Father Knows Best: Advice For Modern Dads

Looking ahead to Father's Day this weekend, Tell Me More's parenting panel dishes some advice. Host Michel Martin is joined by some pros — Dan Bucatinsky, Lester Spence and Manny Ruiz — who answer listener questions about how best to parent in today's busy world.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Though, Father's Day is this weekend so we thought we'd pass the mic to the dads today. Parenting conversations often focus on how hard it is for moms to balance work, family life, and everything else, but it can be tough to be a dad these days, too.

We heard from hundreds of dads on Facebook, and our panel is ready to answer your questions, they're grilling it up on the challenges and triumphs of being a modern dad. With us now are Lester Spence, he's an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and a dad of five. Dan Bucatinsky is author of the book "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?" and dad of two. And Manny Ruiz is founder of PapiBlogger.com where he writes about his experiences as a dad of four. Welcome to you all. Welcome back, I should say, to all of you. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy Father's Day in advance.

LESTER SPENCE: Oh, thank you very much.

DAN BUCATINSKY: Thank you.

MANNY RUIZ: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Lester, I'm going to start with you. You wear the crown because you have five kids.

SPENCE: I'm incredibly productive.

MARTIN: You certainly are. And I just, I wanted to ask, though, as a person - your parenting experiences have been so rich. You homeschooled at one point, you've just had a lot of different experiences in this area, and I just wanted to ask if you've, over the years, what is it that you think is distinctive about being a dad?

SPENCE: I think, because of a variety of historical reasons, we tend to place more economic weight on the father than on the mother. And then, particularly within black communities because there's this image that the father isn't present, there's a whole set of other cultural factors that we as black fathers particularly, have to consistently navigate, as long as - as well as being partners, as well as being dads, as well as being workers.

MARTIN: Well, that's very heavy Professor Spence. Thank you for that.

SPENCE: Somebody's got to do it.

MARTIN: That's right. Dan, what about you? I mean, what do you think? Do you feel that - what have you observed about what's different about being a dad? What do you think's...

BUCATINSKY: Well, you know...

MARTIN: ...Special about being a dad?

BUCATINSKY: ...I've got two kids and there's two dads in my family, so there's no other choices. So the kids have got two dads, and we pretty much have to balance the more traditional, we'll say what society has sort of deemed as the mommy roles. I find myself often hormonal and crying at every single kids' event and wiping noses and my boobs hurt and I want to hold the baby. So maybe I've discovered the mommy inside me more than anything else. But no, I mean, in our home, with all those roles, all those things that, what we'll call them, a parent is sort of expected to do, kind of fall on both of us. So the defining what daddy really means, I think is more broad now.

MARTIN: Do the kids call you different things? Is one daddy and and one papa or something?

BUCATINSKY: Yeah, I'm daddy and Don is poppy.

MARTIN: Poppy. Oh, okay.

BUCATINSKY: And they like him better than they like me. So that - I've discovered that, as well.

MARTIN: That's 'cause you're the heavy. That's the way it is.

BUCATINSKY: Could be.

MARTIN: We know how it is. Feel my pain, Dan. Feel my pain.

BUCATINSKY: I do.

MARTIN: I get it. Manny, what about you? What do you think you bring to the table, particularly, as a dad?

RUIZ: Well, I mean, I just want to echo what one of our - my dad bloggers here - a dad speaker said, which is, you know, I agree that in the Latino community, just as in the African-American community, there's a lot of identity issues with - I mean, dads are not the number one figure in our community. It's a very matriarch type society. So I feel bad for men and for dads 'cause I feel like we are always second rate - seen always in second rate. We are not given enough love anymore in the media, and it seems like a lot of programs, a lot of initiatives that are going on nationally, are really focused a lot on being - on women and on moms. And there's very little out there about dads, things that really elevate us and help us become better and stronger communities. So hopefully, social media can be more of that place but dads are still struggling to find their voice, I think, in the U.S. in general, and among Latinos it's really bad.

MARTIN: Do you think you have to, kind of, fight for your place in the family, in a way, or stand up for your role as dad?

RUIZ: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And, in fact, I mean, I can give you anecdotal evidence from my own past that had being, you know, a divorced father at one point, I'm now married. But, you know, if you're a divorced dad, at least Latino culture and I would imagine this happens with African-American fathers, too, it's an uphill battle to be very active and present in some of those families 'cause you're sometimes, you're sort of like an appendage, you're not necessarily seen as extremely necessary, when the mom can really take care of a lot of stuff.

BUCATINSKY: You guys need husbands.

MARTIN: That's right.

SPENCE: That's a good one.

MARTIN: Lester, do you feel that way? I mean, you're married, your family's been, you know, together throughout. Do you feel sometimes you have to fight for your role in the family, to stand up for doing your job as dad?

SPENCE: No. My pressures are different. It's just - it's, like, I've got so much economic weight, right, like living on the East Coast is an expensive - I mean, it's pretty expensive compared to the Midwest where I'm from. And I'm the primary breadwinner, right, of five, so I'm taking care of a family of seven. So to the extent, I've got weight. There is internal stuff, but it's not about, okay, I have to exert my presence as dad in the home. What it is, is I've got all this economic stuff outside where, to the extent there is internal stuff in the home, I'm like, okay, could you recognize all this weight I've got to carry?

MARTIN: Okay. Well, you can have your moment here.

SPENCE: Thank you. Woosah.

MARTIN: Well, let's get started with some of the listener questions. Our first one comes from Steven Hickoks (ph) of Flagstaff, Arizona. His 12-year-old was given a portable game device for his birthday and now he needs some help. It turns out that the game has Internet access. Here's what happened.

STEVEN HICKOCKS: (Caller) My wife heard some noises in his room one night, and went in there and discovered that he had gone onto Facebook and used an alias, made his age to be 18, and he was chatting with friends of his at school in the middle of the night. So it was a bit of a shock for us. Short of keeping our children in a cave, I don't know how to shield them from what is out there in the world.

MARTIN: Now this is an exclusive via-dad issue, but Manny, I'm going to go to you on this 'cause you kind of live online. You have - online for, you know, at least half, you know, some of your life. What would you say to this dad?

RUIZ: Well, I mean, one thing that, I think, one of the things that I once wrote about, which is a fact that I don't provide much privacy for my children before they're 18. So there's no locks in the children's doors in our house. I have four children and they know that they can't be having these secret lives. I think those things would prevent some of the crimes, frankly, that have happened at places like Columbine, where these kids would hide in these rooms, the parents had no idea what was going on in those rooms. So I think parents need to know what is going on in my children's rooms. Number two, there's almost no excuse for parents nowadays, with regards to technology, because even though kids can still crack the code and figure out ways to trick their parents, for the most part, if you're giving them a device that you've purchased or if somebody else did, it's very easy to add privacy controls and other - there's other ways of gaming it, if you will. If you do some search on the Internet, where you can be sure that you know what's going on in your children's computers, you know, their iPads, etc, whatever the device it is. There's ways of adding those controls. You can't control everything, but whatever's in your house, you almost have no excuse to not control it.

MARTIN: Dan, what do you think about this? I mean, first of all, you're known in Hollywood and your in, kind of, the entertainment world. I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, you know, the Internet has been a lifesaver for so many kids who don't fit in, wherever they are, right? Having a life online is the way that has - I would argue - saved some kids' lives. On the other hand, a lot of times kids are exposed to things that you really are not ready for them to talk about. How do you handle this?

BUCATINSKY: Well, you know, luckily, my kids are five and eight, so we haven't really dealt too much in this area. Living in a cave is becoming more and more of an appealing idea. I'm thinking - the more I hear these stories, the more I'm looking for, you know, a nice cul-de-sac in a cave somewhere where there's no Wi-Fi. But no, you know, it is hard. And I walked into my daughter's classroom a couple of weeks ago, and the kids were all given iPads to sort of play around with for a little while, just to see. And she had made a collage of images she had seen - that she found on the Internet. I mean, there were pictures of me and her other dad from other events, but it wasn't something I particularly wanted her to, you know, necessarily a collage of images. I was hoping that they would be kittens and puppies and monkeys and not Hollywood celebrities. But, you know, I feel like parental guidance, for lack of a, you know, better term, may sound like a cliché but I feel like it is the ultimate, you know, showing them how it can be used as a resource but also putting all of the protections on it so that they don't wind up sort of wild. It's the same thing as a seatbelt, you know, you wouldn't put your kid in a car and let them, sort of, drive onto the freeway with no limitations. You drive it for them and you put a seatbelt on them. So I think that's certainly the approach I'm going to take - easy for me to say, with a five-year-old.

MARTIN: Yeah, but with an eight-year-old, it's coming, seriously. You've got about another year, but I'm just letting you know how it is. If you're just joining us, our dads are here and they're serving up some advice just in time for Father's Day. With us are Manny Ruiz of the PapiBlogger.com, Professor Lester Spence and Dan Bucatinsky, he's the author of "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?" And I also want to play the next question from Brian Cotty (ph). This is something that I think a lot of people think about these days, because they're not necessarily in love with the way they were raised but they don't necessarily feel, you know, that they have a roadmap for how they want to be now. This is Brian Cotty (ph) from Rockford, Illinois and here it is.

BRIAN COTTY: (Caller) My name is Brian Cotty, I live in Rockford, Illinois and I have four children. One thing I think that maybe is unique for any single-parent household is that need to balance the masculinity that comes along with goals, objectives, structure, grades and then balancing that out more with the feminine of the nurturing and the caretaking and being able to understand the appropriate place and the appropriate time to exercise both of those.

MARTIN: I think this is a question for a lot of people. I don't think it's just about being a single parent, you just don't necessarily want to fall into those old roles. So Dan, I know you have experience with this, but I'm going to go to Lester first on this, because do you feel that way, you kind of want to balance out both aspects of your personality - whatever you call it - masculine, feminine, whatever?

SPENCE: Yeah. And so I have some sense of how my grandfather raised my dad and then I know how my dad raised me. So when I'm interacting with my kids I've always got a sense - like, my grandfather probably never told my dad that he loved him, even though my grandfather had all types of issues. He was a great father but, you know, he was challenged. My dad only start telling me that type of stuff when I became an adult. So it was that type of stuff that I thought about when I interacted with my kids. Their disciplinary practices were very different. When I was disciplined by my father I was never told why, it was often - not always, but sometimes out of anger. And I know my grandfather interacted with him the same way. So when I - I try really, really hard to tell my kids I love them, to explain to them when they get in trouble, why they get in trouble and to try to never discipline out of anger. And that's because of me thinking about the generations before me. Not in a bad way, but thinking about how I could just be better, improve on what they've already done.

MARTIN: Dan, what about that, I mean, you were telling earlier that you don't feel like you need to fall into these neat, kind of, roles, you're the stern dad and you're the loving dad, but you still find yourself falling into these roles. Do you try to fight that, or...

BUCATINSKY: Yeah, I mean the truth is, you know, it's hard to be all things to your kids at all times. You know, we are very affectionate with them and try to be as nurturing as we can in the absence of a traditional mom. We certainly take on the, sort of, typical mommy - let's called them the feminine qualities - but at the same time, you know, we are also the breadwinners and we also have a stern hand at times and try to talk to the kids logically about what their boundaries are.

And, you know, the hardest thing to learn as a father is that these adorable little babies will turn into tiny humans with their own power, will, and opinions about how you look and how fat you've become and how old you look and, you know, it's hard to, sort of - it's hard to then keep a straight face or not rage against the machine. But, no, it is a juggling act and I think, at times, the kids have to, sort of, adjust the channel when they see that we're talking to them, you know, about boundaries or what's expected of them and their responsibilities. And then we turn around and they don't turn to a different parent necessarily, but they turn to us for the same kind of nurturing that, let's say, a mommy would.

MARTIN: I'm going to squeeze one more in before we go 'cause I think this is one that you're going to want to hear. This is from listener Palimo Lopez (ph), here it is. Oh, wait, I read that, okay. Having been unemployed for a while, I've struggled with the idea of role reversal in societal ideals in our household. At first I was angry and disappointed in my minimal involvement and financial contributions. On my kindergartner's last day of school, the teacher asked what they had looked forward to doing over the summer and my son answered, spending even more time with my daddy. And so Manny, I just want to ask you this - do you - unemployed, whatever, employment situation - have you had to change your idea of what it does mean to be a dad?

RUIZ: Well, it's very difficult because, in my case, I own a couple of companies - I own Hispanicize, an annual event that brings thousands of people together, talking about social media and marketing and that endeavor every year is all-consuming. It's very difficult because I am with my kids sometimes but they are - it's like I'm in a different planet and they're in the same room as I am. And me, personally as a father, I just like knowing that they're there, right. Physically, that they're there and that I can hear them and occasionally, maybe I might bark at them every once in a while 'cause they're doing something crazy. But from their perspective, they want to be - they want to spend time with you personally, they want to see that you are engaged in their world and they're not having to engage through your world.

So it's very difficult when you have a business like that. However, what I've done to counteract that and to spend time - and it's very difficult because sometimes I could just go without vacation, personally. I just love to work so much. But I do these road trips, I've done 40 and 45 day, national road trips. Not every parent can do that and I take all my kids, and those road trips have become part of the family lore of me. So I work hard, but when I play, I play hard as well. And I think that's important if you're a workaholic father like I've been. Make sure that when you are playing, you're playing full force.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, I'm going to ask you to give a little bit of advice. We have about a minute and a half left, just a little bit of time. For the people who are the newbies out there - we had a lot of people write in saying that this is their first Father's Day as a dad. So what's your best bit of advice? Dan, do you want to start?

BUCATINSKY: Carry wipes. For them, for you, for the car, for everyone. That's my biggest piece of advice and it never goes away.

MARTIN: That is so true. I love this man. Lester, what about you? What's your best piece of advice for the new ones out there?

SPENCE: It's a marathon, it's not a sprint. So, I mean, real quick, my mom still treats me like I'm a kid and I'm 44 years old. So once that kid comes - once that baby is born, you have got a lifetime commitment. Just start every day, it's a marathon not a sprint.

MARTIN: Okay. And Manny, what about you?

RUIZ: Well, I think my pastor - one of the first advice he gave me when I first had my first child was, when in doubt look to God to give you the perfect model of how to be a father. And he's the heavenly father and I get all of my guidance from my life as a Christian and just seeking God and trying to find guidance, because a lot of the answers are not very simple. So that's my biggest piece of advice - seek God's answers and it will all fall into place.

MARTIN: All right. Well, happy Father's Day to all of you. Thank you all so much, we so appreciate it. We appreciate you, Lester, even if everybody doesn't - carrying that weight. Lester Spence is a dad of five and associate professor at Johns Hopkins. He is with us from Baltimore. Manny Ruiz is a dad of four and founder of PapiBlogger.com, with us from member station WLRN in Miami. Dan Bucatinsky is a dad of two and author of the book "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?" with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you, dads.

SPENCE: Thanks.

BUCATINSKY: Thank you.

RUIZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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