From the Penitentiary to the World Bank, Daddying Is Within Reach
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
Assembled for the first session of my workshop, “Becoming the Dad YOU Want to Be,” the white-shirted fathers sitting around a conference table at the World Bank in Washington, DC, remain particularly vivid in my memory.
Attendance at this workshop was voluntary, as it is with all such workshops, signifying a desire to be the best dad each attending father can be. Going around the table clockwise, I asked each father why he had decided to spend his lunch hour at the workshop. The Italian father sitting to my left immediately exclaimed, “So I don’t become like my father – he was the worst!” After listening to seven other fathers, we arrived at the French father immediately on my right, who wistfully said, “I had the best dad possible, and I worry that I can never be as good as he was.”
Another such workshop I conducted was at a state penitentiary in the southwest. Also voluntary, the inmates were dressed in orange jumpsuits, not in white shirts, the responses, although all negative, conveyed the same worry that somehow there might be a predetermined genetic component to daddying, which I define as the place where fatherhood and nurturing intersect.
85% of youth prisoners grew up in a fatherless home (20 times the average).
Although I’m not a geneticist, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a daddying gene – or a mommying one either. Although our experiences as a son or daughter, as well as our temperament, surely play a role in the parent we become, they do not determine with certainty the parent we become.
In my workshops, which I've also conducted in other such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, Head Start centers, and various elementary schools around the country, I ask fathers to think about and describe the dad they want to be. The silence that follows indicates two things: most men have never really thought fully about the father they want to be, and the question itself is overwhelming by its very nature.
In the close to 200 one-on-one, in-depth daddying interviews I’ve conducted with fathers from 20 countries – ranging in age from 16 to 104 – one of the questions I ask is “When did you first think about becoming a father?” The large majority have responded, almost as if the answer should have been obvious to me, “When my partner became pregnant.” Clearly, there has not been much in-depth forethought from most would-be fathers.
Few of us ever get exactly the parents we might have wished for. And as parents ourselves, we learn quickly that there is no such thing as a “perfect parent.” Nevertheless, there seems to be an apprehension – often a fear – that we are condemned to magically morph into the worst aspects of our parents.
Having discovered the overwhelming nature of the question, “describe the dad you want to be,” I’ve found that it is more helpful for parents to ask themselves “How do I want my son/daughter to describe me as a parent tomorrow, in five years, in 10 years, etc.?”
Once it becomes clear to us, the answer can become our parenting North star. After all, our children are the “consumers” of our parenting and most of us want them to be satisfied, if not thrilled, with the product!
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.