One of the most persistent themes in the work, writing, and speeches of Barack Obama is fatherhood. It makes sense. His life was defined by the absence of one—he felt the weight of losing his dad when his father left their family when he was two years old. In 2009, Obama reflected on fatherhood in a piece for Parade Magazine shortly after his inauguration. You might expect that this piece would be filled with empty platitudes or general cheerleading, but it is actually quite profound.
“What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child,” he writes, “but the courage to raise one. As fathers, we need to be involved in our children’s lives not just when it’s convenient or easy, and not just when they’re doing well—but when it’s difficult and thankless, and they’re struggling. That is when they need us most.”
But simply sticking around isn’t enough. Plenty of fathers are there, without really being there. If we’re not fully there, Obama writes, if we’re emotionally absent, our kids get the message on where they rank among our priorities. And so he gives some specific pieces of advice for fathers who want to be great at this very important job:
- Step out of your own head and tune in.
- Turn off the television and talk. Listen to your kids. Understand what’s going on in their lives.
- Set limits and expectations. Replace video games with a book. Do their homework with them. Make sure it gets done.
- Tell your daughter that she can’t “ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for your goals.”
- Tell your son that “songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in our house, we find glory in achievement, self-respect, and hard work.”
- Accept that you are your children’s first and best teachers.
None of that is easy. A lot of it is scary. But it matters. And it matters whether you have the courage to step up and do it every day, for the rest of their lives.