We had a 5th birthday party for our middle daughter, Goldilocks, a few weeks ago. She is a bit of a horse freak so her party was at our local stables where the kiddoes did horse activities like painting horseshoes and then actually rode some of the calm horses for quite a while. One thing my golden haired daughter has taught me is that, for some people, fear can paralyze and make it impossible to get anything done, but building confidence will banish that fear until it is just a distant memory. She vividly displayed this at the party when it was time to saddle up. Her mother got her little helmet situated and then got her placed on the horse she had chosen to ride. As soon as Goldilocks saw how far above the ground she was, that fear grabbed her and she panicked. There were tears and wails and pleas for us to put her back on the ground. When this child gets worked up, it takes a great deal of effort to get her calmed down again. She was terrified. But I know this girl. I know she would stew with regret later if she didn’t ride these horses at her birthday party. And I know that when she is able to grasp just a little bit of confidence, she possesses a natural boldness that we certainly want to nurture. So, I walked over to the horse she was on and we had a conversation that lasted longer than I wanted it to, but one that eventually led to a great deal of joy. I was stern with her as I explained that not riding was not an option. As I showed her the pommel for her to hold onto, I explained that I would walk beside the horse until she was comfortable. By the fifth step, that little girl forgot I was there. Four steps on that horse and her debilitating fear had turned to soaring confidence.
Success in most aspects of life is dependent on being able to build confidence. I’ve seen it over and over and over again in these She-Gables. From their first wobbly steps to playing on the playground to learning to read to any development in math to Taekwondo…whatever they do, progress requires confidence. And, dad has a monumental role (I would argue he has the most powerful role) in developing confidence in his young daughter. A little girl, by her nature, looks to daddy for these building blocks. If he is lacking here…if he is cold or harsh or absent, his lacking has lasting impact on her ability to build confidence later in life and seems to be an ever-present obstacle to her self-esteem. However, if he is encouraging and if he makes her progress a priority, he gives her the great gift of being able to build confidence in herself. This will help her across the spectrum of womanhood.
So, practically, how does he do this? How does a father plant seeds of confidence in the mind of his daughter?
- Engage. My daughters are constantly using me for testing ideas and thoughts and feelings. They tell me jokes, see if I laugh, and then ask me “Is that funny, daddy?”. They tell me stories and gauge my reaction. They will show me pictures they’ve drawn or painted and then point out each specific part of the picture while watching to see whether I like that piece or not. They will pick flowers and ask me if they are pretty. To them, I am a sounding board, comedian, art critic, florist, basically an expert in all things. In their eyes, if daddy thinks something is funny/pretty/awesome/important, then it is funny/pretty/awesome/important. Every second of every day, I am teaching about life through my reactions to even the most mundane things. If I am dismissive, or worse, completely absent, it communicates to them that their thoughts and their jokes and their stories and their accomplishments are unimportant. It is virtually identical to telling them “You do not matter”. Dads, we have to engage. Laugh at her jokes and tell her your own. Listen to her stories and tell her specifics about which part you liked or which part was silly. Your detailed attention tells her that she is important and that feeling is the bedrock on which she will build every confidence.
- Push. None of my daughters understand the far reaches of their own capabilities. This is what seems to be a comical opposition to their boy cousins who each carry a delusional belief that they can do far more than reality would dictate or gravity would allow (boys, SMH). For the She-Gables, regardless of their individual level of development, there are many times none of them think they can do something until they are shown they actually can do it. Whether it is riding a horse or jumping off the diving board or going into a classroom full of kids they don’t know, fatherhood means that sometimes I have to push them. One of the hardest parts of being a dad is deciding when to push and how much force to use. But, every single time I’ve had to push one of them, the end result has been a surge of confidence. After I pushed Goldilocks to ride that horse, for the next several days, everyone we met would hear her story…”I got to ride a horse all by myself”. The fact that she completely forgets the part where I had to push her a little, signals to me that it was the perfect amount of force. She beams with pride when telling her horse story. Dad, your gentle nudge can sometimes be a necessary pathway to building her confidence and without it, she may never expand her capabilities.
- Release. Finding Nemo is one of my favorites because I relate so strongly to Marlin. The first time I saw the movie, there was one scene that shook me and still gets at me every time we watch it (which is only 3 or 4 times a day…only 7 fewer than Frozen). Close to the end, Nemo has a plan to save Dory and all the dumb fish caught in a fishing net. In this scene, Marlin undergoes a pivotal change in an instant and it shifts everything. Until now, his entire parenting experience has been one big attempt to protect Nemo from danger and pain. But after crossing the ocean and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, Marlin learns to give up the delusional goal of engineering a hedge of protection around his kid and he has to let go. At this point, he is able to release which tells Nemo he believes in him. It is one of the more profound scenes in the Disney vault and it captures reality so vividly. Listen, dad, there will be times you have to let that little girl do her thing all on her own. You have to let go of the bike. You have to walk away from the horse. You have to release. She may succeed. She may bust. But the truth is that both the victories and the scars will build her confidence.
Good parenting is successfully weaving an engage/push/release strategy. Get after it. You’ll be great.