. Why? So sons learn the right way to treat a girl and daughters – my daughters – learn how they are to be treated by a guy – any guy, all guys and especially the guy they marry.

I intentionally worked to help them find their voice. They were allowed (in appropriate ways) to express themselves, to disagree, to request, to doubt and to challenge their mom or me. I would occasionally ask each one, “Am I doing anything that embarrasses you and you’d rather I not do?” Then … I would listen. They were allowed to express, “I don’t like it when you …” They were allowed to say, “Daddy, it makes me feel embarrassed when you …” Yes, as females, they had a voice so when the philosophical tree fell in the forest it did make a sound because I was there to hear it … and respond. Ask my sons-in-law today and they will tell you my daughters have a voice – good ones too.

Becky and I did what we could to protect them from the negative impact of the world around them yet not shelter them from the truth of the world, its pain and its sinfulness; whether in the media or actual circumstances going on among their peers. I’d share in very general terms the issues, pain and struggles some of my teen clients were experiencing. We’d talk about the impact parents had, environmental issues, peoples’ belief systems and choices the teen had, and didn’t have … yet.

I remember times when Becky and I would rent the latest movie that was “questionable” and watch it with our girls in the privacy of our living room. They were “in” with their peers because they saw the movie and at the same time, we had great discussions around what made the movie “questionable” in the first place? What underlying messages is the movie trying to set forth? Could the movie have been just as entertaining without the questionable sexual, verbal or graphic content? What do you think the director’s real reason and intent was when he/she put this sexually explicit scene into the movie? Was the movie actually entertaining or was it just two and a half hours of digital visual over-stimulation? We were purposefully challenging the messages the world was attempting to place subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, into our children’s minds. We encouraged them to listen, observe and think critically about the culture around them – both secular and Christian.

One of my “ornery” jobs as a dad was to be the song-kill-joy. A popular song would come on the radio touting “I don’t care who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done … just as long as you love me” and I’d add a professional comment such as, “He’s really stupid, co-dependent and short-sighted if that’s all he’s looking for in a relationship” or “She’s setting herself up for a heart full of pain if that what she’s wanting in a man” or “He’s a narcissist. Can you hear it? If you ever hear that from a guy, you run!” My short diagnostic comment usually got a crisp, “Da-ad, you’re ruining the song!” Internally I smiled because I wanted to “ruin” that way of thinking, even if the musical score was catchy. Again, I was challenging the messages our culture was attempting to sell to my precious daughters with the truth.

I, we, intentionally, purposefully and consciously taught our daughters to be “shrewd as snakes” while balancing being “gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Yes, I wanted them to be sweet, cute Christian girls. In a culture where women are soldiers in our military; where women are managers, executives and business owners in the work place; in a culture that seems to be getting more and more dysfunctional and unhealthy, I as a conservative Christian father wanted them to be tough, wise, street-smart and able to hold their own in this world. With – or without – a “man” in their life.

In all this, I strove to validate their sexuality as humans made in God’s image … as females … as daughters … They were acceptable to me. They had value. They were worth spending time with, teaching, correcting and keeping safe.

They learned who they were. They discovered their sexuality and all the great aspects God put into fashioning them. They also realized when you have honor and respect in a relationship, the act of sex itself is only one way of expressing love, intimacy and connectedness between a husband and a wife. They grew to be content with their sexuality without needing sex to validate it for them.

The thought that keeps coming to mind as I ponder and write is I was intentional

Not perfect

Very rarely formal or “official”

Not glamorous

Not even consistent at times.

I was intentional and purposeful in teaching my girls about sexuality. With my words and even more so with my actions.

Was it hard to be intentional?

Yes. So?

Was it confusing?

Sometimes. And ?

Was it worth it?

You bet.

Sexuality is an interwoven part of our very life; a life that is so much more than the act of sex.

You want to know what is really great in all this? I still get to wear my DAD hat on a regular basis, as ragged as it is. I’m not the parent anymore and that’s fine with me. I’m a friend, a mentor, a guide, a peer, a fellow journeyman in this thing called life.

And … I’m still … “Daddy” …“Pops” …“Pops-squat”.