There is endless evidence to prove the benefits – and necessity – of physical touch in supporting the emotional and physical growth of children. And though the moms outdo the dads just the teensiest bit in this area, almost all parents are really good about cuddling with their little ones. But then, particularly with daddies and daughters, something happens to bring this physical affection to a screeching halt.
Boobs happen. Enter puberty, exit daddy’s hugs. So sad, but so often the case.
Our society has sexualized little girls so much that dads can be understandably uncomfortable cuddling with their own blossoming babies. We have also heard too many heart-wrenching stories of parental abuse in this not-so-graceful world that many dads don’t want to take any chances of the slightest misinterpretation of their interactions with their daughters.
But dads, listen. Your little girls still need your hugs, even if they aren’t so little anymore. Why?
The evidence is clear enough with infants and young children – physical touch stimulates and supports physical, emotional, and neurological development. And in the absence of touch, children develop physical and psychological ailments and fail to thrive. But what happens when dads cuddle with their babies for years but withdraw when their little girls start looking like little women?
In the absence of information, the human brain makes assumptions. It’s why we love crossword puzzles and Wheel of Fortune. (My mom claims I once declared my life’s goal to be earning a spot as a contestant on The Wheel. I don’t buy it.) Humans are wired to fill in the blanks. So when the blank is a question about why daddy has suddenly stopped hugging me or tickling me or playing chicken with me in the pool, young girls can associate their blossoming bodies with the most important man in their life distancing himself. And in a world where casual sex is often touted as acceptable and shoved in our faces through music, television, and highway billboards, it’s just no good for daughters to connect their sexual development with male abandonment. Research also suggests that if girls don't get proper physical affection from their fathers or a father figure, they can start to seek it in unhealthy ways from other males.
Almost twelve years ago when my husband and I were headed to the doctor to learn the gender of our baby, a song came on the radio that has become very special to our family. Just before we turned onto my doctor’s street, the lyrics of John Mayer’s “Daughters” filled the air in our car. We looked at each other and just knew. We knew the news we would get that day was that a baby girl was on the way... and so she was. Mayer sings, “daughters will love like you do; girls become lovers who turn into mothers, so fathers be good to your daughters...” We shared that little moment with Elle, and so it is now a special song to her as well. And it couldn’t be better advice.
Dads are models for young girls of what to expect from men later in life. If dad becomes physically distant, daughter can develop the notion that this is how the man in her life should act. For all you amazing single-moms out there, if dad isn’t around, help your daughter identify with a strong male in your life. I know plenty of strong and wonderful mommas who didn’t have a great role model in their biological father, but who came to deeply understand what a husband and father should and can be by connecting with another man who was a great father.
“Mom!” Elle shouted. “Where are you going?!” Not gonna lie. I’ve absent-mindedly driven past the school several times. I blame adult ADD for those times. But this time was on purpose.
“We’re gonna walk to school today,” I answered. “One last time.”
I smiled, parked the car a few blocks away, and subsequently burst into tears.
“Can you at least hide it?” Elle asked, her eyes rolling as mine leaked profusely.
I promised to try.
But with every step, I brought up a do-you-remember...? We recalled so many moments on that walk, so seemingly insignificant at the time, but that bring tears to my eyes even as I write this.
One of my favorite poems, “The Last Time” (read it here), is a powerful message to cherish each moment. One day, she holds your hand, crawls into bed with you, or gives you a good-bye kiss at school for the last time. And you’re rarely tipped off that that was it. The last time.
But I knew this was it – the last time I would walk Elle to school. I took a closer look at a fragrant white rose bush I was always fond of and took a very, very deep breath.
I kissed her goodbye and watched her walk around the bus loop. She even waved to me just before she entered the building. And then I stood for a while. I looked around to take it all in.
The new crew of safety patrols, super-psyched about this new leadership role, but who will beg their parents in six months to let them quit. (I hope you say “no” and make them stick it out.)
And like somewhat of a nutcase, I started thanking the neighborhood (out loud!) for all it had been to us. And I started snapping pictures of random spots that triggered powerful memories.
The brown house with the detached guest house that Elle told me, no fewer than fifty times, we should buy so she could have her own place...when she got to middle school. (Sure, kiddo.)
The back gate, where parents dropped the kids off for school to avoid the dreaded car line. And where I spent many a morning (often looking disheveled) talking to neighborhood mom-friends.
Where every year, I would be blown away by the learning experiences afforded to Elle by world-class teachers in a second-to-none public, neighborhood school.
And where I wouldn’t need to teach my daughter to embrace racial or ethnic or religious diversity, because she would grow up surrounded by it and know nothing else.
I started to panic. I started to wonder if we had done the right thing. What did the world have in store for us after Avalon? Could it ever be this good again?
At that moment, Facebook alerted me to a Jennifer Hudson quote I posted exactly a year ago.
“Don’t block your blessings. Don’t let doubt stop you from getting where you want to be.”
I reflected on this little nudge. And after blubbering through the first half of my walk, I reminded myself that endings present beginnings, and that rather than suffer in the sadness of something wonderful coming to an end, we can choose instead to be grateful that it happened.
So pay attention. Take it all in. I’m not the first to say it and won’t be the last. But in this world we forget quickly, and need constant reminders to pay attention. Because cliché or not, it simply all goes too fast.