As a father of two young daughters, I was drawn to Meg Meeker’s bestseller Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters as a way to reflect on my role, particularly in the context of a society which seems to relegate fathers – and parents for that matter – to a secondary position. Meeker’s words resounded with me when, from the top of her decades-long experience as a pediatrician, she opined that we fathers are the single most influential persons in our daughters’ lives, if only we exercised our natural authority, and she urged us not to shy away from our “traditional” role of providing our daughters with guidance and rules, which are to be enforced with conviction and perseverance.
Her ideas seem to run contrary to the dominant sentiment in our culture, which calls for less rules, for relativism, for the right of children and teenagers to experiment, to seek their own answers… In this view, fathers should set very wide boundaries of acceptable behavior and let their children find out things for themselves. In other words, fathers should not be “despotic” and impose their “outdated” and “backwards” world view on their millennial because a) it’s a form of oppression that suffocates the child’s bourgeoning personality and b) it can only generate the opposite effect of rebelliousness.
To this, Meeker counters that a) parents must do what’s best for their child, even if it means taking some unpopular (and unfashionable) decisions; and that b) if parents renounce that role, popular culture will happily fill the void, by offering a deceitful recipe for disaster, which calls for engaging in early sex, obsessing about looks, clothes and the latest material possessions, and indulging in one’s own ego. I agree with Meeker that the family needs to be a bulwark against this type of pop culture. Children nowadays receive so many subliminal messages, most of them bad, that parents simply cannot be passive about it. They must strongly reaffirm “traditional” values and be ready to wage what the author rightly calls “a battle”.
Meeker’s core principles – to teach your daughter humility and modesty, to encourage her to delay sex as much as possible, to act as a role model by embodying the traits of the “man you wish her to marry”, to protect her from potentially dangerous situations – are sensible. I do however find quite odd that she would advocate the teaching and practice of religion as a way to instill strong values… I don’t see why you couldn’t transmit those values in a healthy lay environment, and anyway, she overlooks the fact that… it would be hypocritical to steer a child into religion if you are not a believer yourself! Your daughter would certainly see right through that (i.e. “why don’t you guys ever go to mass?”).
Another weakness of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters is a certain dogmatic approach that doesn’t allow for dissenting opinions. The author places a near-absolute value on paternal authority and strong, inflexible rules, without recognizing that we fathers walk a tightrope: contrary to what Meeker wants us to believe, too much constriction really does amount to oppression and stifles independent thought and experimentation. It’s not easy to find the right balance between freedom and protection, between traditional values and “openness” to child/teen culture in the XXI century. You don’t want to make your daughter an outcast and have her constantly derided for having “bigot” and “narrow-minded” parents. In this context, some of Meeker’s tips seem a bit “over the top”, such as when she insists that fathers meet their daughters’ dates at the beginning and at the end of the evening.
Truth be told, apart from a few fundamental principles that Meeker rightly points out, there is not easy formula for getting things right. We simply have to resign ourselves to the fact that parenting is an art and not a science, and that only common sense and parental instincts can ultimately guide us toward sound decisions.