Dad Rules ...

Or at least he tries to, when it comes to decisions about his daughter's dating habits. But these days, kids grow up fast, and the old rules don't always apply.

October 06, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

You have to wonder about the 17 million viewers who watched the premiere of ABC's new sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. They were probably dads looking for help.

In the series, John Ritter plays a sportswriter whose two daughters are just starting to go out with boys. It's a funny concept for a show, but in real life?

Major stress for the father.

It's not the teen-age boys who need the rules. It's the fathers of the teen-age daughters. They have to figure out how to balance trusting their child with protecting her. The world out there was hazardous when they were teen-age boys, and it's gotten worse. Add AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, date rape and designer drugs to pregnancy, alcohol and speeding cars.

"It was scary when she first started dating," says Brooklyn Park resident Danny Nislein, whose 16-year-old daughter Marlene has a steady boyfriend now. "I kept thinking I had plenty of time."

Your baby girl goes on her first date, and suddenly she's not your baby girl anymore. Do you talk to her about sex or hope she doesn't find out about it? What about insisting on meeting the boy? If you do, you'll have to have a conversation with a 15-year-old boy and not mention his nose ring, which could be, like, difficult.

"Fathers are in a real tough position," says humorist W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the best-selling book that inspired the TV show. (It's also called 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.) "We're aware we have to communicate to our daughters what it's like in the real world. We have to help them grow up. On the other hand, we don't want them to grow up."

Both his daughters are older now, so he ought to have some advice for other dads.

What worked best for you, Mr. Cameron?

"Nothing."

But Cameron survived his daughters' adolescence, as do most dads. So often, he says, what gets lost in the dialogue between fathers and teen-age daughters is that they love each other. A lot, maybe all, depends on the kind of relationship you had with them before they reached puberty.

"Everything starts with how you've been handling things all along," says family therapist Frederick Strieder, an associate professor at the University of Maryland. Strieder, who has a 12 1/2 -year-old daughter, believes there have to be rules and structure but also flexibility. He hopes fathers realize it's OK to change their minds about a decision they aren't comfortable with or a rule that isn't working.

Some fathers who take a conservative approach actually do have eight rules about dating, if not more. These dads argue that their teen-ager is secretly relieved to have limits that she can use as an excuse against peer pressure. Others feel that setting rules sends a negative message about trust. Either approach -- and some in between -- can work, depending on how the dads and daughters get along.

The non-rule-maker

Towson lawyer Jason Frank, 47, likes to quote the father in the movie Clueless, who says to the boy who's picking up his daughter: "If anything happens to her, I got a .45 and a shovel. I don't think you'll be missed."

But actually, Frank is a softie when it comes to his daughters Emily, 16, and Abigail, 14 (who hasn't really started dating yet). For one thing, most dates aren't one-on-one, but group events. He's met all the boys Emily has gone out with and says he gets along with them fine.

When asked if he sets rules, he grins and says, "I try not to." Emily, he says, believes it's a reverse psychology technique: If he doesn't seem to be against her going out on dates, she won't be as likely to.

"There are nasty things out there," he says, "Being honest about that is OK. But I don't pretend I was an angel. If they smell hypocrisy, you lose. That destroys your whole case."

You can't indulge in adult relationships without going through the adolescent ones, he adds. "I'm more afraid about her getting killed in a car accident than kissing the wrong boy."

Learning from the past

Joe Kelly, a founder of dadsanddaughters.org (a nonprofit organization that addresses the challenges of fathers raising daughters) likes the idea of men using their own experiences in dealing with teen-age daughters and their boyfriends. Of course, what probably springs to mind first is "raging hormones." He suggests getting beyond that.

"Look to your own adolescence," says Kelly, the executive director of the Duluth, Minn.-based organization. "All of it. Tell her stories: the excitement of your first love from a boy's point of view. As the first man in her life, you set the standard. That's what she'll look for in a boy."

The benefits of sharing your own experiences are twofold, he says. It gives her valuable information to help her separate the good guys from the jerks, and it reminds you that not all teen-age guys are jerks.

Kelly also didn't focus just on boyfriends when his twin daughters were teen-agers. (They're now in college.) "I tried to make it a practice to know all their friends."

Rules pave the way

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