How my dad helped set me up for success

On the morning a friend had a speech due to President George W. Bush, his first daughter was born. My former colleague said he was trying to figure out a way to get the edits the president wanted back by the deadline when the phone rang – it was President Bush, but he didn’t want to talk about the speech. Instead he had some words of encouragement.

“Being the father of daughters make us want to be better men,” he said. As the father of twin girls, he knew first-hand what that meant.

A daughter’s relationship with her father is wonderful and complicated. He’s the first man they know, first they learn from and first they want to please.

Daughters never want to disappoint their fathers and dads want to keep their daughters safe from evil and heartaches. But over a lifetime there will of course be disappointments, heartbreaks, angry exchanges and horrible silences. Thankfully, those things pass. And what lasts between a dad and his daughter is much more important.

A daughter’s relationship with her father is wonderful and complicated. He’s the first man they know, first they learn from and first they want to please. Daughters never want to disappoint their fathers and dads want to keep their daughters safe from evil and heartaches.

When I was writing And the Good News Is…,” I was asked by my editor to explain how I ended up as the first Republican woman to become White House Press Secretary. I realized it went back farther than my experience on Capitol Hill after graduate school – it actually started with a T-shirt.

Three Things My Dad Did for Me

1. The T-shirt

From our early childhoods, my dad tried to instill confidence in us and he would tell us that we could be anything we wanted to be in life and not to limit ourselves because we were girls.

When I was about six years old, he bought me a yellow T-shirt with big black letters that said, “ANYTHING BOYS CAN DO GIRLS CAN DO BETTER.” The T-shirt was hideous, being the early days of feminist marketing, but I loved it. You can tell I wore it a lot because in family photo albums, summer after summer, I am wearing that shirt, often with white tube socks that had gold and black stripes on top (oh the 70s).

I know it was just a T-shirt – but there’s something about that message, planted early on, that grew in me. It helped my self confidence, even if it was the ugliest T-shirt on the block.

2. Reading the newspapers

As a kid, I read a lot. My parents couldn’t keep me in books and they were frustrated with the “seven book checkout limit” at the local library – I would finish them in a day. I’d read anything and everything – I especially liked to sit on my dad’s lap and read the papers (the Sunday Funnies was my favorite section).

Then, when I was in third grade, my dad started a tradition with me — I had to read the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post and choose two articles to discuss with him before dinner. I remember looking forward to that.

I’d ask questions about the news and give my opinion, and then my dad would draw me out, making me think through my arguments, challenging me to look at issues from another point of view.

He’d gently play the Devil’s Advocate. That started a lifetime love of the news and throughout my teens we would get all the news magazines at the house and we’d dog ear the pages of articles that interested us so that we could discuss them.

Years later I remember being on Marine One and President Bush asked my opinion about a controversial issue. My position wasn’t a popular one amongst the senior staff, and as the president thought over what I’d said, I had a flashback to the dining room table — sitting there with my dad, the papers spread before us, my mom cooking dinner and my dad asking my opinion, listening to me, telling me that my thoughts mattered.

He helped me think more critically, and that’s when I gained enough confidence to eventually be sitting in front of the commander-in-chief and telling him exactly what I thought. I could argue with facts and be persuasive, but I wasn’t just born with the skills to advise a president — I learned them over time, and it started when I got that first assignment from my dad.

3. Washington, D.C.

Way back when, companies used to pay for their employee’s families to attend the annual business conference. My mom and I benefited from this perk and got to go on a few trips with my dad who worked in human resources for a life insurance company.

When I was seven-years-old, I got to go to Washington, D.C. with my parents (my younger sister had to stay home – I still feel badly about that).

My dad had a conference to attend, but we were able to build in some time to see the sites. I remember going to the Lincoln Memorial and looking up at that majestic statue and thinking I wanted to climb up there and sit on that great president’s lap. We toured the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol, Ford’s Theater, and more.

The best part of the trip was visiting the White House where my mom had a friend who worked on Air Force One’s manifests. We got a tour of the West Wing and I remember seeing President Jimmy Carter’s red phone.

Our flight back to Denver left the evening of the 4th of July, and I watched fireworks over the Washington Monument from my window seat.

I fell in love with our nation on that trip, and I told my parents said that I proclaimed that one day I would work at the White House (which was more of a fanciful thought than a prediction).

A year or so later, I have my first political memory — the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. I can picture it perfectly – our green shag carpet, our old 1970s set with a big round knob to turn the channel to another station.

I watched the ceremony and remember clearly the video of the hostages being released. Powerful images for an eight-year-old. They’d last a lifetime.

In my book I recommend that parents try to take their children to Washington, D.C. twice in their early lives — once between the ages of seven and nine for the wonder and majesty of it all, and then again between fifteen and seventeen after they’ve had a chance to learn more about our nation’s history and can start piecing together in their mind the events and the people that shaped our country — and how their participation in our democracy is important for the continued success of America.

After my childhood, my dad continued to help shape my future. I remember pouting all the way to Pueblo, Colorado to visit a small state college that he wanted me to check out — I really wanted to go to a big school with a football team and all the trappings of college life that turn out not to be very important when it comes to education.

I was kind of a pill to my dad that day — but he turned out to be right. The first professor I met won my trust and by the time we left that afternoon, I’d been offered a full tuition scholarship if I came and joined the speech and debate team.

That was one of the best decisions I made, and without my dad’s guidance I would never have considered going there.

And then, after graduate school (which my parents rightly required that I pay for myself), my dad didn’t question my decision not to pursue a career in local news, even though I was beating myself up for getting a master’s degree in something I didn’t end up wanting to do (I had narrow horizons — I thought you had to have a career in whatever field you studied after high school).

I remember my dad came to Springfield, Illinois to help me pack up the rest of my stuff (I threw most of it away – I moved there with a U-Haul and came back with just whatever I could fit in my Nissan Sentra).

We drove out of Illinois and across Kansas, headed to Denver, where I did what all good graduate school grads do – I lived in my parents’ basement and waited tables at a nearby tavern. He never pressured me about “what I was going to do next” because he knew I was putting enough pressure on myself.

By the end of the summer, my life had taken a dramatic turn – instead of working in local television news, I was headed to Washington, D.C. And that turned out to be very good news indeed.

I never would have gotten there without the early intervention of my dad.

And so, for any dads of daughters out there, know that your guidance and unconditional love can make all the difference. It did for me.

Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel’s “The Five” (weekdays 5-6PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side” (Twelve, April 21, 2015). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino.