Conversation Starters For Dads With Their Daughters
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Michelle Watson CanfieldMichelle Watson Canfield, PhD, is a licensed professional counselor, speaker, author, and founder of The Abba Project (an educational process group forum for dads of daughters ages 13 to 30) radio/podcast host of The Dad Whisperer, and co-chair of the Father-Daughter Initiative at the National Center for Fathering. She seeks to live out her God-given assignment by inspiring, equipping, and leading fathers to dial in to their daughters’ hearts with more intentionality...more
Girls long for a good relationship with their dads, but dads often have a hard time knowing how to engage. Michelle Watson Canfield shares conversation starters that can knit the hearts of dads and daughters together.
Conversation Starters For Dads With Their Daughters
Bob: If you’re a father with daughters—whether you know it or not/whether your daughter acts like it or not—she wants you and needs you in her life. Here’s Michelle Watson Canfield.
Michelle: A friend of mine said, as a Young Life® leader, he had a whole van full of senior and high school girls—you know, [others’] daughters—his daughter was four at the time. He said, “Okay, I’m overhearing a lot of negative conversation about your dads. Can you be the experts and tell me, ‘What do I need to know so that, when my daughter is a senior in high school, she’s not saying what you’re saying?’” Do you know what the collective response was?—“When we pushed our dad away, we wished that he wouldn’t have left.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, April 19th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How can a dad stay connected with his daughter even if she’s acting like she’s not really interested? That’s what we’re going to dive into today. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think this is really interesting; we’re going to be talking about the importance of—
Dave: We’re going to be talking about talking.
Bob: [Laughter] We are; that’s right! We’re going to be talking about how critical the relationship between a father and a daughter is, and you didn’t have any daughters; right?
Ann: No, I didn’t.
Dave: Neither did I, Bob. [Laughter] You pointed over at Ann; I’m like, “We’re one.”
Bob: That’s true; that’s a good point.
Dave: You’re right; we didn’t have any daughters.
Bob: You guys didn’t raise daughters.
Ann: But I did have a father.
Bob: That’s the interesting thing, because Michelle Watson Canfield is joining us today as well. Welcome, Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you; joy to be here!
Dave: And you had a dad, too; right?
Michelle: I did! [Laughter]
Bob: But you have had no daughters.
Bob: So here we are—talking about this subject—and I think it has to be of interest to you, in part because you’re a daughter, not because you’re married to somebody—well, now, you are married to somebody, who has daughters, so you’re getting to see it from a whole different—
Michelle: I’m a newlywed though.
Bob: That’s right.
Michelle: So you’re right; this has honed up in place.
Bob: We should explain to our listeners—this is pretty interesting.
Dave: I mean, like a couple of months!
Ann: We have to talk about this.
Bob: We do; and we may tell the whole story at some point, but you are/can we say that you are later in life?
Michelle: Oh, 60! I’m totally good with saying my age. [Laughter]
Bob: And single your entire life.
Bob: And contented as a single.
Bob: And then God—
Michelle: But I did wrestle; I’m not going to lie; right?
Bob: Right; for years?
Michelle: Yes, for years until about five years ago; and really felt like God was saying, “Michelle, your whole lane is dads and daughters.”
Bob: And so you got in that lane, and you were driving that lane.
Michelle: I gave up marriage as a dream.
Dave: You said you made a commitment, like: “I’m good being single the rest of my life,”—
Dave: —five years ago.
Michelle: Every heart of every dad in this nation is turned toward his daughter: “I’m all in.”
Dave: And then—[Laughter]
Michelle: And then—
Dave: —what happened?
Michelle: —then, oh my goodness! The long story that’s very short is that a man, who is a widower—who I’ve respected for years—wrote the forward for my first book. Dr. Ken Canfield started the National Center for Fathering 30 years ago. We’ve been colleagues, always above board; and his wife died last year. Really, it was one of those things, where I just heard God’s voice really speak to my spirit.
Bob: You’ve been married for how long?
Michelle: Five-and-a-half months.
Bob: There we go; this is amazing.
Ann: See, look how excited she is about it.
Dave: You guys look like newlyweds.
Michelle: Do we?
Ann: You do, yes!
Michelle: Oh, so sweet!
Dave: You’re grabbing each other’s hands; you’re kissing. I’m jealous.
Ann: I want you to do that to me.
Michelle: Come on! We’ll inspire you.
Ann: Oh, come over here, honey.
Dave: We’re on the same mike. Mmmm, okay. [Laughter]
Ann: See that didn’t happen with Dennis; did it?
Bob: I’m sitting here—that didn’t happen with Dennis—and I’m glad it didn’t happen with Dennis.
Why dads and daughters?—why is that the lane God laid out for you? Again, you’ve been single your whole life; you’ve been in clinical practice for years.
Michelle: Yes, 25 years.
Bob: How did this show up on your radar screen in the first place?
Michelle: Right; so I’d been mentoring and counseling young women for a lot of years—even since I was 19—mentoring them in churches, and camps, and different forums like that.
Ann: And you have your doctorate in?
Michelle: Doctorate in counseling psychology.
Dave: You are the smartest person in this room; I just wanted to let you know.
Michelle: Oh my goodness; no. no! It just means there’s letters after my name; right?
But truthfully, I’ve mentored girls for so many years—four decades—and over and over, just hearing, through the years, about so much heart pain with their dads not knowing how to connect with them. I think, on the best of days—you know, you men are from Mars; we’re from Venus—right, Ann?
Michelle: And we speak two different languages, even on the best of days. God knows me enough that He gave me something that is totally unique, and I just listen to His voice.
The story is: really, that in December of 2009, I was reading in Luke 1 how God told Zechariah that his yet-to-be-born son, John, would help turn the hearts—not the heads—of fathers to their children; right? I was sitting there, a random day, and just heard God say, “Michelle, that’s what I want you to do.”
I thought, “What?”—like truth be told, I never really liked fathers joining counseling sessions—they’d always say [in deep voice], “Okay, what are your three goals?”; and they’d just want all these data points. I’m like, “Okay, that isn’t really how I roll. I’m meeting people where they’re at.” And yet, here God said, “That’s what I want you to do with men!”
Dave: So you’re getting at the head/heart thing—
Michelle: Absolutely; that’s the key.
Dave: —because dads would come in, and you felt like you heard their head. God said, “hearts,” so what’s that mean?
Michelle: Right; there’s a discrepancy there/is: “How do men get into their heart space?”
Ann: Yes, let’s talk about that.
Michelle: Let’s talk about that! And you know what? I love that you brought that up; because so many men in the groups that I lead—which I’ll tell you about in a sec—but really, these men say, “Did you know this is really helping me with my wife, too?”
Ann: Of course, yes!
Michelle: The things they’re learning—right?—with their daughters are changing them from the inside out.
Michelle: What I’ve found is that, when men’s competence is built, their confidence builds. As a woman, over here—where I have great respect for the role that fathers have in the lives of their daughters and their sons—is I’m a champion of men. You guys can weigh in on this one—I believe men can tell whether or not a woman—
Dave: Oh yes.
Michelle: —is an ally. I speak mostly at men’s conferences, not women’s conferences anymore. Sometimes, I can feel the hostility when I walk in; because I think they think I’m a threat. But then, when they hear my heart—and I don’t say this to sound arrogant—but they really do then see I’m an ally. They line up, many of them, crying over estrangement; and they literally say, “I don’t know what to do; everything I’m doing is wrong.” I’m like, “I’m going to give you some ideas, and then I’ll be your fall guy. If it bombs, you just blame me.”
But anyway, back to the story—see/right, Ann?—we can go on a scenic route and then we come back to the freeway.
Ann: Yes! I’ve been explaining this to Bob and Dave. This is how we run as women.
Michelle: This is how we roll; yes.
Dave: I’m not sure I know what just happened here. [Laughter] What just happened?
Michelle: You asked me the question: “How did I get into this fathering space?”
Dave: Right; Luke 1.
Michelle: Yes; so the next month, when God said, “I want you to start turning the hearts of fathers/help allying with Me in doing that,” I wrote 11 dads an email—whose daughters were my clients at the time, in their teens or their 20s—said: “Would you want to join me, once a month for six months, to see if there’s a change in you, your daughter, and your relationship?” Ten of the eleven men said, “Yes, we’re in.”
Ann: Once a month; that’s doable.
Michelle: Exactly!—a couple of hours once a month. I had no curriculum; but every month, Abba would download to me—I call Him Abba—it means Daddy in Aramaic. Men love a project, hence the name—it’s The Abba Project—every month, He would download the next idea. I had no curriculum/nothing planned.
I take men through all kinds of topics. We start in the light end; I say the lighter end, which is really the format of my book now. Let’s start with laughter, where a dad can ask his daughter: “What item of my clothing would you love to see me get rid of?” [Laughter] Come on, just make fun of Dad!—let’s start with the fun stuff like that—or “Tell me about your wedding day. What colors do you want? Where do you want it to be? What flowers do you want?” I have yet to find a dad, who has even thought to ask his daughter those questions.
Ann: What a great idea, and it’s not threatening. It’s just her dream; it’s her vision. It’s getting into her heart.
Bob: Is this dads and 12-year-olds?—dads and 6-year-olds?—dads and what age?
Michelle: Well, I target teens and 20s, when it gets harder.
Michelle: I find a lot of dads say: “When my daughter’s young, you come home from work, she runs up and throws her little grimy hands around your neck, and kisses your face; and you kiss her boo-boo, and it’s all better really fast”; right? And then she hits 13/14, maybe 11/12,—
Ann: —and it’s awkward.
Michelle: —it’s awkward; it changes overnight. All of a sudden, dad is not the coolest guy in the room anymore; she wants her peers.
Dads, I have found, are a lot more tender and soft on the underbelly than they may appear; and that starts hurting their heart. So, oftentimes, I have found—in now
10 years of mentoring men/coaching men—is that you guys are smart enough to say: “You know what? I’m making it worse. I’m going to let Mom go in: ‘Here, you’re a girl; you go in.’” I’m like, “Ooh, ooh, no, no dad—
Ann: So he pulls out.
Michelle: He does! He backs up—
Dave: You said that in the book. I loved how you said this; because, as a man, I resonated immediately. You said, “Men would rather do nothing than do it wrong.”
Ann: That was really interesting.
Dave: That’s when/in some ways why we step out; it’s like: “I’m doing it wrong. I know I’m doing it wrong. I don’t know how to do it right. She knows how to do it right; I’m out.”
Ann: And maybe his wife is critiquing him—
Michelle: That does happen a lot.
Ann: —and then he pulled way out.
Ann: Bob, do you remember that phase with your girls?
Bob: I remember when I started to feel like: “Yes, they are in a different place. They’re not as interested in what I think, or what is going on,” and “This feels a little awkward. Their bodies are changing, so hugging them feels different; kissing them feels different than when they were six years old.”
I think you, as a dad, you’re not sure how to handle that, and what’s right and appropriate, especially in this culture, where dads are crossing the line and violating. This is where a dad goes, “I don’t want to be that guy, so now what do I do?”
Michelle: You know what? You sound like you were in one of the groups. This comes up every year; and it is in the materials that I give these dads, and then we talk about it.
Michelle: And what I told them is—as a woman—I can tell you this as God as my witness; and you can weigh in on this, Ann, if you want—but inside of our bodies, we don’t feel any different. So when dad starts backing off, going, “I don’t want to touch you in the wrong place,” what happens is we start thinking something’s wrong with us. Dads, who are listening, who have daughters, who are developing, just remember: “Keep hugging her the same way.”
In fact, I had one of the dads tell me—a guy named Mike—said when his daughter was 13, he started backing off; because she was more developed. They used to wrestle. As you can imagine, it actually started causing distance in their relationship—I don’t think just because they weren’t wrestling—but I think that was a metaphor of distance that was happening, where there was lack of physical contact happening.
Then that is the perfect set up for girls to be wooed by the dud and the dude, who’s like, “I’ll go in.” She wants touch; I mean, they can read it.
Bob: I have to ask you about this—and I’ll ask both of you because both of you had an experience of abuse in your background as children—“Does that not affect the daddy/daughter touch aspect of a parent relationship?”
Michelle: Absolutely; it affects that—even sometimes, unconsciously, if it’s been disassociated; right?—where somebody’s not even in touch with why touch from a man feels awful.
So for dads, you’re going to have to pace with your daughter; right? If she’s reactive to touch, I encourage them to try a tap on the shoulder; or kiss the top of her head; or at the very least, do an ET touch, finger to finger—like something, where you are initiating—because we know that, in Malachi, God says it’s the hearts of fathers who have to turn first; and then, in reciprocal response, the daughter turns. So yes, it is up to the dad to find a way to reach the emotional center of his daughter, even if she has abuse there.
Bob: Did your dad know that you had experienced abuse?
Michelle: No; my dad didn’t know I’d experienced abuse.
Ann: And my dad didn’t either. I do remember being in the fourth grade; and my parents weren’t very affectionate—my mom especially—but my dad did kiss me at night before I went to bed. I remember being in the fourth grade, and I said, “I wonder if I’m too old for you to kiss me goodnight?” He said, “Oh, you probably are”; and it was the last time I had any physical contact with either my mom or my dad.
Ann: I remember walking away out of that room, and there was a sadness in my heart. I think I was hoping he would say, “You’ll never be too old.”
Ann: But I think my dad didn’t know; and so he’s thinking, “Well, you know, yeah you probably don’t need it anymore.” Is there ever a time when a daughter doesn’t need it?
Michelle: Absolutely not. In fact, a friend of mine said, as a Young Life® leader, he had a whole van full of senior and high school girls—you know, [others’] daughters—and his daughter was four at the time. He said, “Okay, I’m overhearing a lot of negative conversation about your dads. Can you be the experts and tell me, ‘What do I need to know so that, when my daughter is a senior in high school, she’s not saying what you’re saying?’” Do you know what the collective response was?—“When we pushed our dad away, we wished that he wouldn’t have left.”
Dave: I’m sitting here, listening as a dad of sons, hearing—tell me if I’m right—“Dads, step in; do not step out, even when it’s uncomfortable. Step into your uncomfortableness/when it’s awkward.” I want to say to the dads listening, “It’s on us; let’s do it.”
Michelle: It is.
Dave: I remember feeling the same thing when my boys hit teenage years. I know it’s different than a daughter; but I was like, “Oh, it’s great when they’re little kids; you jump in their bed with them, and you roll around, and you read Bible stories, and you pray.” Then they are 15; and you’re like, “This is sort of weird. I’m not going to lay down in the bed beside him. I’ve got a beard; he’s got a beard. I’m not going to hug him.” It feels/and I remember thinking, “No, I need to do this.” I never had a dad do it; my dad was gone, so I’d never seen this. I remember Ann saying, “Why don’t you hug them anymore? Why don’t you lay down beside them?” I’m like, “It’s weird.”
I can imagine, even like Bob, it being even stranger with a daughter; but I knew then—I’m not saying I did it well—I don’t wait for them; I’ve got to step in, and I’ve got to become the dad that still hugs and still lays in bed with them at night.
Ann: And it could look different.
Dave: It’s going to look different. I wish I could say, if we called them right now, they’d say, “Dad did that unbelievable.” They’d probably say, “Yeah, he didn’t do it great.”
Ann: You were standing in the kitchen with our 29-year-old; and he said, “Dad, just hug me!”—a 29-year-old man—he’s like, “Dad, just bear hug me.” You had touched the boys, but you weren’t bear hugging them. You’re like, “This is weird.”
Dave: But I needed to step into that—
Dave: —especially when your son or daughter is asking for it. It’s like there’s a part of us, as men, we just/when we don’t know what to do, we do nothing. It’s like: “You know what? You don’t want to regret this, so go for it.”
Well, the dad, Mike—that I was telling you about that backed off from his daughter as she was developing—well, then, she was 17. He said, “I haven’t been really hugging her for four years.” But they started doing these monthly dad/daughter dates with questions that I gave them—which is really what Let’s Talk is about—is equipping dads with more questions to get the conversation going. I always say: “As a daughter, when our mouth opens, our heart opens.”
Ann: This is big.
Ann: When you said this, and I read it in your book, I’m like “Oh!” I just stopped for a second.
Dave: Actually, I’ve got to be honest; I read it to her.
Ann: Yes, he did; I was doing something.
Dave: I’m like, “Ann, listen to this. Is this true?” And she’s like, “Absolutely!” I’m like, “It’s true on a date night with us—no question—so it would be the same with a daughter with a father.”
Michelle: Well, when we stop talking—am I right, men?—you go [deep voice], “What did I do? [Laughter] What’s wrong?” When we’re closed in our heart, our mouth closes up.
When dads are like [deep voice], “Okay, I don’t know what to do to reach her heart,” it really comes back to talking: “How can you get us to open up and have a conversation with you?” That’s what this dad, Mike, did. He said, “Guess what’s happened?” We were on about month six of The Abba Project; he said, “We’re wrestling again,”—all of that goes together.
Dave: When I talk to men—you know, like I do a session with just guys—I always make a joke, like, “If you’re like me, you’re sitting there, like, ‘Just tell me what to do,’”; you know? That’s what a guy—just put it on the bottom shelf—“Tell me what to do; I’ll go do it.”
This is what your book does; I mean, look at it: Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters. Here it is; a manual: “What do I do?”—“Open this.” I mean, I read the first one: “Here’s how you ask questions about laughter…” I’m like, “We’re that elementary?”; yes, we are. [Laughter] You can take question number one, and look at your daughter and do it, and guess what? She’s going to open her mouth. Her heart’s going to open; yours is going to open—“Here we go!”; right?
Dave: That’s the genius.
Ann: You talk about the three truths that dads need to know. The first one is: “You are your daughter’s introduction to male love.”
Michelle: Absolutely; so many little girls I asked about/bring up the thing about a wedding day/her wedding day. She, oftentimes, is already thinking that way—right?—is: “What is that going to be like?” It’s very romantic and magical, not realistic oftentimes.
Ann: And our granddaughter, I remember when she was three and four, she would just go through the wedding album of her parents. I thought, “I’ve never seen our sons, in their whole lives, even want to look at a wedding picture.” [Laughter]
Michelle: Yes; so I think the more a dad can—again, it’s about the heart connection— get her talking about her dreams, and what kind of guy she’s interested in, and what wouldn’t she want in a guy that she would marry, and what would have her walk away? I don’t care if she’s six, or sixteen, or twenty-six. I think the more dads can ask questions rather than make statements, he will pace better with his daughter; because she’ll get to tell him what she’s thinking, what she’s experienced, what she’s needing. That’s going to help her, outside of the home, have more of a voice and be a world-changer.
Ann: So number two was: “Your daughter wants you.”
Michelle: Absolutely; she may not know how to tell you that, especially when her hormones are raging, which affects her moods, her behavior, and her thinking. Just expect her to go off the rails a little bit during those adolescent/preadolescent years. Dads, I know that this is going to require you to dig deep to find skills inside of you that you didn’t even know you had.
I love reminding men: “At times, where it gets really challenging with your girls, go back and find pictures of when it was really easy between the two of you; because that’s going to awaken your heart to remember how much you love her during those years, where you can’t quite get to that place and remember what you loved about her.”
Bob: What’s the goal? As a dad, I want to know: “What am I aiming for? I want to connect with the heart of my daughter, and I want that just on a relational level; but why is this so important for her and for me?”
Michelle: Well, a couple of things come to mind. One is that her identity is tied to her dad; right? Most women have the same last name as their dad. They’re looking at their father, saying, “This is my name; I carry your name.” I think we live in a culture, where a lot of women don’t know who they are or whose they are; right? They’re prime candidates for the “world”—I put that in quotes—but to say, “Here’s how we’re going to define you.”
Even earlier, Dave, the thought came to me; and I thought, “Do I say this?”
Dave: Uh oh, here we go.
Michelle: When we talked about dads hugging their daughters, I’m just going to go out on a limb here; but men, who are addicted to pornography, are going to struggle more to engage their daughters physically. Dads, remember that, in your home as a leader, this is on you to take that out of your life—
Bob: That’s right.
Michelle: —so that you can be a representative—which leads to my second thing of: “Why this is so important,”—is that you’re building a bridge to God, as a Father, ultimately. Like isn’t it interesting, in John 8:44, that Jesus Himself—this is red letter in the Bible—called Satan what?
Bob: The father of lies.
Ann: The father of lies.
Michelle: The father of lies; he is a counterfeit father.
Dads, just know—back to what is so important about this relationship between a dad and a daughter—is you are building a bridge to God, as a Father; so that when you’re not there, she knows she has a Dad—capital “D”—who will protect her, define her, love her, and invest in her.
Bob: And any of us here can tell you we’ve all had these conversations with young women, who will say, “I struggled with a relationship with God, because of my relationship with my father. If that’s what father means, I want nothing to do with God; because of the brokenness and the disconnectedness.”
I think, as dads, we have to recognize this is not just about how we get along with our daughters—which is important; it’s vital; it’s what we all want—but what Michelle has said: we’re building a bridge that’s a bigger bridge than just how we get along inside the family.
And the dad, who says, “I don’t know where to start,” we got it for you. Michelle’s written the book that’s the guide book: Page 1, “Ask this question…” Page 2, “Now, ask this question…” I mean, it’s pretty bottom shelf.
Michelle: Yes, there’s sixty topics; and it’s: “Dad, lead her to laugh,” “Lead her to love herself and others,” “Lead her to look deeper.” Fourth section is: “Lead her to lament.” And then the last one is: “Lead her to listen,”—where we flip the script—and the daughter gets to ask dad questions. There’s 60 conversation starters and activities, where I really have a goal to equip dads to lead to be the hero they want to be and that their daughter needs them to be.
Bob: We are making the book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners, who can help with a donation to support this ministry. Again, Michelle’s book is called Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters. The book is our thank-you gift to you when you reach out to help support the ongoing work of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. You help provide practical biblical help and hope for marriages and families all around the world—hundreds of thousands of people, every day, who are connecting with us—listening to this program, either on radio, or via podcast, or on our app, or by asking Alexa® to play FamilyLife Today. You make all of that possible for yourself and for others when you support this ministry.
And again, if you can make a donation today, we’d love to send you a copy of Dr. Michelle Watson Canfield’s book, Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters. It’s our thank-you gift when you go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to make a donation or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Again, the website to donate: FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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And we hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to continue talking about how dads can more effectively connect with the hearts of their daughters. Michelle Watson Canfield will be back with us tomorrow. Hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some extra help from Bruce Goff and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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