Fresh from the Dad 2.0 summit, Robert Zeitlin is encouraged about the future for fathers.
I was raised by a good man. He couldn’t bring himself to change diapers but he was nurturing in his own way. My father was generous and big-hearted and I learned a lot from him. Nonetheless, when I was an expectant father, I wanted to do things differently. So I went to work…on myself, on my relationship, and on the model that I would provide to my children. I would not be the parent who repeats history, sliding back into unhealthy habits and learned behaviors. Twenty years later, as a happily-married father, I am proud to say that my hard work has paid off. My wife and I have raised two kick-ass teenagers. I became that caring, nurturing father who is present and involved in his children’s lives.
Fatherhood is undergoing an overhaul in response to economic pressures on families and women’s progress entering the workforce. Parents need to rebalance childcare, education, and household responsibilities. Fathers are taking advantage of this shift, creating their own paths to provide more for their families than money. It was my honor to meet some of these exceptional fathers in San Francisco last week at the 4th annual Dad 2.0 Summit.
In my work with teenagers and parents, I see that the presence of a father can be the critical element that a child needs to achieve his or her potential. So I find it ironic that fathers remain mostly invisible in most cultures. Research by Michael Kimmel revealed that men keep the father part of themselves under wraps when they are in public. In his keynote address at the summit, Dr. Kimmel told us that we need to “come out” at work and stand up for our rights as fathers.
As the lights came up and we processed this information, I got to know my fellow attendees. With each conversation, I became more aware that I was sitting among the next generation of super-men. These guys weren’t the flashy Supermen of comic books. These super-men were putting their heart and intellect and spirit into parenting on purpose, showing emotion, and staying at home with their kids. They are the dads who let their daughters paint their toenails and learned to do their hair. These fathers raise boys to express their feelings, stand up for what’s right, and be accountable for their actions. These are the dads who show up.
I believe that all parents have untapped superpowers. But I don’t run into many who knowingly step into that role. At the summit, I was honored to be in the company of men who had accepted their fate and shouldered the responsibility of raising the next generation of kick-ass kids who might just save the world one day.
I learned that Dad 2.0 is a giver, an innovator, and one who zooms in on his own children and zooms out on larger needs for kids everywhere and the world they will inherit. Exceptional fathers in the 21st century are patient, not embarrassed to be emotional in front of others, active with their kids, good listeners, and communicate at their kids’ level, evolving as their children grow up. They get up off the couch, lead without expecting to be noticed, and know the difference between the moments when they need to step in and when they need to allow their children to learn from their mistakes. The 2.0 Dad provides unconditional love and can pull back to ask the question, “do you want to know what I am thinking, or just commiserate for now?”
Joseph Fowler, Christopher Persley, and Don Jackson are great examples of the many exceptional fathers I met at the Dad 2.0 Summit:
Joseph tries to fly under the radar, playing the part of a humble stay-at-home-dad from Indiana, volunteering for the National At Home Dad Network. But Joseph was a successful college football coach who caught the mentoring bug for the young men he coached, who often lacked male role models. He is contemplating mentoring or coaching young fathers when his kids start in school full-time. Another stay-at-home-dad, Christopher is a former independent school administrator in New York City. Christopher and his daughter share an interest in Marvel superheroes and Christopher encourages his daughter to think big, super big. Like many of these dads, Christopher’s blog reads like an extended love letter to his daughter and he writes openly about all the life lessons he is learning from being a father. Don is from Albuquerque, New Mexico and started his blog (www.daddynewbie.com) after he survived his third bout with cancer, determined to leave a part of him for his son to know if his health prevented him from watching his son grow up. These guys are investing in the future.
Another set of exceptional leaders, fathers and bloggers, Doug French and John Pacini, organizers (www.xymediagroup.com) of the summit, established a scholarship, chaired by blogger Jeff Bogle, to allow more dads to participate. At the conclusion of the recent event, the scholarship was renamed for Oren Miller, the founder of the 1,000 member strong “Dad Blogger” Facebook group, who was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Even before his diagnosis, Oren’s courage, openness, and love for his children set the tone for the conversations within the dad blogger community online and in person at the Summits.
Finally, it was an honor and privilege to meet and get to know two African-American fathers, Nathaniel Turner from Indianapolis and Dee Lanier from Charlotte, North Carolina. Like every man that I met at Dad 2.0, Dee and Nathaniel are exceptional fathers. What set these men apart was the way that they are applying what they have learned to improve the world.
Prior to meeting Nathaniel and Dee, I knew that I was an anomaly as an involved, nurturing white dad. It is rare to see fathers depicted in the media who reflect my values. After our conversations, I realized that we have no idea how to approach a father of color. I may not see myself, but the invisibility of the black man in America (see Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”) can be doubly true for black fathers who are caring and present in their children’s lives.
In America, fathers are often depicted as bumbling, lacking a nurturing gene, unconcerned with their kids’ welfare, and avoiding domestic work. Let’s assume that these stereotypes fit the prior generations of fathers and grandfathers. Now add the extra layer of stereotypes of African American fathers who are derided as emotionally aloof, mostly absent, and feeling entitled to use physical punishment to discipline their children. If all of these assumptions are true, today’s African American fathers were raised by bumbling, emotionally unavailable, aggressive, and unhelpful fathers who didn’t really care. Doesn’t that place today’s black dad a few squares back in their quest to raise the kids that the world needs?
Like many men I spoke to at the Dad 2.0 Summit, Nathaniel did not reflect back on his father as providing an adequate example to emulate. Sometimes, starting without a workable model leads to reinvention. When Nathaniel learned that he was going to have a son, he pivoted in his life in a quest to become a world-class father, reverse-engineering himself into the kind of dad that his son would need. He did it quietly and with persistence and commitment. And he has succeeded. He recently wrote about his 19 year old son, “All I have done is raise a man—to name a few of the many noteworthy things—who considers education to be priceless, who cares authentically about his fellow person, who is multilingual, who traveled and lived abroad, who has authored a book, who started a foundation, who is driven by his own mission statement, who is an entrepreneur, and who believes he is responsible for leaving the world in better condition than it was when he arrived.”
Nathaniel published a chronicle of his insights in the book “Raising Supaman” and spreads the news of what he learned through The Raising Supaman Project, “the place were conscientious and meticulous parents and children come to enhance the possibility that they themselves and/or their children they reach their full potential.”
A father of four children under the age of eight, Dee applied his expertise in educational technology to reimagine how a school should work. He has helped create the Charlotte Lab School, a K-5 opening next fall, on the model of the iSchool in New York City. At the same time, Dee is piloting a community-building tool, the UNCOMMEN mobile app that connects men and promotes their becoming better fathers and partners. The app “is designed to connect men in the key relationships of their life through short, disruptive, and fun video driven challenges.”
I have designed and participated in many efforts to teach parenting skills. But Dee’s approach with the UNCOMMEN app is next-level. Traditional parenting programming suffers from a “dosage” problem. Parents attend a lecture or discussion group, go home, and little changes. Maybe they buy a book and pull it out when there is a crisis. Improving parenting requires a more intensive approach. Dee’s app and accompanying videos set up a competition for dads to demonstrate their new skills and gives them a place to “trash talk” in their network. Placing fathers’ user experience at the forefront gives Dee’s efforts much greater potential to sink in with dads and I believe that it will inevitably result in greater behavior change.
Most of us want to be different parents than the ones who raised us. Few of us succeed—it’s a puzzle loaded with genes and learned behaviors that many struggle to solve. What is most impressive about Nathaniel and Dee is not only that they solved their own puzzles but that they are reaching back to do it for others.
I already bought my ticket to the next Dad 2.0 Summit, 12 months in advance. Based on my experience in San Francisco, I wouldn’t miss it. Since the 2016 Summit will be held in Washington, D.C., maybe the promoters can appeal to the most visible African American father in America for a keynote speech.