Fatherhood Principle 1: Be Your Kids’ Dad | Reading Room
BY PAT WILLIAMS
I was born in Philadelphia in 1940. My mom and dad named me Patrick Livingston Murphy Williams, which were all the Scotch-Irish names that would fit onto one birth certificate. When I was a year and a half old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Dad wanted to do his part for the war effort, but his age and poor eyesight kept him out of combat.
When I turned three, he gave me a baseball glove for my birthday. Soon after that, he joined the American Red Cross and shipped out to the Pacific. He returned home in late 1945. I remember waiting at the train station with my mom and sisters. I recall Mom’s tearful excitement when a strange man stepped off the train. That stranger was my dad.
Jim Williams was a calm, easy-going man who worked hard and loved his family. He was a caring but firm disciplinarian. I respected his authority and rarely crossed it. For those few times that I foolishly provoked his ire, Dad kept a big paint paddle on the kitchen wall—his “Patrick Persuader.”
I was seven years old when my youngest sister, Mary Ellen, was born. By then, I already had two sisters and no brothers, and I really wanted a little brother to play ball with! I didn’t understand that there were deeper problems surrounding Mary Ellen’s birth. Only later did I understand that she was born with severe mental retardation—what are now called cognitive disabilities.
Mom and Dad faced this challenge together and became involved in fundraising activities to help educate Delawarians about Down syndrome children. My dad and his friend Bob Carpenter, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, cofounded an annual football tournament to benefit research and care for the mentally retarded.
While I was growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Dad taught and coached at Tower Hill School, a private all-grade school. Dad’s job didn’t pay well, but at least he could send me to Tower Hill free of charge. When I was in the sixth grade, Dad resigned at Tower Hill and began selling life insurance. I was devastated. Why would anyone quit coaching just to sell something as boring as insurance! But Dad made good money in insurance because of his likable, outgoing personality.
Dad often talked about the value of hard work. For six years, he got up early and drove me around on my paper route. He also went to my games, where he took countless snapshots and home movies. He’d whoop and holler and tell everybody, “That’s my boy!” It was embarrassing! I thought, Oh, Dad, knock it off! What are the guys going to think? But looking back, I realize how lucky I was to have such an involved father.
Dad, You’re Important!
While researching a previous book, Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders, I conducted over 800 interviews with men and women from all walks of life.1 One question I asked was, “Who most influenced your life?” The response I repeatedly heard was “my dad.” This doesn’t take anything away from the influence of moms. Mothers play an enormous role in shaping a child’s character, sense of security and emotional well-being. But I believe fathers have the greatest role to play in helping a child face the challenges, obstacles, dangers and rough-and-tumble realities of the world.
My dad, Jim Williams, was my first and most important role model. He took me to my first big-league game when I was seven years old. I still have vivid memories of that game—the Cleveland Indians versus the Philadelphia Athletics in a double-header at Shibe Park. I yelled my head off, gobbled down hot dogs, and became hooked on sports for life. That one afternoon set the course of my adult life. I have lived my life in the sports world because my Dad imbued me with a love of athletic competition.
Dad was my first coach. My earliest and fondest memories are of times I spent with him in the Tower Hill locker room or on the bench by the field. I heard him give a lot of motivational speeches, and I absorbed his enthusiasm, his ideals and his values. If my dad had not come back from the war, or if he had not been a loving, affirming, involved father, my life would be very different today.
Kids need their dads. If you’re a father, you’re important. You’re an irreplaceable and indispensable part of your child’s life. Let me tell you about a very famous guy who had to grow up without his dad.
In May 2005, Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez revealed to the world that he has some serious problems—problems that even his $252 million, 10-year contract can’t fix. Because of those problems, the highest-paid player in baseball had been seeing two different therapists.
Rodriguez, better known as “A-Rod,” was born of Dominican parents in New York City, not far from Yankee Stadium. His parents moved to the Dominican Republic for a while, then to Miami. From his dad, a semi-pro baseball player, young Alex learned to love the game. But his dad also inflicted on him one of the worst wounds a child can suffer. When Alex was nine, his father abandoned the family.
Alex’s mother raised him and his two siblings by working two jobs; she was a secretary by day and a waitress by night. Alex helped his mom count up her tips every night. The pain of his father’s rejection haunted Alex throughout his childhood and on into adulthood. “I thought he was coming back,” he told an interviewer. “But he never came back. It still hurts.” Some might say that A-Rod’s phenomenal success as a baseball player can be attributed, in part, to the pain he suffered at age nine. It could be that his father’s neglect drove A-Rod to seek praise, affirmation and attention from the crowds. Maybe the emptiness inside him spurred him on to greatness as a baseball player. But what a price to pay for fame!
The world is full of abandoned, neglected, fatherless kids, and few of them ever achieved greatness. In fact, all too many of them now populate our prisons, crack houses, homeless shelters and gutters. The abandonment they experienced didn’t drive them to the top; it dragged them to the bottom.
How did A-Rod achieve greatness in spite of his pain? I would give credit to the two men in his life who stepped into the place his father vacated. One was Alex’s stepfather, who encouraged him to work through his anger with physical training. This man took young Alex to school two hours early every day. From 5 to 7 A.M., Alex worked out in the gym, doing pushups, sit-ups, weight training and playing ball.
The other substitute dad in A-Rod’s life was Eddie “El Gallo” Rodriguez, Alex’s mentor at the Boys and Girls Club in Miami (despite the last name, El Gallo and A-Rod are not related). Because of El Gallo’s impact on his life, A-Rod has given over a million dollars to Boys and Girls Clubs all across America.
Though A-Rod’s father wounded him, his substitute dads showed him how to channel his pain into achievement. The pain is still there—that’s why he’s in therapy. But the pain didn’t destroy him, because there were two men in his life who cared.
Every child needs a dad (or a substitute dad). The genetic link doesn’t matter. All that matters is the emotional bond, the affirmation and the love. Every child needs a father who will say, “You have value. You can do anything you set your mind to—and I’ll be here to help you along the way.”
Your Number One Job
NBA legend Karl Malone (Utah Jazz, L.A. Lakers) was probably the best power forward to ever play pro basketball. He is also an all-pro dad. “We sit out here around the pool,” he once said during his playing days. “My kids are playing and that’s when I’m the happiest. I ask them, ‘You kids want to watch Daddy play basketball today or you want to watch the Aladdin show on TV?’
They say, ‘Aladdin! Go have a good game, Daddy!’
“That keeps everything in perspective for me, because to my kids, I’m just Dad. I doubt if my kids will remember Daddy playing basketball. What they’ll remember is that I went walking with them, I went swimming with them, I tucked them in at night. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
That’s what it’s all about for every dad. Many busy, successful fathers think they are defined by the work they do, by their bank accounts, their titles, their job descriptions, their awards. But as news commentator Cal Thomas once observed, “I have known five presidents, traveled throughout much of the world, had the heady experience of being asked for my autograph, and enjoyed the praise of a small number of people. None of that has meant as much as the hugs and kisses I have received from my children (and wife!) and the voluntary acknowledgments of their love for me. You can’t hang that on the wall to impress colleagues, but you can hide it in your heart to comfort you in your old age.”
Dr. David Jeremiah, senior pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church near San Diego, California, is a father and grandfather. “There are others who can counsel,” he once said, “others who can make personnel decisions, others who can orchestrate the organization, but there is only one man in the whole world who can be a father to my children—and that’s me. I had better be that father while I have the opportunity.”
Millionaire entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci created more than seventy businesses or brands during his seven-decade career: Chun King, Jeno’s, Luigino’s, Michelina’s, Budget Gourmet, and many more. He has served as an advisor to every American president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. “If I had to do my life over again,” Paulucci once said, “I’d do it differently. Why? Because I never knew my family. I’ve got three wonderful children, four wonderful grandchildren, and a wonderful wife of forty-one years. When you work seven days a week, fighting to survive, fighting to grow, you sacrifice something. I believe the sacrifice was too great for being listed in Forbes. I’d rather take Forbes and tear it up, and have grown up with my children, because life is so short.”
These four leaders from the world of sports, media, religion and business are saying the same thing in different ways: What good does it do to have fame, a corner office, and a six-figure income if you’re a stranger to your family? No amount of success can make up for failure in the home.
Not long ago, I was sitting amid all the beaux-arts splendor of the grand ballroom of the Willard InterContinental Hotel, just two blocks from the White House. The featured speaker was First Lady Laura Bush. What am I doing here? I wondered. I’m a pair of old running shoes in a roomful of tuxedoes!
It was April 19, 2005, and the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) had invited me to its annual Fatherhood Awards Gala in Washington, D.C. Along with country music star Buddy Jewell, Fox News analyst Fred Barnes and Atlanta Falcons defensive back Allen Rossum, I was there to receive an award given to men who exemplify involved and committed fatherhood. Well, I thought, I’m probably getting an award for quantity, not quality.
Granted, there aren’t too many guys in the world who are “Dad” to 19 kids. But looking back over my years as a father, I’m keenly aware of the times I’ve failed, the times I should have been more strict or less strict, the times I should have listened more and talked less, the times I should have given better advice or guided with a firmer hand. I thought, Boy, if the good people of NFI could see some of the king-size goofs I’ve made as a dad, they wouldn’t give me an award—they’d escort me out of the building!
It was quite an evening. First, R&B performer Cincere performed a song called “Daddy,” with a children’s chorus that sang the refrain, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, come home!” Okay, I admit it, that song put a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
Then the First Lady got up to speak. “Across America,” she said, “twenty-four million children live apart from their father. Forty percent of these children haven’t seen their father in the last year. As Roland Warren has said, ‘Kids have a hole in their soul the shape of their dad.’ “Statistics show that when children grow up without a mom and dad at home, they’re more likely to fall behind in school, more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, more likely to be in trouble with the law. And boys who grow up without fathers are more likely to become fathers themselves at a young age, perpetuating a cycle of absentee fatherhood that has terrible consequences, generation after generation. The evidence is clear: Children need fathers in their lives.”
Mrs. Bush talked about visiting a place called Rosalie Manor in Milwaukee, which runs a program called Today’s Dads. The program mentors teen fathers to become responsible dads. She told about Ken, one of the young men she met in the Today’s Dads program. Ken grew up with drug-addicted parents, surrounded by a culture of crime and drug abuse. When his girlfriend became pregnant, Ken decided he wanted to give his son a better life than he’d had. With the help of the Today’s Dads program, Ken stopped selling drugs and got a job delivering pizzas. Working nights, he could stay home with the baby during the day. Fatherhood is a daily struggle for Ken. Selling drugs was easy money; delivering pizzas is hard work. But Ken wants to be a man—and a father.
“Every father faces challenges, regardless of his circumstances,” the First Lady concluded. “The father who’s absent because he’s in prison or the father who’s absent because he works 80 hours a week both have children who wish they could see their dads more.” It’s true. If you’re a father, then you had better be a hands-on father. No other goal or obligation in your life even comes close. Fatherhood is your number one job. That’s not just the message of Pat Williams. That’s the message of Asher’s life and legacy. And it’s a message straight from the heart of the ultimate Father, God Himself.
Every Kid Needs a Dad
While this book was being written, I had a fascinating experience. I had two speaking engagements on the same day, both before groups of young people. At 8:45 in the morning, I spoke to around 300 students who had come to Orlando from all over the southeastern United States. They were among the brightest, sharpest kids in the country, and they had come for an intensive four-day leadership program at Student Leadership University. SLU, founded by my friend Jay Strack, is one of the best leadership training programs in the country. The event was held at a beautiful resort hotel on International Drive.
After my talk, I met many of the young people and was very impressed. A short time later, I drove to my next stop, just a few miles away. Again, my audience consisted of teenagers—but with one big difference: These teens were at the Orange County Jail. Housing almost 3,500 prisoners, the Orange County Jail is the fifteenth largest facility of its kind in the country. I was there to talk to 30 young men who had been jailed for an assortment of crimes: drug dealing, burglary, armed robbery, and, in some cases, murder.
The prison chaplain, Bernard Fleeks, filled me in on the lives of these young offenders. There were two common threads that ran through almost every case: First, there was no father in their homes. Second, these offenders had succumbed to peer pressure. As I stood in front of that group, I thought, I can’t believe it! They all look like little boys!
One of them was an 18-year-old who was sentenced to life for taking part in a murder. He told Chaplain Fleeks, “I didn’t do it!” And he was probably telling the truth. But he was at the crime scene and he got caught, so he’s going to pay for that mistake for the rest of his life. Chaplain Fleeks told me that he’d had them all write an essay on how they felt about their lives. Almost all of those essays expressed bitterness about a father who wasn’t there or wasn’t interested or was abusive. The award-winning essay was given to the news media. Someone in the media tracked down the father of the young offender who had written it. This father was remorseful and admitted he’d neglected his son. In fact, he wrote back to his son and said, in effect, “I know I hurt you by neglecting you. The whole time you were growing up, I was out on the streets doing the same things that put you in jail. I’m sorry. I wish I’d done things differently.”
My friend Bill Glass, the former pro football great, has spent the last 35 years conducting prison ministry across America. He’s held evangelistic crusades in well over a thousand prisons. I once asked Bill, “Is there a common denominator among all the prisoners you’ve met?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “They all have a father problem. Either they never knew their dad or they were abused or neglected by their dad. To put it bluntly, they all hate their fathers. The greeting card companies donate cards to the prisons for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. On Mother’s Day, all the cards are snatched up. But on Father’s Day, the same number of cards are put out, and they go untouched. What does that tell you about the way these guys feel about their fathers?”
There was a time, and it wasn’t long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that children needed mothers but that fathers were optional. The idea that kids do better in school, relationships and life when raised by both a mom and a dad was considered controversial and even politically incorrect. However, social and psychological research is mounting that proves that both boys and girls need their dads.
The National Fatherhood Initiative has spent a decade analyzing social trends regarding fatherhood. Here are some of the findings:
The Tragedy of Failed Fathers
In his biography A Golfer’s Life, Arnold Palmer talks about growing up in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, the son of Deacon Palmer, the head golf pro at the Latrobe Country Club. Arnold’s dad, whom he called Pap, was a strict but loving father. Deacon Palmer set the course for Arnold’s legendary career when Arnold was just four. He cut down a set of golf clubs to tyke-size and taught Arnie how to swing them. Throughout Arnold Palmer’s early years, he revered his father and worked hard to earn Pap’s praise.
Deacon Palmer was not a bad man, but he did have a self-destructive weakness: booze. Once, when Arnold had just turned 16, his dad came home after knocking back a few drinks with his buddies. As sometimes happened when he’d been drinking, Deacon Palmer began verbally abusing Arnold’s mother.
“It troubled me,” Arnold Palmer recalled, “that the man who rode me so hard about knowing the difference between right and wrong often did something—after too many shots at the firehall—he knew was wrong.”
Sixteen-year-old Arnie decided enough was enough. He stepped between his mom and dad. “I remember how he looked at me,” he recalled, “with surprise and then rage. It was unthinkable that I would challenge him in his house. Almost before I knew what hit me, Pap grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me off the floor with those massive hands of his, and slammed me against a galvanized stovepipe, flattening it against the wall.”
That night, Arnie left the house for a while, returning home before dawn. “In the morning,” he recalled, “my father didn’t say a word about the incident . . . and he never laid a hand on me in anger again, either.”3
The apostle Paul tells us, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The message of this verse is so important that I think it’s worth looking at in a couple of additional translations. In the New Living Translation, this verse tells us, “And now a word to you fathers. Don’t make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.” And in THE MESSAGE, we read, “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.”
As fathers, we are called by God to be firm but fair, not exasperating our kids by getting on their backs, but leading them and guiding them in the way of Jesus, our Lord and Master. The pages of Scripture are strewn with tragic examples of men who failed as fathers. Take, for example, the Old Testament priest Eli. He was one of the last leaders of Israel in the time of the Judges, before Israel’s first kings. Eli loved God and delighted in serving the Lord. He trained a young man named Samuel and mentored him to become a great prophet in Israel. But though Eli had a godly influence on young Samuel, he failed to bring up his own two sons to follow in his righteous footsteps. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were wicked priests who had no reverence for God. “Eli’s sons were wicked men,” the Bible tells us. “They had no regard for the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:12). These men disgraced their calling in various ways, including engaging in immoral conduct on the premises of God’s holy tabernacle. God eventually struck them down in judgment.
Though Eli tried to confront his sons, his anemic rebuke had no effect on his sons’ behavior. Eli asked, “Why do you do such things?” (v. 23) but he didn’t tell them to stop. He didn’t warn them of God’s judgment. And his sons didn’t take him seriously. They treated their father’s feeble rebuke as a joke and went on their merry way. Later, the Lord said this about Eli and his sons: “[Eli’s] sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13). Eli could have intervened, but he didn’t. He failed as a father.
And what about Eli’s protégé, Samuel? He became a great leader in Israel, the last of the Old Testament judges, the man God chose to anoint the first kings of Israel. Samuel led the nation through the wars against the Philistines. He built an altar and established regular worship at Shiloh. Samuel was a statesman, a reformer, and a prophet—but he failed as a father. Samuel installed his sons as judges in Beersheba, but they were evil and took bribes in exchange for dishonest judgments. Because Samuel’s sons were so corrupt, the people lost faith in the rule of the judges. They gathered around Samuel and said, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5).
So the people of Israel got the king they demanded—yet this king, named Saul, turned out to be a bitter disappointment to both God and Israel. All of this took place because Samuel failed as a father.
Eventually King Saul was succeeded by King David. David was a great king, a mighty warrior, a renowned poet, and beloved by his people. As a father, however, King David was a spectacular failure.
David’s eldest son, Amnon, raped David’s daughter Tamar. In response, another son, Absalom, murdered Amnon. Fearing David’s wrath, Absalom fled into exile. Eventually, Absalom conspired against his father and raised up an army of rebels, forcing his father to flee. After David spent some time in exile, Absalom was killed and David returned to the throne—but it was a hollow victory for David.
“O my son Absalom!” David wept when he heard that his son was dead. “My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). That’s the cry of a man who knows he has failed as a father.
Please understand: You may have a child who has wandered from the faith, or who has turned his back on you, or who has gotten involved in immoral or criminal behavior—but that does not mean, in and of itself, that you have failed as a father. Every child has free will and can choose to reject everything you diligently try to teach him or her. Kids have many influences tugging at them, including godless peers, an immoral and irreligious media barrage, and their own selfish desires. Sometimes, the kids of good, involved, loving fathers simply choose to go the wrong way.
Also, I want you to know that every dad makes mistakes. I’ve sure made my share, and I’m grateful that God’s grace has covered most of them. Every dad—myself included—reaches a point where, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, he wishes he had made some different choices as a father. But the fact that our kids didn’t walk in the path we pointed out to them is not necessarily evidence of failure; rather, it’s proof that we are fallen people living in a fallen world. The only man who is truly a failure as a father is the man who fails to love and guide his kids, to be there for them, to pray for them, to lovingly discipline them, to affirm them and teach them God’s plan for their lives. My point here is not to accuse you or anyone else of having failed; it’s to encourage you to succeed and to become the father God meant for you to be.
How to Be a Perfect Dad
We all want to be the perfect dad—a Ward Cleaver-ish sort of fellow with a touch of gray at the temples, a man who can always be found in his wood-paneled den, puffing on his pipe, ready to dispense fatherly wisdom to his kids on any subject from how to build a kite to understanding girls to the simplest proof of the Pythagorean theorem. There isn’t anything he doesn’t know and there isn’t any problem he can’t fix.
Don’t you want to be a perfect dad? Sure you do! To help you reach that goal, I’ve assembled a simple guide to flawless fatherhood. Follow these easy steps and you, too, can achieve perfection as a father.
Step 1: Forget About Being Perfect
Instead of trying to be the perfect dad, be honest and real. Dads are human and make mistakes. When you make a mistake, own up to it honestly. If it’s minor and harmless, laugh at yourself and move on. If you did something hurtful to your kids, such as yelling at them when you shouldn’t have or missing one of their important events, then admit it and apologize sincerely. Some dads seem to feel that saying “I was wrong, I’m sorry, please forgive me” will diminish them in their children’s eyes. Wrong! Admitting your flaws and asking forgiveness increases the respect and love they’ll have for you. Acknowledging mistakes actually magnifies you in their eyes. I guarantee it: Every child’s image of the “perfect dad” is a dad who’s big enough to admit he’s not perfect.
You want your kids to admit it when they do wrong, don’t you? Then set an example. When you mess up, fess up! If your kids catch you in an inconsistency, don’t try to explain how what you did doesn’t count. Admit that you were inconsistent and ask forgiveness. Arthur Ashe, the late world-class tennis champ, understood this principle well. In an interview he gave shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from AIDS (contracted from a tainted blood transfusion during heart surgery), Ashe talked about parenting by example. “My wife and I talk about this with our six-year-old daughter,” he said. “Children are much more impressed by what they see you do than by what you say. They keep you honest. If you’ve been preaching one thing all along, and you don’t do it, all of a sudden they’ll bring it right up in your face.
“I tell my daughter it’s not polite to eat with your elbows on the table. Then, after dinner, I’m putting my elbows up. She says, ‘Daddy, your elbows are on the table.’ You have to be man enough to say ‘you’re right’ and take your elbows down. In fact that’s an even stronger learning experience than just telling her in words. When she calls me on it, I know she’s listening . . . and when I admit I was wrong, she knows her daddy is man enough to be consistent.”
Step 2: Be the Dad Your Kids Need
Dad is no less important than Mom. Your kids need you—and your daughter needs you as much as your son. Even if you are divorced from your kids’ mother, find a way to be involved and available for your kids. Don’t deprive them of the time, affirmation, guidance and love that only you can give them.
Step 3: Affirm Your Kids
Use affirming words: “I love you! I’m proud of you! You’re awesome!” Give them an affirming touch: Hug them, put your arm around your kids’ shoulders, and get down on the floor and wrestle with them. Your touch says, “I like you. I enjoy being around you. I want to connect with you.”
Be an affirming presence in the lives of your kids. Go to their games, recitals, school plays, and every other event that is important to them. Show you value them by sacrificing some of your interests in order to be with them at the key moments of their lives.
That’s the kind of father Cal Ripken, Sr., was—a blue-collar guy, a longtime coach and manager in the Baltimore Orioles baseball organization. When his son, Cal Ripken, Jr., was just a little tyke, Cal, Sr., would get the boy out of bed before sunrise and they’d have a quick breakfast together. Then they’d drive to the ballpark where Cal, Jr., would watch and listen as his dad coached.
Years later, Cal, Jr., became one of the legendary players of the game, playing shortstop for the Orioles. On September 6, 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr., broke Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played (a streak he later extended to 2,632). The night Cal, Jr., broke the record, he stepped onto the field at Camden Yards and looked up to the skybox. There was Cal, Sr., beaming with pride at his son’s achievement. Cal, Jr., later said, “It seemed like there was an exchange of a million words without saying one.” Cal, Jr., knows what it’s like to have an affirming father; his dad showed what it’s like to be one.
Step 4: Listen to Your Kids
Set aside regular time each day to talk to each of your children—and to listen. Don’t just wait for opportunities; make opportunities happen. As your children talk, make eye contact. Give them nonverbal feedback—a nod or grin to show you’re giving your full attention. Even a preschooler knows when you are just saying, “Uh-huh, that’s nice,” while watching TV or reading your email. Kids know when they’re being patronized, and it makes them feel demeaned and unimportant.
When listening to your children, don’t just listen to the words. Listen for emotions, fears and unspoken messages. For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, a first-grade boy asked, “Daddy, were there children in those buildings?” The father replied, “I’m sure there were only grownups in those buildings, and most of them got out okay.” Over the next few days, the boy asked the same question several more times. Finally, the dad realized what the boy was really asking: “Am I safe, or could an airplane fly into my house?” He just didn’t know how to put the question into words. Once the dad grasped the child’s unspoken question, he could help the boy feel secure.
Never make your child feel stupid for asking a question or expressing an opinion. Kids are easily shamed and intimidated. You want your children to talk so that you can know what they’re thinking. So invite them to express their ideas. Ask questions. Be a good listener.
Step 5: Take Time to Be a Dad
Find creative ways to spend time with your kids. Turn a business trip into a family trip. Turn a solitary chore, like weekend gardening or cleaning out the garage, into a fun project with your kids. Take your kids with you on errands and trips to the hardware store. After Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a reporter asked her, “What can we do to help promote world peace?” She replied, “Go home and love your family.” The best way to love your kids is to spend time with them—lots and lots of time. It’s often said that children are the future, and we have to think about what they will become. But I think we sometimes forget that our children are also the present. We need to think about who they are today and what they are thinking and going through right now. The only way we can do that is by giving them the gift of our time. Spending time with your kids is not an obligation. It’s a privilege.
Step 6: Support Your Wife’s Role as Mom
Never do anything that would diminish her in the kids’ eyes or undermine her parental authority. This is true even if you are divorced. In disciplinary matters, always coordinate with your kids’ mom. If she has parenting skills that you lack, ask her to show you how she does it.
Step 7: Be a Fun Dad
Kids need fun and laughter almost as much as they need love. Make sure they see you as a guy who’s fun to be around. Take your kids on roller coasters and water slides. Tell stupid jokes. Have water balloon fights with your kids. Play board games together. Help them build kites, and then go out and fly them. Be a fun dad.
One day when my daughter Katarina was about 13 or 14, we were sitting around the dining room table. She said, “Dad, why can’t you be a casual dad?”
I said, “Kati, what’s a casual dad?”
“Well, a casual dad is someone who’s fun to be with. He kind of lets up on his kids once in a while. I know you have to have discipline and rules, especially with so many kids in the house. But maybe sometimes you could be a casual dad.”
To this day, we still use that phrase in our house. If the kids think I’m coming on with too much structure, they say, “Hey, where’s our casual dad? We haven’t seen him in a while!” It’s convicting—and it’s given me a whole new approach to fatherhood. To this day, I find myself thinking, How am I coming across to my kids? Am I being a casual dad? Am I being fun? When Billy Graham was 75, a reporter asked him, “Dr. Graham, what do you want to be remembered for?” And Dr. Graham answered, “I want to be remembered as a dad who was fun to live with.”
In his novel The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor writes about an Irish Catholic family in the 1950s. One of the young men in the novel says, “My father didn’t drink, much less get drunk. I don’t think he ever looked at a woman besides my mother. All of us ate three good meals a day and had no holes in our shoes. He had all the domestic virtues, you see, except that it was hell on earth to live with him.” Make sure that you’re not “hell on earth” to live with. Among all of your virtues as a father, put fun near the top of the list.4
Step 8: Follow the Example of the Ultimate Father
We don’t have to wonder what the “perfect father” is like. We have the ultimate example of fatherhood right in front of us: God Himself. Though we find many images of God in the Bible—Creator, Lord, King, Shepherd, and so forth—the image Jesus impressed upon is that of God the loving Father.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9), and when He prayed, He not only called God “Father,” but He also called Him “Abba!” In Mark 14:36, when Jesus prayed in the garden before going to the cross, He prayed, “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” That Aramaic word “Abba” literally means “Daddy!” and is the word a little child would call out when running up and jumping into his daddy’s lap. Jesus wants us to know that God is our heavenly Daddy and we can crawl up in His lap anytime we want. And that’s the kind of daddy you and I should be to our kids.
The most powerful portrayal of the fatherhood of God is the parable Jesus told about the prodigal son and the loving father. The word “prodigal” means “carelessly, wastefully extravagant,” and this famous story of the wasteful son and his forgiving father is probably the best loved of all the parables of Jesus.
This story, found in Luke 15:11-32, tells of a thoughtless son who goes to his dad and says, “Father, give me my share of the estate” (v.12). In other words, “Dad, I’m tired of waiting around for you to die so I can get what’s coming to me. Divide up everything you own, and give me my share.” What an insult! This brash young man practically tells his dad, “I wish you were dead!” Nothing could be more offensive.
But the father ignores the insult and gives the son what he demands. The boy takes his money and leaves without a backward glance. He goes to a far country and wastes the money on sinful living. Soon, a famine strikes the land and, in desperation, this Jewish boy ends up doing something no self-respecting Jew would ever do: He takes a job slopping the hogs. In those days, any Jew who took care of pigs was considered cursed, because pigs were “unclean” under Jewish law.
Finally, the boy decides to beg his father to take him back—not as a son, but as a hired servant. So he returns home. At this point, Jesus inserts a fascinating detail. He says, “But while [the boy] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him” (v. 20). How did this father happen to see his boy while he was “a long way off”? Clearly, the father had a habit of rising every morning, going out on a hill, and looking for his son. He eagerly hoped his boy would return.
What does the father do when he sees his son? He runs to the boy, throws his arms around him, and kisses him! Then he calls his servants and has them bring out the best robe for the boy, puts a gold ring on the boy’s finger, and throws a huge party. And here’s the lesson of this story for you and me: No matter what that boy did, no matter how he had sinned and degraded himself, no matter how ungrateful and wasteful he had been, the boy was unconditionally loved by his father. When he was still a long way off, his father ran to meet him and welcome him home. This father was so joyful that he cried out, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 32).
That’s just a glimpse into the heart of our loving heavenly Father. That’s just a taste of the great love He has shown you and me. The more we get to know the God of the Bible, the more we learn to see Him as the loving Father He is—and the more we want to pattern ourselves after His example. In God the Father, we see the ultimate model of fatherly authority, affection, forgiveness and generosity.
God is exactly the kind of father you and I want to become—the kind of father we must become. God is the ultimate example of a father who influences generations of heads of families, choice men, brave warriors, and outstanding leaders. Asher was a great father because he followed in the footsteps of God the Father.
The Definition of a Father
On Father’s Day 1998, Ben Stein was interviewed on CNN about his book on fatherhood, Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad.5 You know Ben Stein. As an actor, he played the droning teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He has also been a columnist, novelist, quiz show host (Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money), and a White House speechwriter.
Interviewed by CNN’s Bobbie Battista, he talked about the process of adopting his son Tommy. “It was quite a struggle to get him,” Stein said. “And once we had him, it wasn’t easy for me to be a dad. I felt kind of estranged and inadequate.”
One obstacle Stein had to overcome was his fear that he wasn’t up to the job. “I felt I probably wouldn’t be a good dad,” he said. “I wasn’t a good athlete. I wasn’t particularly inspiring or strong personality-wise.”
Stein points to one incident as the moment he truly saw himself as a father. “One night, after maybe about a year and a half or two years of being a very bad and absent father,” he said, “I was telling Tommy a story. I guess he must have been two and a half or three. I told him this little story and I said, ‘Well, good night, Tommy,’ thinking he might go, ‘Goo-goo.’ And he said, with perfect pitch and punctuation, ‘Good night, Daddy,’ in the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard. And I was simply putty in his hands from then on. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for him after that.”
Stein also credits Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family for helping him understand the fatherhood role. He paraphrased Dobson’s counsel this way: “Don’t worry if you’re not the best athlete on the block. Your kid wants to be with you. If you will just pay attention to him, he will be a boundless reservoir of love and affection for you.”
Referring to his role as a finance and economics analyst on the cable news networks, Stein added, “I’m often on business shows and people say to me, ‘What’s a good investment now?’ And I always say, ‘The best investment is to go home from work early and spend the afternoon throwing a ball around with your son. That’s a really good investment. The returns on it are tax-free. There’s no possibility that you’ll lose on it. And your son will reap enormous benefits from it.’”
I’m so glad Ben Stein is writing and talking about being an adoptive father. I want everyone to know about the millions of kids in this world who need a loving, secure home. I want everyone to know that this relationship called adoption has a special place of honor in God’s Word and in His heart. Our God is an adoptive Father. In our culture, people tend to dismiss adoption as a second-class relationship. Sometimes people will ask me, “Is so-and-so one of your real kids or one of your adopted kids?” Hey, they’re all my real kids! In his book Twice Adopted, radio personality Michael Reagan puts it his way:
Unfortunately, we live in a society which has long viewed adoption as an “abnormal” or “second-best” family arrangement. Even in the church, we have accepted this notion that adoption is a deviation from the norm. Even in Christian families, siblings sometimes tease each other, joking, “Oh, didn't Mom and Dad ever tell you that you were adopted?” Behind this teasing is the assumption that an adopted kid is different and inferior—a misfit.6That’s not how God views adoption. In both the Old and New Testaments, God takes an elevated view of adoption. Look at the story of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10. There, Moses, a Hebrew baby, is given up to be adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter in order to save his life. Only by being adopted as an Egyptian could Moses become the liberator of the Hebrews.
And the New Testament tells us that we can’t become God’s children unless we are adopted into God’s family! Nobody was ever born a Christian; we only become Christians by adoption. As the apostle Paul explained, “So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family—calling him ‘Father, dear Father’” (Romans 8:15, NLT).
God has brought us into His home and showered us with His love. Again, Michael Reagan observes:
Christians don’t take a back seat to God’s “birth kids,” because He doesn’t have birth kids. His entire family is an adoptive family. You can’t get into God’s family any other way. We start life as slaves, and we are adopted as God’s sons and heirs. God gives us the right to crawl up into his lap and whisper in His ear, because He has redeemed us and adopted us as His children.7I believe we should all reprogram our thinking about what “fatherhood” really means. Instead of defining a father as “a man who procreates,” we would instead say, “a father is a man who loves, nurtures, trains, mentors, teaches, disciplines, affirms, cares for, and provides for a child, regardless of whether or not he is genetically connected to that child.” There are many ways to be a father and a spiritual descendent of Asher. You don’t have to be the genetic male parent of a child to fulfill that role. You can voluntarily become the father figure in the lives of young people who do not have a father.
Fatherhood Is a Holy Calling
In November 2001, I was in Boston promoting How to Be Like Mike, my book on the life of NBA legend Michael Jordan.8 In the morning, I appeared on a local TV show. That evening, I went to the Fleet Center to watch Michael and the Washington Wizards take on the Boston Celtics. I had a chance to visit with Mike in the locker room before the game. He greeted me warmly and said he’d seen me on TV that morning, promoting the book.
“Hey, Williams,” he kidded, “you’re telling all my stories!”
I laughed and said, “You know, Mike, I have been getting raves from readers all over the country. They say, ‘When you see Mike, thank him for being such a role model.’”
Jordan grinned and said, “You know something? I’m just a product of my mom and dad. I represent them. Everything I am today is just a result of the way James and Deloris Jordan raised me and the things they taught me.”
What a tribute that is! It sounds exactly like something the sons, grandsons and greatgrandsons of Asher might have said.
Before David Robinson retired from the NBA in 2003, he was one of the best centers in pro basketball. Nicknamed “The Admiral” because of his service in the U.S. Navy, Robinson is an outspoken Christian, an outstanding leader, a choice man of God, and a great father. The number one NBA draft pick in 1987, he played his entire career with the San Antonio Spurs. He led his team to NBA championships in 1999 and 2003.
Sports writer Phil Taylor recalled a special moment after Robinson and the Spurs won their first NBA championship in 1999, defeating the New York Knicks in five games. Writing in Sports Illustrated, Taylor said that Robinson was getting dressed in the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden. The game of Robinson’s life had ended only an hour and a half earlier. There were reporters all around, eager to interview The Admiral after his huge career-capping victory.
But the reporters had to wait. Robinson was not taking their questions yet. He was busy answering the questions of his six-year-old son, David, Jr.
“How do you tie a tie, Daddy?” David, Jr., asked.
“Well,” the NBA champ replied, “you bring this part around here and tuck this in here and then you pull down here.”
“Is it hard?” the boy asked.
“Not once you know how to do it. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”
Phil Taylor recalled that the father and son went on chatting as if they were the only two people in that room. “On the night that he reached the peak of his profession,” the sports writer concluded, “Robinson was content to be the Dad of David, Jr.” 9
Some years ago, I had dinner with Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright and his wife, Vonette. It was right after they had moved to Orlando and they wanted to know how we managed our huge household. I explained some of the rules, procedures and discipline we had instilled in order to keep things in line.
After listening carefully, Bill gently said, “Don’t forget the love.”
I always remembered that. Yes, a household needs order, but kids need love. While setting up your rules and discipline, don’t forget the love.
Being a father is the job of a lifetime. That’s true whether you are a birth father, an adoptive father, a stepfather, or a substitute father. Becoming a father changes you in ways you could never imagine before. It makes you richer and wiser. It deepens your soul. It teaches you about the true depths of human love.
Fatherhood is a holy calling. Don’t turn your back on it. Answer your calling. Be a spiritual descendent of Asher and a warrior for the hearts of your kids. Be their dad.
1. Pat Williams, Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders (Nashville, TN: Warner Faith, 2005).
2. National Fatherhood Initiative, “NFI Research.” http://www.fatherhood.org/research.asp (accessed November 2005).
3. Arnold Palmer with James Dodson, A Golfer’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000).
4. Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2005).
5. Ben Stein, Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
6. Michael Reagan with Jim Denny, Twice Adopted (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2004).
8. Pat Williams with Michael Weinreb, How to be Like Mike: Life Lessons About Basketball’s Best (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Incorporated, 2001).
9. Phil Taylor, “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson, Sports Illustrated, April 7, 2003. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/si_online/scorecard/news/2003/04/01/sc/ (accessed November 2005).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pat Williams is senior vice president of the NBA's Orlando Magic. He has more than 50 years of professional sports experience; has written more than 100 books, including the popular Coach Wooden, The Difference You Make, and The Sweet Spot for Success; and is one of America's most sought-after motivational speakers. He lives in Florida. Find out more at www.patwilliams.com. Jim Denney is the author of Walt's Disneyland, Answers to Satisfy the Soul, Writing in Overdrive, and the Timebenders series for young readers. He has written many books with Pat Williams, including Coach Wooden, The Difference You Make, and The Sweet Spot for Success. Learn more at www.writinginoverdrive.com.
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