Dads struggle to survive daughters' dating years

A word of advice for aspiring Casanovas — when meeting a girl's father, a handshake is never just a handshake.

Make eye contact. Don't grip too firmly. And never, ever succumb to the urge to make a corny joke.

The alternative? Submit to the wrath of Dad.

That's why Jon Prucha, 27, of Phenix City can succinctly summarize his strategy for meeting potential father-in-laws.

"Speak when spoken to," he said. Recent films like "Meet the Parents" have solidified the image of the overprotective dad who dusts off his gun collection and installs a surveillance system in his daughter's car prior to her dates.

And while not every parent goes to those lengths — there's limited access to FBI equipment — some local dads aren't afraid to admit they want the best for their daughters.

"Let's face it. We all know what teenage boys are like," said Lt. Col. Matt England, 42, of Columbus.

His military background makes his 18-year-old daughter, Courtney, expect a certain initial reaction from the guys she introduces to her father.

"The first instinct they have is that he's going to crack the whip," she said. That's not usually what happens — although England does admit to jokingly leaving his gun collection on the table.

More important, he said, is the way a boyfriend interacts with people in the house. Courtney, too, has grown to recognize her dad's top deal-breakers.

"They always have to look you in the eyes and shake your hand," she said, eyeing her dad. And he doesn't mince words. England remembers when a sloppily dressed boy came by asking for Courtney.

"Don't come here with your pants around your behind," England remembers saying.

Power of intimidation

For some fathers, surrendering a spot as the No. 1 man in their daughter's life can be difficult.

Justin Gibson, 22, of Columbus remembers a date in which a girl's dad exercised powers of persuasion early.

"He tried to talk me out of hooking up with her," Gibson said.

The strategy? Disclosing embarrassing aspects of his daughter's childhood, including claims like she wore diapers until she was 6 years old.

The experience, however, didn't offend Gibson. "He didn't have anything against me," Gibson said, adding that he assumed the dad was just trying to protect his daughter.

That emphasis on protection is what leads dads like England and 46-year-old Mitch Watts, a part-time sheriff's deputy for Russell County, to spend one-on-one time with their daughters to show them women should be treated with respect.

"If they don't treat her that way, they're crazy," Watts said.

With luck, father-daughter outings help young women find dates that meet rigid parental standards. But a honky-dory friendship between date and dad is less common.

"I think it's a good thing for the boyfriends to be scared of me," Watts added.

Dating and detours

Initially, Watts' social surveillance of his daughter Kelsey was straightforward.

"My wife and I decided early on that we would not let Kelsey date until she was 16 years old," he said.

But the pair encountered an obstacle when, at 15, Kelsey was asked to a prom by a guy she'd been friends with for a long time. The situation put the Wattses in a difficult position and ultimately, they adjusted their rule.

Soon, Kelsey and her date became a couple.

"There's no guess about it. They are absolutely boyfriend and girlfriend," Watts said. "This young man has set the bar high."

Kelsey, now 16, has been dating her boyfriend for just over a year and says she and her dad have found a good balance when it comes to the social aspects of being a teenager.

"He's protective, but I wouldn't say he's overprotective. He pretty much lets me do the stuff I want," said Kelsey, who attends Columbus High School.

Fatherly discretion becomes even more prevalent when driving enters the equation. Both England and Watts request their daughters stay in touch while traveling solo.

"Quite frankly, at first it scared me to death. I've got a pit in my stomach every time she leaves," Watts said.

Teenage daughters, too, can see their dads' apprehension.

"The first day that I got my license my dad wasn't going to let me drive anywhere," said Stephanie Hall, 16, who attends Columbus High.

She describes her dad, who sells hunting and sporting equipment, as "overprotective, but not like insanely."

Letting go|

Car keys are a rite of passage in a teenage daughter's quest toward independence — and a father's efforts to let go.

Often, the teenage years impose a strain on father-daughter ties.

It's something Watts has seen often in his role with law enforcement, and he cites many daughters who are "disconnected" with their fathers.

"Sometimes, that works out. More often than not, it doesn't," he said.

But since a girl's teenage years are often more conducive to a mother's advice, preserving father-daughter ties sometimes requires creativity.

Watts, who also has an 18-year-old son, looks for ways to spend time with his daughter while letting his wife take the lead on other aspects of daughter Kelsey's life.

England does the same, opting for dinners out, as well as activities like shopping and fishing with daughter Courtney.

It's not always easy, though, and England still shudders when remembering the first time he accidently saw a pair of his daughter's adult underwear.

"That was a tough one for me to overcome," he said. "It looked like a freakin' slingshot. I'll never forget that."

Those situations that make many guys envy the men who have survived parenting a teenage daughter.

It's hard, scary work, and some men like Andrew Bristow, 34, of Columbus have already planned to skirt the drama.

If he had a daughter, when would she start dating?

"She'll be 19 and she'll be on her own and I won't talk to her until she's married," he said.