| True Ozarks
Published November 7, 2004

Daddy's little girl
Having a strong relationship with her father can help a girl grow into a confident woman.

John Bradley and his daughter Stacy embrace after she and her Catholic High School cross-country teammates qualified for the state finals.
John Bradley and his daughter Stacy embrace after she and her Catholic High School cross-country teammates qualified for the state finals.
Mark Schiefelbein / for the News-Leader
Mike Tenneson said he has been struck by the strength of his daughter Anna's emotions. Also the father of two boys, he said parenting a daughter is very different.
Mike Tenneson said he has been struck by the strength of his daughter Anna's emotions. Also the father of two boys, he said parenting a daughter is very different.
Christina Dicken / News-Leader
By Tresa McBee
News-Leader Staff

Eighteen years ago, John Bradley got the best birthday present he's ever received: daughter Stacy.

The two share everything — from their birthday to running to a similar personality. They even drill together in the U.S. Army Reserve.

"He's the role model for me," said Stacy Bradley, a senior at Catholic High School who plans on staying in the military at least through medical school. "Everything he's done, I've followed pretty much."

Stacy has always compared herself to her father, John said, because they are so much alike. She thinks the way he did at her age, plans like he did — she even drives the same kind of car he did in high school.

"She's my little girl," said John, who also has a son, 13-year-old Michael, with wife Teresa. "(Stacy) says, 'I want to be just like you. You set everything up and you stick to it.' She's just a bright star in my life."

Fathers can play a huge part in positively influencing daughters, especially their feelings of worth and ability to withstand peer pressure, experts say. Dads' reliable presence — from birth through the teen years — provides a sturdy foundation on which girls can stand.

"Fathers are the male viewpoint to their daughters," said Joyce Noble, a psychologist with St. John's Health System.

"In particular, in the teenage years, it can be a real strength for a girl to have a strong relationship with her father ... to develop an identity of her own."

Start early.

"Participate in her care," Noble said. "Change those diapers, feed her the cereal, get spit up on. If the mom is breast-feeding, the dad should be the one to get up and get her and have his cuddle time. ...

"More and more dads are doing it and loving it these days, and moms do need to make space and let them do it in their own way."

Being a present father from the beginning is critical, said Clint Strong, a physician at Springfield's Steeplechase Family Physicians. He's also the father of two girls, 2 years old and 6 months old.

"The importance of the father-daughter bond is immeasurable ... just from the standpoint of giving them a strong self-esteem so they can be independent."

Begin bonding before birth, Strong suggested.

Talk to babies in utero. Read a book or magazine — Sports Illustrated, if you want. Babies learn voices in the womb and will recognize one heard repeatedly.

When daughters are infants, talk to them during diaper changes, make animated faces and speak in high tones — the sound babies prefer.

"Don't be afraid as a dad to play dolls, to play house. ... Don't be too manly to get down on the floor and play tea party," said Strong, a veteran of such gatherings.

One of the most critical things fathers can do for daughters is treat their mothers well, he said.

"Because your daughter will look to her mother as to how she should be treated."

In general, be an available and enthusiastic parent, Strong said. "Understand what makes your daughters excited about life and gets them involved."

For Stacy Bradley, that's cross country.

Like her father — a state cross country champion who attended Indiana University on a full cross country/track scholarship — Stacy is a committed and successful runner. She recently qualified for state competition.

Her father is her coach. He's also her superior — sergeant first class — in the Army.

Stacy, a self-described daddy's girl, admits it's hard not to call him 'dad' when they're in their Army roles. John admits he slips more than she does.

"He calls me Stacy all the time, and I have to correct him," she said. "It's really awkward, but at the same time it's great because I can always go to him with questions and he can direct me."

Communication creates opportunities, Strong said.

"Consistently building them up, giving them constructive criticism, being there. You never know as they're growing up when they'll open up and share feelings."

Fathers typically offer a more rational balance to emotion, Noble said.

"That's good, because what we often see with girls is they'll draw on different emotional resources with their dads."

At the same time, Strong said, don't shirk from emotion-laden conversation. And resist the very male urge to save the day.

"Sometimes girls need to vent, much more than guys. So fathers of daughters have a special calling to listen without fixing."

Mike Tenneson has been struck at times by the intensity of emotion from his 7-year-old daughter, Anna. A father of two boys, Gabe, 16, and Josh, 13, Tenneson has found parenting a girl to be a different experience.

"With my boys, it was, 'Hey let's wrestle,' or 'Come on, let's see how fast we can go on a bike.' ... It's a guy-guy kind of companionship," said Tenneson, an Evangel University biology professor. He and wife Cheryl live on 30 acres with their children in Buffalo.

Tenneson shares a gentler relationship with Anna, sharing feelings more than he did with his sons.

He hopes that consistently making Anna feel confident in who she is will help her make positive choices as an adult.

"I'm hoping that she'll have a healthy sense of what a husband should be like and a dad — the dad of her kids. That she'll be attracted to a man that respects her and tells her he loves her."

A father's acceptance can protect against many negative things, especially eating disorders, Noble said.

And fathers needn't shy away from appropriate physical affection as daughters mature, she added. "If they've been the hugging type of dad, it's important to still be the hugging type of dad. Daughters still need that in their teens."

Moms, take note. It's not unusual to feel competitive as daughters blossom — just as mothers are feeling the burden of middle age, Noble said.

"They need to be mature enough to share (the) time and attention of dad with all the kids. ...

"Moms need to have their own lives. ... Moms who continue working on their identity usually find the best balance," Noble said.

With his daughter on the cusp of graduation and in a serious relationship, John Bradley knows change will come soon.

"It's gonna be hard to let her go when she grows up. ... I just hope her dreams come true, because what her dreams are, are my dreams."

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