Protecting My Teen Daughter: One Dad's Story

The first time I ever went on a real date, I was about 16 years old. It was late 1970s rural Virginia, and I drove our beige Plymouth Duster over Warm Springs Mountain to the girl's apartment. I stood there at the door with my feathered blond hair and my disco silk picture shirt and my Avon arrowhead chick-magnet necklace and worked up the courage to knock. The door immediately swung open, and there was her father—pretty much all of her father. He was fat and hairy and wearing nothing but his undershorts. "She's upstairs," he said. "Let's go have a chat." He stretched out on his La-Z-Boy, and I mean stretched out. I have no idea what he said, because I was too busy trying to figure out where to look. But just by his choice of attire (or lack thereof), two things were clear to me by the time I walked out his door: his daughter would be home on time, and I wouldn't be touching her.

That night I drove my date over the next mountain for dinner and an early-evening showing of that great romantic comedy Smokey and the Bandit. I consumed two entire pitchers of Coke at the Pizza Hut because I was so nervous. Her dad was so far inside my head that I kept staring at my watch instead of her—and she was drop-dead gorgeous. And I'm still not sure if Burt Reynolds got that Coors delivered.

I don't think that girl's father could have been more intimidating if he had pulled a gun on me, which another dad did not long after. I was on a double date with my brother, Chris. We brought the two girls home late, and the father of one of them was not amused, nor was he sober. "Get off my land!" he yelled, shotgun in hand, as we spun out of his driveway. We were in the middle of driving the 10 miles home at breakneck speed when we noticed a set of headlights zooming up fast behind us. My brother mashed the pedal down, but the madman kept pace the whole way until finally we fishtailed it up our driveway with the real smart plan of running into the house to get our own guns. Smokey and the Bandit in real life isn't all that fun, it turns out, and in this case Smokey was our dad, who had come to the rescue after getting an angry call from Mr. Shotgun. He'd tailed our car the whole way home, cursing at us to "slow the hell down before somebody gets killed!"

I tell these tales of my death-defying teen dating years for a reason: those two over-the-top dads from my past don't seem so crazy in hindsight, because now I'm a middle-aged guy with a 16-year-old daughter of my own. Her name is Grace. All is forgiven, Boxer-Clad Sasquatch Machiavelli and Shotgun-Wielding Virginity Enforcer. My hat is off to you because now I am one of you. Fathers of teen daughters start to consider all sorts of strategies that might keep them safe and protected and forever 16. Intimidation is just part of the game. One of my friend's fathers used to greet all of her dates with a simple but effective line: "Tonight, you should treat my daughter as if your life depends on it. Because it does." I keep that line with me at all times now, ready for whenever the doorbell rings.

In the end, it's all for naught. Sooner or later all of us fathers of daughters arrive at the same place: time is fleeting, and our precious little girls are leaving, and too soon, and more than likely on the arm of some scheming longhair who isn't good enough for our angel and doesn't have the sense to know that the bill of a baseball hat goes in the front. (It's supposed to keep the sun off your face, dumbass.) John Updike understood. In Man and Daughter in the Cold, he wrote a line about teenage girls that has always stuck with me: " ... in the precipitate way, evasive and pleased, that she flung herself to the top step, he glimpsed something generic and joyous, a pageant that would leave him behind."

Like all fathers, I don't want to be left behind, but looking back I realize that Grace had already begun to pull ahead when she was about 5 years old. I was a Mr. Mom back then, and she got mad at me one day because I stepped on her My Little Pony or some other egregious act. She yelled: "Daddy, you're stupid!" I sternly told her that sort of behavior was just not OK and she needed to say she was sorry. She put one hand on her hip, looked me in the eye, and said, "I'm sorry you're stupid."

Today she's a junior in high school, tall and beautiful and smart and strong-willed and all those things dads are supposed to say, but in her case they're true. She'll manage just fine, and I'll try to do the same. She'll learn about the big bad world on her own now, and she'll be ready. She got a taste this summer in Naples, when a simple stroll with friends to get gelato turned into a nightmarish robbery at knifepoint. Grace handled the trauma with aplomb, taking it as the life lesson it was. I learned about it in that most modern of ways—a text message—and I felt so far away, because I was. I wasn't there to protect her, and it made me realize she'll be more and more on her own as the months and years go by. So in the time I've got left before she heads off to college, the dudes who imagine themselves man enough to enter my lair and claim a night out with my little princess are going to be greeted by a 6-foot-3 graybeard sporting a tutu and brandishing a crossbow. Someday those guys will thank me.