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Make Room for Listening

The Role of a Father

Actress Marlo Thomas shares the greatest gift a dad can give his daughter

Marlo Thomas and her father, Danny Thomas

Marlo lost her father, entertainer Danny Thomas (shown here in 1990), but not the confidence he gave her. — Photo courtesy of Marlo Thomas

I was lying in bed, crying.

Although it was a lovely spring afternoon, I huddled under the covers for a good reason, having just suffered a head-on collision with a classic crisis of adolescence.

See also: Marlo's tribute to mothers.

The week before, my mom and I had picked out a dress for me to wear to the school dance. But on this day – the day of the dance – I'd tried it on again and realized that the cut of the dress made it obvious that, at 13, I wasn't exactly shapely. And as far as bras went, I was clearly still in training.

Instead of getting ready for my big evening, I climbed into bed and faked not feeling well. When my dad came home, he was quickly briefed by my mom and came into my room.

"What kind of sick?" he asked, standing in the doorway.

"I have a stomachache," I explained. "And my head hurts. And I think I'm coming down with a cold. And my leg hurts a little bit, too .…"

"Uh-huh," Dad said, sitting on the edge of my bed. "What's really wrong?"

So I unloaded to him about my calamity – ending with a sad sob.

My father looked at me for a long time. When I was through, he stood up.

"Get in the car," he said.

An hour later we returned home, having exchanged the dress for one with a sweet row of ruffles down the front that cleverly camouflaged my mountainless terrain. It was perfect.

I'll never forget how I felt – or the look on Dad's face – as I spun around in front of him, modeling the dress. In one easy move, my father had banished my worries.

A lot is written these days about the evolving state of parenthood – from the ever increasing numbers of stay-at-home dads, to the conscientious efforts made by both parents to share child-care responsibilities. But even amid this exciting transformation, one thing stands out for me as the North Star of parenting – and it's something that transcends time and generations: the art of listening.

My dad wasn't perfect, but he had the laserlike ability to shut out the noisy world around him and listen to my sister and brother and me. To our worries. Our thoughts. Our feelings. Even when he was on the road with his act, Dad called nightly to check in. And whether I was reading him a book report or confiding my school-day fears, I felt safe knowing he was there, listening.

If there is one vital thing from my childhood that has carried over into my adult life, it is my parents' assurance that what I felt mattered. Even today, when I take the risk of putting forth an opinion held by few others, I know that my confidence comes from having been truly heard as a child. 

As a stepmom to five and Auntie to a small army of nieces and nephews, I've seen time and again how listening can dry tears, calm fears, provide reassurance, and nurture dreams at just the right moment. My husband, Phil, is a particularly good listener – and I mean that literally. When I first moved in with him and his sons and we'd gone to bed for the night, he couldn't fall asleep until he heard all of his boys come home – and he recognized each one by the sound of his footsteps. How can you not love a man who listens that well?

Whenever Father's Day rolls around, I get a bit melancholy. It's been more than 20 years since my dad left us, but I still miss him deeply. So on the third Sunday of every June, I have this little ritual: I look heavenward and whisper, "Happy Father's Day, Daddy." Why do I do this? Because I know in my heart that, all these years later, he's still listening.

Award-winning actor, author, and activist Marlo Thomas blogs at marlothomas.com and writes humor at aarp.org/marlo.

You may also like: Things we are too old to say.

Related Video

Marlo Thomas grew up with a famous father, but her relationship with her mother inspires her to this day.

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