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Healthy Pledges for a "Responsibility Non-Ball"

By Alexander Weaver

(Editor's Note: Please welcome Daylight Atheism's first guest writer! Alexander Weaver is the author of the essay "Answers to 11 Questions for Atheists" on Ebon Musings.)

Recently, several bloggers brought to my attention one of the creepier trends that's caught on in South Dakota, the "Father-Daughter Purity Ball." This is more or less what it sounds like; fathers and daughters (mainly preteens and young teens) dress up and attend a dance together, which culminates in them holding each other close and gazing into one another's eyes. The daughter then recites the following pledge to her father: "I pledge to remain sexually pure...until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband...I know that God requires this of me...that he loves me and that he will reward me for my faithfulness."

To which the father responds, "I, (daughter's name)'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come."

Speaking as a father myself, I find this extremely disturbing on several levels: the pseudo-incestuous undertones created by the use of setting and nonverbal cues typically associated with romantic dates, the young ages of the girls involved, and my strong suspicions that, as with Confirmation, the children who take part in these events are often unwilling or uncertain and participate because of pressure and a sense of obligation from their families and communities. Worse, though, is the poisonous and dysfunctional view of sex, gender roles, and family relationships which permeates the entire concept of this event. This has been thoroughly explored by other writers already, so I will not recapitulate it at length here; suffice it to say that the implicit views of the father as the patriarchal leader of the household regardless of circumstances and of the girl's sexuality as being first her father's property/responsibility, becoming "a gift" to her husband (and hence his property), and being the defining trait of her being ("I give myself" in reference to having sex) are not merely misogynistic but diametrically opposed to the respect and trust that must form the basis of any healthy relationship, especially of parent and child. I'm reasonably certain my daughter would agree, if she wasn't habitually preoccupied by her attempts to abscond with my writing implements and years away from a coherent understanding of the concepts involved (she's almost 2).

Nevertheless, I can see the benefits of a ritual affirmation of trust, affection, and respect between parent and child, and to that end, I wrote the following pledges, to be exchanged, without pressure and preferably in a non-pseudo-romantic (i.e., non-"ball") context, between a father and daughter. Note that the structure of these could be readily adapted to any gender combination; I phrased it here as a father-daughter exchange because this is the parental relationship most relevant to my life. Note also the use of reasons relating to human happiness and security, and the importance of responsibility and judgement in achieving those, rather than an appeal to divine command as a motivating factor.

Daughter: "I pledge to treat my body, my mind, and my life with dignity and respect, and to ensure this is reflected in all my decisions. I recognize that sex is healthy, natural, and also potentially dangerous. I understand that I must make informed and intelligent decisions, for my own sake and my partner's, regarding when and with who to have sex, and that I must resist any attempt to take the decision out of my hands, no matter the intent. I understand also that you are concerned for me, that I mean a great deal to you, and that above all you want me to be happy. I recognize that you have more experience than I do in most areas of life and that I should consider your advice and opinions, but also that I must make my own judgements rather than mindlessly absorbing or defying any example, even yours. I know that I can trust you and confide in you, and that you will be there for me when I need advice and support. Most of all, I know you love me, no matter what."

Father: "I, (daughter's name)'s father, affirm to her and to myself my recognition that she is my responsibility, but her own person. I recognize that sex is healthy, natural, and also potentially dangerous. I pledge to do everything in my power to ensure that she has the knowledge and judgement necessary to make informed and intelligent decisions about when and with who to have sex, but I will accept that the decision is ultimately hers to make. I understand that my example will be a major influence on her ideas and attitudes about sex and relationships, and I will model integrity, maturity, reason, and responsibility in every way I can. I recognize that the best thing I can do for her is to set a good example and be supportive and accepting of her as a person, but when I disagree with her decisions I will make this clear in a civil and responsible manner. I will make clear that she can trust and confide in me and that I will be there for her whenever she needs advice or support, and I will make good on my promise. Most of all, I will ensure that she knows I love her, no matter what."

I trust these will stand well enough on their own; I can clarify and respond as needed, but for the moment I have a pencil to retrieve...

May 13, 2006, 5:20 pm • Posted in: The RotundaCommentOptions
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6 Comments

"Terms and conditions apply. Past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future, and the value of your emotional investment in me may go up and well as down, especially when I become a moody teenager. I am committed to protecting your privacy, and as such will not pass your fatherly advice onto third parties - especially boyfriends - without your explicit consent. Unless otherwise specified, my services as a daughter are provided for your personal and non-commercial use only. You may not create derivative works - 'siblings' - without further agreement in a responsibility non-ball"

The pledges you've written are pretty good, in my opinion. One little nitpicky thing caught my attention, though. You say "sex is healthy, natural, and also potentially dangerous", where I think it would flow better if the last "and" was a "but". I know it's terribly nitpicky, but on first reading it made me stop reading, because the "and" implies similarity.

You forgot the third part of the pledge, where the father pledges to break the arm of any boy who touches his daughter;)

Seriously though, the father/daughter "ball" as described is disturbing. I like some of the ideas in the alternate pledge, but do take issue with the following:

"I pledge to do everything in my power to ensure that she has the knowledge and judgement necessary to make informed and intelligent decisions about when and with who to have sex, but I will accept that the decision is ultimately hers to make."

What age are we talking? Depending on the age, I may be telling the daughter that sex is unacceptable.

Teenaged, especially older teenaged. Younger than that, and an intelligent, intelligently raised girl won't need to be told that. And while I'd certainly agree that a preteen girl shouldn't be having sex, authoritarian anti-sex attitudes and behavior on the part of parents demonstrably do more harm than good (in my experience, that's actually true of authoritarian attitudes on anything). There are several reasons for this, but I think the most damaging effect is the "I don't trust you" subtext, which most children (judging by observations and anecdotes of "typical" responses to bullying) seem to translate as "you are not a trustworthy person." That view of herself isn't going to help matters any.

As for the arm-breaking thing, that sort of attitude pissed me off as a teenager and still pisses me off as a father. Not only is it insulting to the boys a girl might date and to the girl herself (again the "I don't trust you" message, and/or a "you're too weak to handle yourself" message, depending on the circumstances), but it's much more efficient to help her develop the judgement and physical capacity to break it herself if it's actually warranted, which is much more effective for preventing advantage-taking.

I am still unclear at what age the daughter should be told it is her call whether or not to have sex. You mention pre-teen - what are you advocating the parent say to the pre-teen? Is the pre-teen also making the call?

Making decisions for our children is part of being a parent. A parent starts out by making all decisions for a child. In a way, raising a child is a long process of letting go. Admittedly some parents are better at this than others, erring either on the overly authoritarian side, or on the "anything goes" side. The goal at the end should be an adult who is capable of going out into the world on his/her own able to do great things. One component of this is giving the child responsibilities as he/she is ready to handle them.

Regarding trust, we do not always trust a child to make the correct decision. This is simply a function of the child not having the knowledge and experience of an adult. My six year old doesn't want to eat vegetables, even after I have explained to him the importance to his health. I did not resolve this situation by telling him that the decision was ultimately his. I would no more do this with a teen and sex, the act of which can have very significant consequences. I would not lay the ultimate burden of that decision on my teen daughter, who does not have the knowledge and experience of an adult.

I would modify that part of the pledge, telling the daughter that I will always love her no matter what happens, and that I respect and trust her ability to make good decisions given the knowledge and experience that she has, but that her knowledge and experience is not that of an adult, and therefore as an adult I will at times try to make decisions that are in her best interest. I would add that I pledge not to abuse or take advantage of her trust, that I am not perfect, and that it is a partnership where as she grows she needs to take over the decision making process, even when it involves making mistakes, in order to become an adult. Something like that.

As for the boy a daughter might date, since I had not raised that child, I would not know his values. As much as he might be very excited to hear that I have told my daughter that she can decide to have sex with him, that is not what he is going to hear from me. You bet I would talk to him about what is expected if he wants to date my daughter. I like most of the pledge, but still view the particular part I mentioned as a seeming abdication of parental responsibility.

I don't see it as an abdication of parental responsibility, just the reflection of my observation that guidance is more productive as a general approach to parenting than restriction. This does not imply that restriction isn't necessary, just that it shouldn't be the primary approach to dealing with a teenager, if for no other reason than the extraordinary inventiveness of teenagers in circumventing restrictions rendering it relatively useless in the long run as a preventative measure. The message I'm describing is that in the abstract sex is something she will have to make a decision about eventually, and it's my responsibility to make sure it's an informed decision, rather than telling her she can't have it, period, while I have any power to prevent it (and, implicitly, after that she's on her own) or, conversely, telling her she's on her own right now and she can do whatever she wants. That includes ensuring that the decision is postponed until she's at a point where she can make an informed decision. I recognize that we cannot always trust a child to make the correct decision; hence the need for guidance, the purpose of which is to ensure that the child has as much of the knowledge, and the secondhand benefit of the experience, of an adult as possible, whether through my direct involvement in the decision-making or through the behaviors and attitudes I've taught her. However, I also recognize the need to maintain a realistic assessment of her decision-making capacity, especially when she's an older teen, rather than thinking of her as "my baby girl" indefinitely; my observation has been that the stereotype of this attitude on the part of girls' fathers in general has a substantial real-life basis. It's been my unfortunate experience that entirely too many adults postulate, consciously or otherwise, that no meaningful difference in decision-making ability exists between a 7 year old and a 17 year old; in addition to being demonstrably false, this view is insulting, and treating one's teenaged children according to it is not going to encourage them to develop personal responsibility or maturity.

As for boys she's dating, my approach would depend somewhat on her age and their relative ages. I will certainly emphasize the need to be respectful of her and her decisions in this regard and advise them that, independent of how far she decides she is prepared to take their relationship, any attempt to exploit her will be hazardous to their health. I will not operate on the assumption that any boy she might be interested in could only possibly be interested in sex, nor will I treat every boyfriend I meet as mentally deficient and possibly having criminal tendencies. For instance, I'll want to meet her boyfriends, but I won't demand to meet them before they can see each other. And I'm not going to get bent out of shape about how her boyfriends look or dress, despite the condescending assurances of various older relatives and acquaintances. (I invite comparisons between this and some atheists whose relatives treat their nonbelief as a "phase" that they'll "grow out of.")

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