Daughters and dads are known to have a special relationship. But when daddy's little girl starts to turn into a woman, fathers often find themselves at a loss for words. In his latest book, "Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt): A Dad's Advice for Daughters," Phillip Van Munching shares advice based on personal experience for tackling both difficult-to-discuss topics and everyday life. Read an excerpt.
Boyfriends (or, Three Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter)
I have to go get fingerprinted.
See, in New York City, owning a big ol' pump-action shotgun requires a license, which requires fingerprinting, so I have to go get it done. Then I'll be ready when the first boy comes to my door to pick up one of my daughters for a date. I want him to find me sitting in my chair, oiling up the barrel. That way he'll be in the right frame of mind when I ask the question, "What time were you planning on having her home, son?" Maybe I'll jack a round into the chamber (with that satisfying chick-CHICK noise) just for effect.
Just about every father of a teenage girl in the world has had a similar thought: substitute the words pistol, hunting knife, sword or heat-seeking nuclear device for shotgun, and I figure you have all of us dads covered. We live in fear of your dating. We know boys — we were boys — and now that we're the old guys in the situation, we have a pretty good idea of exactly what goes through the minds of the young guys. So we fantasize about arming ourselves.
What we don't know, of course, is what goes on in your mind. We didn't then and we don't now. That's why we can't ever seem to give you enough credit for being able to take care of yourself. But don't hold that against us, because no matter how terrible we are at conveying it, we really do just want you to be happy and safe. Even if that means we have to remove a few boys, along the way. (Sorry. The "I'm gonna hunt down and kill any boy that tries to touch you" joke is an automatic thing, for fathers. The best version ever is in the movie "Clueless," when Alicia Silverstone's father tells a boy, "Anything happens to my daughter, I've got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.")
It doesn't help us dads that we barely even recognize the boys who show up at the door. What's with the gobs of hair product. Are all those sharp, gel-created points on their heads meant as some bizarre form of self-protection? And is it really necessary to wear pants so baggy that they would safely hold a family of five? Boys look so different from what we looked like at their age that it confuses us; it makes us wonder what else it is we don't know about the boys you hang around with.
Most of all, though, we're freaked out by the boys that you'll go out with because they represent the beginnings of your independence. Deciding who you'll date is maybe the first big decision you'll make entirely without us. (Oh, we'll try to make suggestions, but you won't listen. And you'll be right not to. Mostly.) We look at these boys who come into our homes — and your life — and we search them for clues about you. About what you're looking for and what kind of woman you'll become. In some ways, your choices about boys tell us more about you than anything else.
So have a little patience with your dad, okay? This dating stuff is hard on us.
It's no picnic for you, either, because while we're getting all weird and making jokes about shotguns, you're taking your first steps toward romantic relationships, and as often as not, those steps feel like they're taking place in a minefield. How do you know if you're choosing the right guys? Why don't they just come out and tell you what they're thinking, like your girlfriends do? How serious should you let yourself get with someone?
These are all things you're going to have to sort out for yourself, but that doesn't mean your folks can't give you a little guidance. As tempting as it will be for me to comment on every boy who comes through my door, I'll try to hold my tongue. Except, that is, for offering three little rules that might make the dating minefield a little more manageable.
First, make sure that you date boys because you honestly like them. Duh, right? Well, as obvious as it may seem, it's advice a lot of people don't follow. You'll watch plenty of relationships spring up for motives other than romantic attraction. You'll see girls pick guys based on their popularity, their car, or any one of a hundred other reasons that have nothing to do with a real spark. And while it's undoubtedly fun dating a guy just because he can spend a ton of money on you, it's also not very smart. When you make money the basis for a relationship, the only important person in that relationship is the one who has the money, you know? You become just another object that money brings, like an mp3 player or great clothes. And, like those things, you'll be replaceable.
Second, date guys within a year or two of your own age. My friend Alana always went out with much older guys. "I was so impressed with their confidence," she told me, "and my friends thought I was really sophisticated, because these guys chose me."
In junior high, she dated high school boys. In high school, she dated college boys. By the time she graduated, she found herself going out with guys a decade older than she was. She also found herself miserable. Because no matter what her friends thought, she wasn't that sophisticated, and her boyfriends didn't mind letting her know it. "I always felt inferior, because they seemed to know so much more than I did about everything, and while they loved to show me off to their friends, they had no patience around my friends." The last straw came when she was having dinner with a 31-year-old lawyer she'd been dating and his friends, and she voiced an opinion about politics. "No offense," her boyfriend said, "but you're 22. What could you know about it?" He was her ex-boyfriend before dessert was served.
What Alana realized was that relationships are supposed to be about sharing experiences, about learning things together. Looking back at her whole dating life, she suddenly felt stupid. "Everything I was going through, the guys I dated had been through years before me. The stuff they were going through, I was too young for. We had nothing to talk about!"
But while holding a conversation with Alana seemed too challenging for her boyfriends, they didn't have the same problem with sex. Being sexual with them became her way of trying to feel like their equal. It didn't work very well. She lost her virginity to a guy who couldn't wait to take her home as soon as it was over, so he could get back to his friends. "I was so not ready, and I got very shaky, afterward. He kept saying, 'What's the big deal? It's just sex.' And for him, it was. Been there, done that. For me it was something that should have been incredibly intimate and special, and I threw it away to hang on to a college guy."
Still, she kept dating older guys. Alana had gotten so used to the way they treated her — which was lousy — that she came to believe it was all she deserved. "By college, I had zero self-esteem," she says. "These guys basically wanted me for sex and to show off to their friends, and I thought I was lucky! If I had a time machine, I'd go and find myself at the age of 14, I'd shake that girl by the shoulders, and say 'Why should guys respect you when you don't even respect yourself?' "
Which brings me to the third, most important rule of dating: make sure that your boyfriends treat you with respect. Always. If they take you for granted, dump 'em. If they try to pressure you into something you don't want to do, dump 'em. If they ever touch you in any way that isn't invited and affectionate, dump 'em. (Then tell an adult. If you can't tell your folks, tell a teacher or an aunt or anyone with enough experience to help you handle it.)
Ever heard of a zero-tolerance policy? It's a fancy way of saying "no second chances." Zero-tolerance is a great rule to have in place when it comes to your love life. That doesn't mean you can't argue with a guy you're dating, or even forgive him for being immature, at times. What it does mean is that no matter what's going on between the two of you — good or bad — you always feel respected. You always feel valued for what you bring to the relationship.
If you have to exercise the zero-tolerance policy, and actually dump a guy, you'll feel lonely for a bit. You'll worry that no other boy is going to want to date you, because you're such a pain. And yes, the boys you break up with because they don't treat you well will tell their friends you're a pain. (Or a bitch, which is the Official Favorite Word of Guys-Who-Treat-Girlfriends-Like-Dirt™.) The thing is, you won't get the reputation you'll worry about getting. At least not among the guys who deserve your time. They'll see a girl who knows what she's worth, and isn't willing to accept any less. And deep down in a place most guys don't even know they have, they'll think, "If a girl that self-confident chooses me, it must mean I'm worth something, too." Any boy who makes that realization is a boy you can bring home to meet your dad.
I'll try to remember to wash the fingerprinting ink off before I shake his hand.
Excerpted from “Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal,” by Philip Van Munching. Copyright © 2005 by Philip Van Munching. Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.