Candid Conversation, Practical Insights
As something of a nerd, I’ve always been wary of books with an exclamation mark in the title. In the title! But author Gregory Slayton states up front that Be a Better Dad Today!: Ten Tools Every Father Needs is not an ordinary book. Nor is it an academic book, compiling as footnotes the steep rise in fatherhood and marriage studies that have appropriately emerged in the wake of America’s sexual revolution, evolving gender roles and the impact of U.S. anti-poverty programs that have often undermined the role of men in low-income communities.
Instead, BBDT! is invitational, conversational—and an exhortation to fathers everywhere to embrace more skillfully and more intentionally their responsibilities as dads. Authored by a successful diplomat and venture capitalist who for years devoted the same kind of professional energy away from his family that his own father did, the book is remarkably transparent, replete with winsome insights about parenting and everyday life. We learn early on the book’s motivation, when Slayton describes nearly dying in his mid-twenties of acute viral hepatitis, while running World Vision operations in Mali, West Africa. After being flown back to a New York hospital, the author heard his doctors say he had no more than a 50 percent chance at survival. When word reached his estranged father, Slayton’s dad “phoned out of the blue,” and yet the call lasted all of 90 seconds when his father said, “Hey, something’s come up. Gotta go. I’ll call right back” (p.19). That return call never came, and in 2007 Slayton’s father died, alone, of liver disease after years of alcohol abuse.
In the years since, Slayton has made it his personal mission to reunite the hearts of dads everywhere to their children, which means (as one might expect of a successful businessman who has committed personal resources to this ambitious goal) this book is only a beginning. Alongside BBDT!, the Fellowship of Fathers website plans to connect dads with one another in local communities, alongside partnerships with U.S. military chaplains and religious congregations throughout the country. A Facebook site provides a forum for readers to give direct feedback to the author, as well as promote dialogue with other readers.
But the heart of the book is comprised of Slayton’s self-discovered conviction that fathers need tools: “Good dads are made, not born” (p.14). Thus the author challenges men to begin by creating a “Noble Vision” for their families, based on their own personal, deeply held values (p.36). A few examples are offered, including the Slayton family’s vision, and readers are challenged to set family goals that can succeed. These goals can be informed by a series of ten tools designed to help men improve their family lives and parenting responsibilities—and these tools comprise the most practical counsel in the book, giving it the greatest value in my judgment. From tool to tool the writing style is informed by Slayton’s diplomatic experiences and business ventures in Silicon Valley, which have been used in Harvard Business School case studies. Each chapter offers practical takeaways designed for busy dads: three questions “For Further Reflection,” three “Quick Wins” summarizing key insights, and a “Put it to Work Guide” making the book ideal for use in groups.
These “Ten Tools of Fatherhood” include subjects like an all-in marriage, developing an authentic moral compass, employing servant leadership to empower your wife and children, cultivating active listening techniques, obtaining support from friends and other male role models, and strengthening each member of your family with unique emotional, physical, mental and spiritual aspects (in other words, not just providing for them financially). As a pneumonic device, the ten chapters spell out the word F-A-T-H-E-R-H-O-O-D, and at 8-10 pages in length, the chapters move quickly, reflecting Slayton’s strong ability to offer insights getting to the heart of the matter in relatively few words. This dynamic alone makes the book well worth its $19.95 ticket price—reflecting Mark Twain’s memorable line that “I would have written you a shorter letter, if only I had more time.”
Slayton is anything but a social worker, and readily admits he is not a professional author—but it is clear he gave his full effort to this task, stressing practical takeaways. When it comes to listening, for example, fathers are challenged to focus on “the message behind the words,” and offer sincere follow-up questions that build upon observations shared by your wife or child (p. 146). In our marriages, Slayton asks men to “get rid of any and all competitors to your wife,” to observe that second marriages typically fail and to instead employ a clever “50 percent rule” (pps. 77-80). Each chapter includes personal stories to illustrate core insights, giving the book a relationship-rich feel.
Finally, the book includes three chapters for “special situations,” including the challenges of single fatherhood, handling setbacks and excelling as a long-distance dad. Inclusivity is sought: for single dads, Slayton offers insight for both divorced men as well as widowers. When discussing “life’s bean balls,” such as navigating unemployment or significant changes that accompany the lives of professional athletes, concise, practical observations follow. And in addressing parenting from long distances—whether from prison or for men whose business commitments regularly require phone conversations with their children from thousands of miles away—the goal is once again practical counsel: ten ideas for fathering teens, another ten for supporting young children, and another ten for fathering children of all ages and life stages.
In short, a culture in which father-absence is all-too-common, books such as BBDT! are certainly welcome—not just on Father’s Day, but every day. If men internalize this book’s tools and put them into practice, children and families will be the better for it.
Josh Good is a senior consultant who directed the 2006-07 national HHS fatherhood capacity-building initiative, and today works to strengthen the performance of faith-based organizations in partnership with several DC-based think tanks.