Letters From Dad

Lee McGowan |

As we get into December, many of us think about resolutions for the year ahead. As you reflect on this exercise, we share with you an idea that a father put in place that is worthy of consideration.

We came across this piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail:

Letters from Dad

The question hit me like a punch to the gut.

Like many of us, I am incredibly proud of my adult children – my role in helping raise my two daughters remains my single most profound achievement and the accomplishment in which I take the greatest pride.

My daughters are outstanding adults – disciplined with a great work ethic, working hard toward clear goals and with a wide network of good friends. They’ve both overcome the normal reversals to get their careers on track. But more important than what they’ve done is who they are – they’re both public spirited and bring a level of kindness, compassion and empathy that sets them apart from some of their millennial peers that I read about and sometimes encounter at the university where I teach.

So I truly have many, many reasons to be proud of my daughters.

That’s why I was taken aback during lunch with a long-time friend a few years ago. We spent a fair amount of time talking about what our kids were up to and how good we felt about the adults they’d become. Towards the end of lunch, he asked a question that stopped me cold:

“Tell me” he said. “When’s the last time that you told your daughters how you feel about them?”

As I thought about that question, I realized that the honest answer was one simple word: Never.

It’s not that I hadn’t congratulated them on their achievements. And of course I’d been there for all their school assemblies, soccer games and graduations, not to mention repeated trips to help them move houses in university.

But as a type-A, driven male who grew up in the fifties and sixties, I hadn’t been brought up to share with my daughters how I felt about them. After all, my parents had never done this with me. And besides, shouldn’t my presence at all of their activities have conveyed how I felt?

As I reflected on this, I realized that the obvious answer to that question was “Absolutely not. In fact, not even close.”

So I decided to do something about this. The issue was what.

Shortly after that conversation, my older daughter celebrated a birthday. Leading up to a birthday dinner with her and her sister, I wrote her a letter saying how thrilled I was about the terrific person she’d become and how proud I was to be her father. I wrote about some of the things she’d done that made me especially proud, but I made a point of going beyond achievements to focus on the qualities that make her special.

I approached that first dinner with a bit of trepidation. My daughter opened my gift, then began reading the letter that was inside the accompanying card.

At first she responded with puzzlement, then a look of concern came across her face. She gave the letter to her sister and then turned to me and asked: “Dad, is everything all right?”

I assured her that my health was fine and that I expected to be around for many years to come. I told both of my daughters that I’d realized that I’d done an atrocious job of letting them know how incredibly proud I was to be their dad – and that this letter was the beginning of my attempt to rectify that.

That first birthday letter was written four years ago. Since then, for each of my daughters’ birthdays I have taken the time to put pen to paper and write down how I feel about the things that have happened in our lives over the past 12 months.

I’ve mentioned these letters to a few friends and the universal response has been that this a great idea and they wish that they’d thought of this. To which my answer is that it’s not too late. In fact, this essay is my small gift to all the parents (and especially dads) who are genuinely proud of their kids but don’t know how to communicate that pride – and not just adult children, I think this could work starting at quite a young age. I should add that I ran this by my daughters first – we do enough to embarrass our kids unintentionally without dragging them into the spotlight on something like this before getting their permission.

I’d like to say that these letters have received an effusive response and that they’ve had a transformative impact in taking my relationship with my daughters (which was already very good) to a much higher level… but that wouldn’t be true.

Those letters are typically received with a smile and a polite “thanks dad,” then after being read get tucked away into their purses. So I’m not sure exactly how my daughters feel about those letters (I hope not too embarrassed) but I do know how I feel when I give my daughters their annual birthday letters, and that’s great.

I feel great because every time I write one of those letters I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have two terrific daughters. I feel great because in the unlikely event that I got into a serious accident, my daughters would know how proud I am of them. And I feel great because if I ever get asked again whether I have told my daughters how I feel about them, I can answer honestly and with complete conviction: “Absolutely I let my daughters know how proud I am to be their dad. How about you?”