When I was in my teens, someone at school brought in an excerpt from a 1950s Home Economics textbook. It was passed around with much amusement. Under “How to be a Good Wife”, it included things like:
“HAVE DINNER READY: Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal on time. This is a way to let him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned with his needs.”
“PREPARE YOURSELF: Take fifteen minutes to rest so that you will be refreshed when he arrives. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay (sic) and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift. Greet him with a smile.”
It continues in this vein with other headings such as “PREPARE THE CHILDREN”, “MINIMISE ALL NOISE” (this last one clarifies: “eliminate all noise from the washer, dryer, or vacuum. Encourage the children to be quiet”) and rounds off with: “MAKE THE EVENING HIS: Never complain if he doesn’t take you to dinner or to other entertainment. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his need to unwind and relax.”
We read this in the 1980s as women were power-dressing in big shoulder pads and taking their place in management roles. In our context, this list of instructions for wives provided endless hilarity. But prescribing directives for wives wasn’t unique to the 1950s. Digging back a thousand years, it turns out that in the earliest English marriage service the bride’s vows included a promise to be: “bonny and buxom in bed and at board.” The mind boggles. This comes from the Use of Sarum, the earliest English marriage service, which was authorised by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1085.
Now, with the ink just drying on the last A-level exam, I’ve come to the official end of raising two sons in an era that has its own unique expectations on relationships. There are so many things about their generation’s world that were unforeseen. Maintaining connections through social media and being constantly accessible through smart phones are obvious examples, but on the subject of relationships and marriages my sons are in a realm I couldn’t have predicted either. And something I certainly never could have seen coming is the rise of the Daddy-Daughter Date phenomenon.
If you’re reading this, and you are a dad who intentionally spends time with his daughter; knows what’s going on in her life, and healthily affirms her, I don’t mean you. You sound like a good dad. I mean instances such as earlier this year, when a mother posted a picture on Facebook that went viral. Along with pictures of her daughter, she wrote: “My husband decided once a month he will take our little girl out on a ‘date’ where she gets dressed up and gets taken out for cake and ice cream. He helped her pick out a dress for her to wear… held the door open for her, and made her feel like a princess. She loved it and was so happy when she got home. She will always know how she deserves to be treated because her dad sets such a high example.”
I need to be honest and say that I’ve not been going on mother-son dates to teach them how to pull out chairs, hold doors open, or make someone feel like a princess. Anyone who knows me knows I can wax lyrical about my sons. I have good relationships with both of them, and we have some great conversations. But if I asked them to intentionally leave the house to have coffee with me, I’d meet polite resistance. If I were to call it a date, I would not see them for dust. But wherever you stand on the parent-child dating trend, it is worth stopping to assess the expectations you are intentionally or unintentionally instilling in your children about what to look for in a future partner, and how to be a future partner.
Because whether it’s Daddy-Daughter Dates or a home economics textbook from the 50s, the faulty premise that all these “To Do” lists of recommended behaviours have in common, is that they are lists. And while it may reassure some people that society has moved to a place in which the parents of girls are making the lists – the outcome is still a list. And the truth is, no list will breathe life into a relationship. The mysterious connection or bond that draws and then keeps people together comes from something that can’t be legislated. The little things we do for each other nourish and keep it alive, but they should grow out of the unique relationship itself – not predefined expectations handed down by dates with your parents.
So while I wasn’t going on dates with my kids, I was trying to show them who to be rather than what to do. As well as covering the basics like how to swim, brush their teeth and make themselves something to eat, I’ve taught them they have value, and should respect themselves. It’s from this that I trust they will make healthy decisions and choices. And I’ve taught them to value and respect others. This, I hope, will determine how they treat all people they come across, as well as those they date or marry.
If a future spouse wants one of my sons to pull out their chair for them, or does or doesn’t like receiving flowers; I hope that they, as a couple, will work through those relationship details from a place of mutual understanding and respect. I hope too that each of my sons will respect themselves enough to be with a partner who is interested in them and their wellbeing, as well as reciprocating in the same spirit. You can’t predict, when you hold your new born bundle in your arms, the world into which he or she will become an adult. But nurturing respect for themselves and others, I believe, will go a long way to equipping them to handle much of what lies ahead.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.