Spend more time with your child than you do with your phone.
It’s advice I’ve gotten backwards a lot for a long time, despite being a dad-to-be three different times and despite identifying the problem years ago in this recently republished article.
And if you don’t want to take my word for it, take it from the famous dads who share their best parenting advice in The Life of Dad, a new book by Jon Finkel and Art Eddy, who coincidentally helm the Life of Dad network and the podcast The Life of Dad Show.
Much of the book’s fatherly wisdom may seem familiar. It’ll feel like you’ve given some of this advice yourself and maybe you have but let’s face it, you never write shit down. Maybe you would have, had that new baby not deprived you of so much sleep or had you not been composing hilarious tweets that nobody read. Finkel and Eddy put in the work over six years, conducting more than a hundred interviews.
Among the famous interviewee dads is former Major League Baseball player Kevin Millar, who reflects on the erosion of family time, lamenting that “unfortunately, it seems like dinnertime is disappearing. Everyone is in a rush.” Millar goes on to say that his family puts away their tech at dinnertime, urging us legions of phone-staring zombies to “try to have dinner together and talk about your day.”
It would have been a good Father’s Day gift
The Life of Dad is a small and handsome black hardcover that looked smart sitting on my coffee table, luring me to dip into it, which is how I read it, which is to say, I’m still not done.
Given that its parenting advice has value for new dads (and new moms) as well as 20-year parenting veterans like me, the book would have been a good pick for Father’s Day. And I would have recommended it weeks ago were I not a procrastinator the likes of which skateboarder Chris Cole describes in The Life of Dad:
“Some of the mistakes I have made are procrastinating and putting off work,” Cole explains, noting that as a teen he’d skateboard and put off his homework and then and worry about the fact it wasn’t done. “I would freak out about it for hours instead of just spending the twenty minutes it would take for me to get it done.” So as a dad he tells his kids, “Don’t put it off. Don’t make it this monster. Just do it and you will be so much happier.”
The authors helpfully add, “letting your kids know that even the most successful people can struggle with anxiety and putting things off is important so they don’t think they’re the only ones.”
In fact, when Finkel and Eddy elaborate on the famous dads’ wisdom, they often do a more thoughtful job than their interviewees in making the point. Which is not a knock of the famous dads in the book, it’s just that the authors have likely spent far more time reflecting on these interviews than their interviewees have, and the result is often a good one-two punch of quote and take-away.
Best self-esteem advice: Let the kid do his own thing
WWE star Kofi Kingston tells the authors that “I take pride in my unique name. I started becoming true to myself. I want to instill that in [my kids] at a young age. My oldest—he is three right now – has such a strong personality that he gets from his mom. He definitely knows what he wants. I don’t think he is going to have any difficulty in doing his own thing. He does his own thing now. He marches to the beat of his own drum. It is all good.”
Best empathy advice: All hail the underdog
Some of the book’s best advice about empathy is from comedian Steve Byrne, who notes, “if you view yourself as an underdog… it changes your perspective on life. I think you will develop a softer side for anybody. Instantly, you eliminate the bully factor.”
That’s a powerful enough observation right there, but Byrne adds that he hopes his children have that softer side, noting that “your heart almost yearns for the kid that is sitting alone at the lunch table or the person who is alone at a party. You will go over and introduce yourselves to those folks. You do that because you understand what it could be like to be that person. So you go through life with this soft spot for everybody. I think that is the way it should be.”
Parenting advice: Make time for your partner
The book highlights an idea about that I’ve long championed, a lot of times for selfish reasons, but it’s still a good idea: Making time for your partner makes you a better dad. Author Jonathan Auxier explains it to the authors this way:
“When you are a new parent, I think you can get so focused on this little creature that you have to keep alive that it becomes your only common ground. I plan to have much more life than the years my child is living under my roof, just as I had a whole lot of life before my child appeared in my life.”
The authors sharpen that idea by noting that we dads should “keep in mind that there are no points awarded for ‘most dedicated parent,’ especially if it comes at the expense of your relationship with your partner. While we all want to support our kids, make sure you carve out not only time but space for you and your partner to be together without the kids around. In the long run,” the authors add, “they’ll thank you for it.”
When my wife and I take time to take care of each other, whether it’s that rare getaway without kids or a date night or a simple “how are you?” text that comes in the middle of the day apropos of nothing, we’re better people and better parents, and it shows, and our kids would no doubt tell you we’re a lot easier to live with because of it.
Best exercise advice: Paint that fence
If you’ve struggled to become that role model dad who sets a righteous example of fitness and wellness, consider the book’s advice from Gunnar Peterson, the NBA’s Director of Strength and Endurance:
“Kids can do push-ups, body weight squats, pull-ups, real lunges, mountain climbers, all those kinds of things… you’ve got to Tom Sawyer it with your kids. You’re painting the fence. Don’t tell them to paint the fence, because they’re going to resist. You paint the fence and make it look like a lot of fun and then slowly allow them to do a little bit of the painting with you.”
My wife and I have stepped up our fitness regimens in recent years for our own well being, but we also came to realize that when it comes to exercise and diet, our kids were following our example a lot more closely than we were sometimes aware. You can recite the “do as I say, not as I do” bromide as much as you like while piloting a fistful of chips to your mouth, but it won’t stop your kids from copying your bad habits every day. So I appreciate that Peterson relates the Tom Sawyer example and that he does it so elegantly, in part because I’ve been citing this example for years and have been mis-attributing it to Huckleberry Finn.
Best communication advice: Stop dead-end questioning
The best tactical advice in The Life of Dad is courtesy of comedian Bill Engvall. “The one thing that I have learned over the years is if you listen to what your kids are saying, they will tell you what is going on in their lives,” Engvall notes. “If you say, “What is going on with you?” they are not going to tell you.”
Working off Engvall’s comment, the authors suggest that when we talk with our kids, parents should “try to ask very specific questions and simply listen to their answers. Or, better yet, open up the conversation by telling them about the important things that happened in your day, then simply listen as they return the favor. If you go through the motions of a conversation, they will too.”
Best overall advice: Just being there is not being there
Comedian Jim Gaffigan, who has five kids and balances traveling for his career and being there for his kids, suggests to the authors that successfully staying involved in your kids’ lives “is an ongoing process of checking in,” and the authors elaborate by urging dads to “show your kids that you care. There is no such thing as a model dad. There’s no such thing as a dad who can be present for every important (and unimportant moment) in their kids’ lives. But when you are there, give your kids your full attention and let them know you care however you can.”
Father of five Ice Cube puts it another way. “Don’t leave it up to the mother to raise your kids. You need to be just as involved,” he tells the authors, adding perhaps the best and most damning line in the book, “Just being there is not being there,” adding, “Don’t sit on the sideline and leave it for your wife to do.”
The bottom line
The Life of Dad reinforces an idea we believe in at Traveling Dad, naturally, because it’s the whole reason this site exists: Dads, be they first-time dads, grizzled dads, or somewhere in between (we’ve got ’em all at TDAD) are capable of giving good advice about parenting and travel.
We’re real dads who share our feelings, often in our writing and sometimes with each other. We dispense advice for dads on everything from paternity leave and babysitting to father-daughter trips to lesser-known vacation spots in California.
And every one of us dads knows one particular thing deep down, even if we’ve never admitted it to ourselves or each other: I may never be the best dad, but I can die trying.
So for tips on how to be a better dad, peruse a few more of the terrific free articles on Traveling Dad and perhaps pick up a copy of The Life of Dad for yourself or that dad you know who is really trying and could use a pep talk. And maybe suggest he peruse Traveling Dad also.
Now put down your phone and pay attention to your kid, would you, please?
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of The Life of Dad but was not obligated to review it. I just wanted to.
Images: Dad and daughter at table by ddimatrova; Huggers by ambermb; Couple at sunset MabelAmber; Beach by sarahbernier3140; Hammock by ambermb; Phone in hand by congerdesign