One of the most important jobs any man can have on earth is being a father. This is not an exclusion of mothers, but an appeal to a society that tends to undervalue men and the role they play as fathers specifically. As a black American, knowing the statistics on fatherlessness in the black community, the weight of being a good father to my own sons is heavier than it has ever been. No matter what their skin-color, however, fatherhood is crucial to every single child’s development.
Even for those who grew up without a father, let this be an encouragement that you can still be the father for your own children that you never had for yourself.
I learned three very crucial lessons from my father that continue to help me navigate through life even as a husband and father myself.
The first lesson was when I was about four years old. My dad was working at least two-and-a-half jobs at the time, and was gone during the working hours of most days. At that time, I would mostly only see him in the evenings before bed, and Sundays when he would take me to church with him to pray, early before the service started. So for this period of time, I would spend the majority of my week with my mother.
At this time, I was going through a phase of challenging my mother’s authority. I blatantly defied her by doing things she made clear I was not allowed to, and not doing those things she told me to do. I was belligerent with my sisters, and an all around nuisance in the house. My mother said that as soon as my father came home from work, I transformed into “the perfect little angel.” No one in the house was more compliant than I was once daddy arrived home. I’m not sure how long this went on for, but my mom was fed up enough to finally tell my father that his little angel was not the same boy when he wasn’t around.
I remember vividly being in my room when my father came in and crouched on the floor where I was sitting. We were face to face as he looked me in the eye and said to me:
“I heard from your mother that when I’m gone, you don’t listen to her; that you run around and do whatever you want. That’s not good enough, son.” He then began to explain to me what integrity meant—doing the right thing whether someone was watching you or not. He continued: “She may be your mother, but she’s also my wife. And if I hear about you acting like that with my wife again, it’s gonna be you and me. You understand me?” Needless to say, I understood.
Even though many of my boyhood memories are somewhat fuzzy, that moment I will never forget.
When people find out that I grew up with five sisters, many articulate the explicit assumption that this must have been a great way for me to learn to respect women. However, simply growing up in a house full of women did not teach me these essential values. Rather, it was my father who taught me the importance of respecting women.
The second lesson came at a time when I could not have needed it more. I was 14 years old, and a karate student at my first out-of-state karate tournament. My father decided it would be good if just the two of us went together. When we arrived, I found myself increasingly nervous and afraid as I watched some of the other students and saw how fast and strong they seemed. Two boys in particular who happened to be in my division, impressed me. I tried my best to hide my fear because I did not want to disappoint my father or my little cousin and his dad who happened to live in the state we were in.
It was time to spar, and as it happened I was pit against those same two boys I was most afraid of, one after the other. The first beat me badly. By the time I got to the second one, I was a little less afraid and went in for a few shots, but I was still beaten pretty badly. After the fights, I held back tears and walked over to where my dad, cousin, and uncle were sitting. They all encouraged me, and I said thank you and smiled, then I went to the restroom to change clothes and sat in one of the stalls and cried my eyes out. I felt incredibly humiliated. I also felt so stupid for how scared I had been, and angry at the arrogance of the two boys. I was embarrassed that my little cousin was watching me get my butt handed to me twice, and that the thousands of kids that were there had witnessed the same thing. But most of all, I was mortified that my father had to sit through watching his son get pummeled. How weak must I have looked to him? That was the main question I kept asking myself in my head.
Later that day, my dad and I ate a quiet dinner together, then took a bus to the movies. Once we got off the bus, we had about a five minute walk to the theater. In those five minutes, my father began to tell me how proud he was of seeing me get back up every single time and throw myself back in to face two guys who were easily twice my size. He told me that watching me persevere and fight on through it all spoke volumes to him; the fact that I would get back up and plunge into the fight again and again meant more to him than me winning or losing. Then he embraced me and we both cried. The movie we saw that night was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and the thing I remember most from it was the quote: “Bruce, why do we fall?”
The third lesson is more of a theme that continues to repeat itself throughout my life, and is my dad continually telling me, “no matter what, son, always treat people right.” That piece of advice sounds simple enough, but I have seen my father apply that wisdom time and again in his own life. I have seen him treat with the utmost kindness people who have only returned anger and bitterness to him. As a pastor, I’ve seen people spread lies about my father in real time, and him responding by doing nothing but continuing to be kind to them; whether that be praying for them when they ask him to, visiting them or their loved ones in the hospital, or going out of his way to check in with them if he hasn’t seen them in a while.
Now, my father’s personality can be very intense. My dad is not afraid to call something or someone out if need be. This kindness he taught to me is not weakness. It is actually strength. It is an active kindness that sends the message that I am stronger than whatever pettiness seems to be coming between us at the moment. It says that I am stronger than your hate; that my G-d who guides me is stronger than whatever seems to be driving you. Of all the people I’ve seen spurn my father, so many have come back, sometimes years later, apologized, and thanked him for not cutting them off when they deserved it. I’ve seen enough of those types of full circles in my dad’s life to understand the principle, and yet he never ceases to remind me when things come back around. He says, “you see that, son? Always treat people right. No matter what is going on, now matter how you feel, you treat them right.”
With all this said, fathers are not important solely because they can teach certain principles, though that is one big aspect. Fathers are important because they shape a child’s view of who G-d is. From my father, I learned about the character and nature of my heavenly Father. And as I raise my two boys with my wife, I feel the weight of ensuring my sons are trained in the way they should go, just as I was. I pray I’m able to know exactly what to do in those defining moments for my sons, just as my dad knew for me.
Of all of the titles and positions we may have in our lifetime as men, being a father surpasses them all. Why? Because what good is it for me to do all the good I could possibly do for the world, if I raised two boys that did not share those values? What good is it for me to raise children who spurn and destroy everything my wife and I are currently building? There is no good in it. We often speak of creating a legacy and leaving our mark on this earth before we leave it. There is no greater legacy or mark we leave behind than our children.
The stats and sentiments have been repeated by many people now from Tupac Shakur to Barack Obama; men who grow up without fathers are at much higher risk of being in prison, on drugs, in gangs, and killed young. And with a third of children growing up fatherless today, the future seems bleak. On the flip side of that, if those stats are true, then the inverse is also true. If this generation of fathers can determine in our hearts to put our hands to the work of raising our children, and to the best of our ability, we can change the statistics. We can change the trajectory of the entire world.