One of my favorite memories is snuggling on the couch on a cold winter Sunday in 1975 to watch the Super Bowl with my dad. I can still smell the freshly made popcorn that he popped in a copper kettle on the stove and drizzled with loads of melted butter. He placed the massive bowl between us, and we shared popcorn and Cokes as we watched the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain, beat the Vikings’ Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters. To the sounds of munching popcorn, cheers of the crowd, the play-by-play of Curt Gowdy and commentary by Don Meredith, the bonds of a father-daughter relationship strengthened.
I loved to watch football. My mom was there too, lying back in her recliner, scratching my dog’s ears; and my brother would be spread out on the floor crumbling Oreos into his vanilla ice cream before “Cookies and Cream” was a product on the freezer shelves at the grocery store. I loved the excitement of the game, the crushing tackles, the long throws, the sacks, the runs, and the last-second field goals that won the game. I didn’t always understand what was happening. Sometimes I would ask, and my dad would patiently explain the difference between a field goal and an extra point, what a touchback meant, and why a team didn’t go for it on every fourth down (I loved when they did that!). Sometimes, when dad’s Steelers weren’t doing very well, I’d keep my questions to myself and lick my buttery fingers. The details didn’t matter anyway. It was enough to spend time with him, sharing a bowl of popcorn and being a part of his grown-up world that made me feel accepted and loved.
The most important man in a girl’s life will always be her father. He has more influence on her than most any other person. He plays an integral role in the development of her self-image and self-esteem, her ability to cope with stressors, her understanding of relationships with men, and even her intellectual development. If you go to any parenting resource, you will find countless studies on the benefits of a father in a girl’s life as well as advice on how to be a great dad. A common suggestion is for dads to spend time with their daughters—entering their world by doing what their daughters like to do, even if that means going to the mall or having a tea party with them, complete with My Little Ponies as guests.
I have to say that my dad never let me dress him in my princess costumes, and I don’t think he ever played dolls or joined me for a tea party, but he did spend time with me. He coached my soccer team and attended every event I ever participated in (sorry, dad and mom, for putting you through those horrible band concerts in middle school!). If I was involved in something—whether it was shaking like a leaf while I performed a piano solo or running my heart out to make the North Carolina State Championship in track—my dad was there. I never had to scan the stands to find empty seats. There were my parents, camera in hand, watching me and cheering me on.
How to Spoil Your Daughters the Right Way
I had a friend in high school—a friend who never knew her dad—who told me one time in ninth grade that I was spoiled. “Spoiled!” I said. I was shocked. I was one of the least spoiled kids I knew. I grew up without much money, my parents made me work for every dime I ever had, and I got disciplined the old-fashioned way (a good spanking when I needed it). “No,” she said. “Not that kind of spoiled. You’re spoiled by your parents’ attention. They’re always at your track meets and concerts. They never miss a soccer game. They’re just always there. Especially your dad. You’re spoiled with love.”
I’ll never forget her telling me that, and I realized at that moment how lucky I was. I felt a deep sadness for my friend, and I still do these many years later. Her dad left her and her mom when she was a baby. She never knew him. Her mom struggled. My friend was active in school, very accomplished, but she never had anyone to cheer her across the finish line at track meets or applaud her flute solos in band or when she won beauty contests. She felt the emptiness of her missing father, and it has haunted her throughout her life, a shadow darkening every relationship.
I didn’t ever know that pain, that loss. My father was present, and while we didn’t have tea parties or go shopping at the mall, he did spend time with me—not just on my terms but on his. He opened the door to his world and held my hand as I stepped through. One way he did that was through football. While it’s good for fathers to get to know their daughters by engaging with them on their level—even if that means playing with Polly Pockets for an hour or so—that doesn’t mean fathers always need to do what the daughter wants to do. Sometimes it’s good, if not better, for the child to be brought into the father’s world.
This doesn’t mean that all lines between the adult and child should be erased. While it might sound outdated, the idea of a child knowing his or her place has some wisdom to it. It is good for children to learn respect for “adult space” and realize that this is something they need to grow into through maturity—like a reward after much work, something they need to earn, not simply be given. Too many children run rampant over the home and adult gatherings, robbing parents of much-needed adult time and creating an atmosphere in which children think they are entitled to adult privileges. Allowing children to have this kind of free rein doesn’t foster maturity—it fuels arrogance and disrespect.
Learning to Understand Men and Competition
That being said, there are times for children to come alongside their parents and be a part of their grown-up interests. The child might not always want to, but if you start young enough, it will be easier. I don’t remember my first football game. It was something that just happened over time. As a girl, I’m sure I wasn’t that interested in the game at first. The popcorn and Coke helped entice me, I’m sure. But I also liked being with my dad, doing something he enjoyed. It made me feel grown-up in a way and close to him. It also gave me the opportunity to learn the game itself—something I found beneficial as I got older, especially being a girl.
I realize this can be a controversial issue—watching football. Some might argue that the violence of the game isn’t good for a girl (or anyone) to watch. I have to disagree, but respectfully. I understand their concerns, but what I learned from football and watching it with my dad far outweighs the “violence” of the sport. What I learned has been a gift, and one for which I will be forever thankful. Besides having the opportunity to spend time with my dad, bonding over popcorn and touchdowns, I gained insight into a man’s world—how men communicate and emote. I learned to appreciate competition and not fear it. I’m sure watching football as a young girl played a big role in developing my highly competitive nature in the sports I played, as well as other kinds of competition, such as debates, piano competitions, and even beauty contests (I confess, I did that a time or two). While team-building and cooperation are natural to women, competition has always been considered more masculine. But it’s something important in life as women are more a part of the workplace where competition is often a driving element (and rightly so). This doesn’t mean we abandon our cooperative natures, but if we’re going to participate in the world with men, we need to learn to compete with them without whining about it or getting our feelings hurt.
Football also helped me to appreciate and understand men as men, how they interact and what excites them. I’m amazed at how many women just don’t “get” men. They don’t understand why they want a man cave, to visit a sports bar to hang out with their friends for a few hours, or find sports so stimulating. Too many women see this as an indulgence, as time taken away from the family, as selfish and unimportant. They don’t realize that there is a natural release that is almost primal when men watch football. It’s in their nature to fight and defend. It’s in their blood to use brute force as well as brains to overcome a threat. Competition makes them feel alive as they identify with the players on the field, as the team’s victories become their own successes, and its losses, their own defeats. Loyalty, competition, rivalry, and passion. Football is an expression of those emotions.
What Football Reveals about Men
Football isn’t “just a game” to men. It touches part of their spirit as men—that inner “hunter” that gets little release in today’s modern world. It allows them to bond with other men—the men on the field and the men they watch the game with. It develops a sense of loyalty you find on the battlefield, which is one reason they get so emotionally invested. Growing up watching football with my dad exposed me to the highs and lows of male competitive passion. This enabled me to understand it, not be intimidated by it, and even enjoy it when I became an adult.
Watching football with my dad has led to watching football with my husband. Some of the most relaxing times we have are sitting at on the couch or going to the sports bar, watching the Panthers trounce the Saints or the University of North Carolina destroy Duke. I have to confess, I still don’t understand football the way my husband does. I think you have to have played the game or been an avid follower to understand all the rules. I still ask questions (though I try to limit it to commercial time), but I have an uncanny ability to call disputed plays. My husband has learned not to argue with me when I insist a player caught the ball, fumbled, or broke the plane. I’m always right. He always rolls his eyes. (Seriously, I’m always right.)
I guess when it comes to watching football with my dad, my husband has just as much to be thankful for as I do. It’s something we can share and enjoy. Instead of being a source of conflict, as it is with some couples, it’s a time of joy. When he wants to watch a game, I don’t feel threatened by it. It’s something we can do together. I love to watch him get passionate about a score or even angry when someone makes a boneheaded play. It’s a delight to hear him talk about “back in ’82” when he played. I can see the shadow of the little boy he once was—a time long ago when weekends were all about the game on Friday night, playing in the fields with friends on Saturday or, if it was raining, making paper footballs and flicking them across the table for hours, then watching the Cowboys on Sunday. Being able to share those memories with him and understanding just a hint of what he’s feeling deepens our relationship—and I have my dad to thank for that. Of course, we don’t always watch the games together. If he wants to spend time with his friends, that’s fine, too. There’s always another game we can watch, another Sunday, another Monday night—and then there’s always baseball season.