The Art of Fatherhood Taps Some Things We Learn in Public Relations

Father's Day

I almost never mention my personal life in my professional communications. This is an exception.

With the Father’s Day holiday coming up this Sunday, I’ve been thinking about the decades that I’ve been a dad, which have also coincided with the large part of my career in the PR business.

We often hear someone talk about a business that they “fathered,” or a special idea or project that they “gave birth to,” or more commonly today, their “fur babies,” as they self-identify as a cat-mom or a dog-dad.  I get all of that, and we’ve had furry members of our family as well. But for me there is nothing that comes close to being an actual dad.

I mean fathering and raising humans. The birth part is literally and figuratively just the beginning. So, in that spirit, I’m going to lay out some things I’ve learned in fatherhood that have helped me in the public relations profession.

#1 – You’re just not raising a child. You’re raising a child to be an adult.

In my work, I’ve always started with the end result in mind. Everything you do from the very start has to support the outcome you want.

Nothing could be more true in parenthood. If you want your child to be a responsible young man or young woman in adulthood, you have to start by giving them responsibility at the youngest of ages and holding them accountable.

I’m proud of the men my sons have become. They’re doing well in their chosen paths, at least in part, for this reason.

When they wanted to play T-ball, they had to know how to tie their own shoes and carry their own gear to the field. If they forgot their mouth guard, they didn’t play that day. It wasn’t for me to remember it for them, carry the gear for them, or tie their shoes for them.

At every step of the way, once they could do something they were expected to do it themselves…and remember to do it themselves.

As a parent, you never really know what you did that stuck with your kid until they become adults. That’s when you hear their version of events long afterward.

When I first met some of my one son’s college football teammates, it was clear to me that they had already heard several stories about me and my sometimes unconventional parenting style, usually with a funny ending. If you and I ever meet, ask me how I taught him as a little leaguer how to get over his fear of getting hit by a pitch.

#2 – Let them fail.

It’s been often said that failure is the greatest teacher. I would agree with that, but only if you approach that success or failure with the mindset in that you are willing to learn from mistakes.

We do that in public relations. Learn on the fly. Adjust, improve, and go back at it again.

The same is true in parenting. You can teach, show, model, lecture and preach all you want to your kids. But nothing can replace giving them the opportunity to succeed or fail on their own merits. If they go into a situation with the wrong mindset, they may get down on themselves for failing. And I as the parent could make it worse by piling on, telling them what they did wrong, perhaps even encouraging them to quit.

Fortunately, my wife and I never did that. My role as a dad was to let them try, let them fail, be there afterward for support, let them ask me for my thoughts (not volunteer them), and then give them my assessment for what they can do better next time. But you’re not there just for the hugs and the reassurance that they did their best or that life’s not fair. Sometimes you have to be honest, brutally honest, but compassionate at the same time.

Sometimes the child did not give his or her best and they have to know that. Sometimes life isn’t fair, but you still have to deal with it and find a way to overcome that. You can’t always blame others for problems, or tell yourself you’re better than you may be. As a dad, just as in PR as a counselor, we must be honest.

Over the years, I think some of the most important conversations with my kids have been in the car while driving, or in the mud room between our garage and the basement where they would take off their muddy shoes.  Those were my dad classrooms, and that’s where I gave them my full support when no one was watching. I still cherish those moments.

#3 – Celebrate every victory.

The flip side of failure is success. But it may not always be the kind of success the world perceives.

Case in point. In the PR business, we seek to move the needle in public opinion quite often. Now, the public may not sense a sea change in attitudes, but if we’re doing our research, monitoring carefully, and “reading the tea leaves,” we see the little signs that what we’re doing is working.

As a dad, nothing could be more true. Teaching a young kid patience and persistence is always a challenge. I remember working hard to get my kids to read books from start to finish. I felt that they needed to do this for multiple reasons. First, to develop their skill as readers. But also to learn how to set out to start AND finish something. It’s not enough to start projects and never complete them.

So, when my kids would actually finish a book, an ice cream cone was in order. No patronizing praise. No public or family displays of gratuitous celebration. No. Just a routine trip to Dairy Queen to mark the accomplishment, and then move on. The attitude this instilled was simply, “More accomplishments to come. Let’s take a breath for now.”

After those days, their accomplishments mounted.

Honor rolls in school, athletic awards and trophies, honor societies, athletic scholarships, academic scholarships, dean’s lists, jobs, news features on them (without my involvement), the meeting of the right person and a marriage to that person, purchasing real estate and fixing it up, receiving industry honors in their chosen professions, becoming known for an artistic talent we never knew existed, starting businesses of their own, and more recently for my one son, becoming a father in his own rite.

Each of these things, celebrated appropriately and proportionately at the time, before it was time to get back at it. All of this in addition to just being there for friends and family when needed, and for being men of faith.

Fatherhood is a journey. You’re never really done until you’re called home. It’s filled with a series of lifelong events, each building upon the other, leading to a final outcome with more than a few detours along the way.

It’s like a campaign that never stops until you do. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy that journey.  For me, it’s been the ride of a lifetime.

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