There comes a time in every father-of-daughter's life, when his little girls graduate from Barbie dolls to real-life Kens. For my daughters, it was a relatively smooth transition: One day all the Barbie dolls were packed up and put in the attic, posters of male pop stars magically appeared all over their walls and they used the words "boy" and "cute" in the same sentence. It was very apparent that boys no longer had cooties.

I love my daughters more than anything else in the world and I want them to be happy, but as you can well imagine this was going to be a very difficult time for all involved -- my daughters, the boys they would soon be going out with and most of all, me.

It crossed my mind that the best solution would be to immediately send them to a cloister in the Swiss Alps. There, they would have the opportunity to learn the fine art of tending to the needs of mountain goats, yodeling while out on an early morning mountain climb and most importantly singing "Sound Of Music" songs at the top of their lungs so people in Iceland could hear them.

Granted these activities would not prepare them for much in life, but they would keep them away from boys -- it is every father's not-so-hidden agenda to protect his daughters from boys who remind him of what he was once like as a teenager. Hey, it takes one to know one.

However, a cooler head prevailed: My wife convinced me that there were other and better ways of dealing with the situation. After cashing in two one-way Swissair tickets, I decided to give serious thought to more rational considerations.

Intellectually, I understood that this was a rite of passage but emotionally I wasn't so sure. My protective-dad instincts just weren't buying into this rite of passage stuff so readily and I wondered what could be the harm in a temporary delay.

I knew I needed to find some calm amidst my emotional turbulence so I sat down in the lotus position, began meditating and attempted to get in touch with my inner nice guy dad.

This is the dad who is a pushover about everything else his daughters want in life. The dad who is an eternal sucker for their plaintive cry of, "Oh, come on Dad. Pretty pleassssssse," which is always accompanied by their sad-eyed puppy-dog looks that they had mastered to perfection at an early age.

Whether it was, "Can we stay up til 4 a.m. so we can watch Nickelodeon's `Rugrats' festival," or "Can we eat all the Ben & Jerry's Phish Food ice cream which we know you bought for yourself," or "Can we have a sleepover with 20 of our most hyperactive girlfriends?" I was putty in their hands and they knew it.

It's been more than 12 years since I canceled my daughter's extended European travel plans and I can say in all honesty that I am handling the situation much better, even though at times it has been a struggle and I go overboard.

Now, when I first meet my daughter's date or current boyfriend, I make sure I give one of those he-man extra-firm handshakes. On the surface it seems like a normal thing to do when meeting someone for the first time, but I honestly believe I am trying to send a subliminal message: "These are still my baby girls. I am Superhero Protective-Dad and these strong hands can become lethal weapons, so be very careful how you treat them."

I'm embarrassed to admit it but there have been times while waiting for my daughter to get ready, when I have been guilty of trying to look interested in what her date has to say. If truth be known, I am looking through him, trying to strike fear in his heart.

Old habits die hard, so occasionally I do find myself falling back into the hard core protective-dad behaviors that honestly I am the most comfortable with. There isn't anything dads will not do to protect their daughters. It's part of our DNA.

Three years ago, my wife and I are at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts watching a performance of "SubUrbia," written by the playwright Eric Bogosian. The play tells the story of five alienated, angst ridden teens who have nothing much to do with their lives but hang out in front of a 7-Eleven.

I'm on the edge of my seat, gripping the armrests, as hard-core partying Buff, who will smoke or drink anything, tries to hook up with the very vulnerable Bee-Bee, fresh out of drug rehab. It's not just an important dramatic moment in the play. My daughter, Kelly, happens to be playing Bee-Bee.

Bee-Bee is a little reluctant at first to go with Buff and I breathe a sigh of relief and let out a huge silent scream of joy, "Atta girl. I knew you wouldn't go with that sleaze bucket Buff."

I'm hoping she can remain steadfast, but his charm and good looks quickly win her over. As they head for the field behind the 7-Eleven, art and real life converge, and there's a part of me that wants to run up on stage and confront the both of them.

"Buff, where do you think you're going with my daughter?"

"Bee-Bee, look at him, he doesn't care at all about you. I've warned you about guys like him. What in the world are you thinking."

There was no way I was going to leave the theater without saying hello to the actor who played Buff. Jacob and I have a good laugh when I tell him about my instantaneous transformation from sane audience member into insane overly protective dad.

I have a good friend who seriously contemplated being in the living room with a baseball bat on his lap, when his teenage daughter's date came by to pick her up, hoping that the young man would ask him, "Do you play baseball, Mr. Rush?" He was prepared to respond, "Never played baseball a day in my life."

A few years ago, one of the members of my improv group told me her dad would always ask her boyfriends if they played any sports. After hearing their response, he would come back with, "I've always been into the martial arts and never had time to play any other sports."

Fathers also take great pride in sussing out whether the boys our daughters go out with deserve to be with the "lights of our lives." I always believed I inherited that trait from my mother; she was incredibly intuitive and great at sussing out people, especially my girlfriends. When she first met Barbara, she gave me the classic mom look that screamed out: "Finally, my son has found the perfect girl." Was she ever right!

I am very fortunate to have daughters who tolerate my craziness and are also comfortable talking with me about almost anything, including the nature of relationships and true love, what kind of girls I liked when I was a teen, how I fell in love with their mother, their current boyfriends and how I would interpret the behavior of the boys they like.

They've always been open and honest and willing to discuss their relationships and crushes with me, usually late at night over reheated leftovers at the kitchen table. I've probably learned more than I needed to know about among others: sensitive artist guy, guy with dreamy blue eyes and a dancer's body, funny guy with issues, and quiet, shy intellectual guy.

One of my favorite all-time late night conversations about boys began when Erin came up to me a bit perplexed about something that occurred at school that day.

"I don't get it, dad. I was flirting with this boy when I playfully hit him. Out of the blue he gets upset and walks away. When his friends jump him from behind and knock him to the ground, he gets up without a word and proceeds to give them a big bear hug. What's up with that? Did I do something wrong?"

I tried to tell her that it was because she wasn't a member of the club, the exclusive "boys' club." As I was explaining that it was obviously impossible for her to ever become a member of this club, she gave me that "Oh, come on dad, pleassssse," look of hers, as if I could give her the secret password or help her crack the code to understand the inner workings of a boys mind. I was once a boy wasn't I? I knew how they thought.

All the while, I couldn't help but think of how immature boys are compared to girls and of how a very good friend of mine is fond of saying, "You guys will never catch up," whenever the subject of gender maturity comes up.

This gave me momentary pause. Did I really want my daughters going out with someone who would never catch up or was this a good thing? Should I give a maturity test to any boy my daughters will be going out with and, if I do, should it be an essay or multiple choice test and what would be a passing grade -- a C like in high school or would I hold these young men to higher standards?

For the longest time, I've had an abysmal track record with New Year's resolutions and last year finally decided it was time to throw in the towel; I had good intentions but shoddy follow through. However, in keeping with the resolution spirit, I've decided to turn over a new leaf and relax my "protective-dad' critical eye when it comes to my daughter's boyfriends. Hope does spring eternal.

Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at barryhalpin@aol.com.