Lisa Ling: Don't underestimate father-daughter relationship

(CNN)Over the years, I have covered many stories inside correctional facilities. I've reported on race wars, overcrowding and prison gangs, among many other issues.

When I heard about a jail in Richmond, Virginia, that has a program that tries to educate men on becoming better fathers that culminates in a father-daughter dance inside the jail, I was instantly interested. That a facility would specifically focus on the father/daughter relationship intrigued me, as I've always believed that that relationship is one of the most important, most underestimated relationships in society.
Many of the most confident women I know, had strong bonds with their fathers and often were less likely to feel the need to be validated by other men. I have every reason to believe that my relationship with my dad shaped me into the woman I am today.
On more than a few occasions, I've been referred to as "a dude," by some of the men I've dated. Maybe it's because if I ever wanted to go on a date with someone, I just asked. It might have to do with the fact that I always insist on paying the bill at meals, whether it's first date or the last. Perhaps it's because I swear like a sailor.
    My only explanation for the aforementioned is that I learned all of it from my dad. My parents got divorced when I was 7 years old. Because I spent so much time with my parents separately, I grew to know two entirely different life and parenting styles. For the purposes of this piece, I will focus only on my relationship with my dad. And in many ways, he raised me like a boy.
    As a kid, weekends with my dad meant sitting out in the sweltering hot sun, waiting for fish to bite. With his penchant for largemouth bass both to catch and eat, it was imperative that I learn how to bait a hook and cast a line. It just became second nature.
    Dad also spent a lot of time sitting in front of the TV with a beer in hand. He loved a good crime drama and 49er football games -- especially in the '80s when Joe Montana led the team to four Super Bowl victories. Many dinner conversations included the names Rice, as in Jerry, Lott as in Ronnie -- receiver and free safety, respectively. These rituals also acquainted me with a plethora of four-letter words that little girls don't typically throw around.
    Outside of sports and the weather, Dad and I didn't really talk that much -- he just wasn't that kind of guy. He was no nonsense and strict. If Dad as much as looked at me a certain way, I knew I was acting out of line. When I came home with a C grade in physical education (I hated dressing for PE), I got grounded for a month. He had very high expectations and would never accept excuses. If I ever said that I thought something was hard, he would tell me to "try harder." And if I felt like I wasn't being treated fairly in school or had an issue with someone, he would tell me to deal with it on my own. "Figure it out," he would always say.
    I wasn't a great student. I struggled a lot with being able to focus in the classroom. But those things didn't matter to my dad; I either got good grades, or I got grounded. He told me I was too smart not to be able to do well in school and that if I really wanted something, the only thing that would hold me back would be my own insecurities.
    But despite his strictness, Dad was affectionate. He was very liberal in expressing his love for his girls. Dad often worked very late at his job as a supervisor of aviation protocol. I'll never forget the feel of the whiskers of his mustache tickling the side of my face as I slept. He always gave a gentle kiss and whispered, "Daddy loves you," in my ear when he thought I was asleep. Even in my haze, knowing that the most important man in my life loved me was of tremendous comfort to me.
    As I watch my husband with my daughter today, I realize how much having a loving and involved father impacted me. I see my little girl's face light up when her daddy walks into the room. When he throws her up in the pool, she has no fear as she knows her father will catch her and never let her fall. In the same way, my dad made me feel special and beautiful so I didn't need to hear it from anyone else. He taught me to be strong, independent and not to rely on anyone but myself. He showed me how to love and be loved.
    Thank you, Dad.
    More from Lisa Ling's coverage of Fatherless Towns: 13 inmates prepare for an unprecedented event -- the father-daughter dance
    Father-daughter dance, behind bars
    This is Life Lisa Ling Season 2 Fatherless Towns Clip 3_00004712


      Father-daughter dance, behind bars


    Father-daughter dance, behind bars 01:09