5 Minute Interview: Joe Kelly
Alvin: Who are you, what do you do, and what do you enjoy most about it?
My books include Dads and Daughters®: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter; The Dads & Daughters® Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship; The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being an Expectant Father; and The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Dad.
I was co-founder of a national nonprofit called Dads & Daughters®, and (with my wife Nancy Gruver), launched the international, girl-edited magazine and web community New Moon Girl Media.
Far and away, the thing I enjoy most about being a fathering “expert” is hearing the stories of fathers and stepfathers–and the stories of children (young and adult) about their own fathers and stepfathers. My “expertise” lies in conveying the heart and lessons of these tens of thousands of stories and voices.
Alvin: In your opinion what does it mean to be a father today?
Joe: It means suiting up and showing up. It means making peace with deep contradictions, like boldly asserting our responsibility to quietly nurture and comfort our children. It means examining “expected” gender roles with an open mind, looking for ways to unbind ourselves from gender straightjackets. It means having the courage to talk openly about our emotions and thoughts, and to actively identify and work to resolve problems as an equal member of the family.
It means getting fully involved in the mundane activities of child-rearing—from changing poopy diapers to car-pooling teens—because it is while doing those mundane things that we build the relationship with our children and begin to experience the wonderful emotional, psychological and spiritual intimacy and connection that lies (too often, dormant) within each father-child relationship.
Alvin: What are your favorite activities you enjoy most with your children?
Joe: Well, my twin daughters are about to turn 30 and live 2,006 miles away! So, my favorite activity today is spending time with them and talking/listening with them.
Come to think of it, those were my favorite things to do 25, 20, 15, and 10 years ago, too: finding ways to spend time with them and hear them. Shine the nourishing light of my attention on them. Taking them seriously. Sharing our creativity, fun, perspectives, affection and tuning in to the visceral connection which is a father-child relationship.
Alvin: In your opinion what does it mean to be a man today?
Joe: It means overcoming the legacy of growing up in a society that, in general, raises boys to be emotionally illiterate—since emotional literacy is (IMHO) the most important skill in effective parenting, not to mention effective humanness.
I find it hard to top the words you elicited in an earlier interview with Dr. Michael Kimmel, one of my heroes:
“To me, being a man is to live as a complete human being, with access to a full range of traits and behaviors. Males are hard-wired for compassion and nurturing, just as much as we are hard-wired for competition and aggression.”
Alvin: Tell a story, name something that you’ve done or experienced that became your largest step to manhood?
Joe: Once, during a talk I gave to a large group of fathers, the conversation turned to how we learned from our own fathers. Spontaneously, I asked the men in the audience to stand up if they had been changed as a man because they were fathers and/or stepfathers.
All 300 stood. No surprise, I suppose, since the kind of fellow who wouldn’t answer “yes” isn’t likely to take the rather bold step of attending a fatherhood talk.
Then, I said: “Stand up if you could put words to how you’ve changed because you’re a dad or stepdad. Even if it is once simple adjective, like ‘I’m more responsible now.’” After some scattered hesitation, eventually everyone stood again.
Lastly, I said: “Stand up if your father or stepfather ever spoke to you about how he was changed as a man because you are his son.” In other words, did your dad ever articulate to you, out loud, your impact on him as a person?
Well, less than 10 guys stood up, and it suddenly felt like a scab had been ripped off a collective wound in the room—a scab none of us had noticed before.
As we talked further, nearly everyone agreed that our dads had showed us very important lessons, positive and negative, about being a father and a man. But virtually all of us (me included) has never heard our dad speak about one of the most important experiences of his life—being a dad.
Perhaps I value words a lot because I’m an author, but I think this simple exercise (which I’ve repeated many times since, with similar results) demonstrates a generational cycle of silence among men about fatherhood. If a man can’t even speak to his own child or his own father about the life-changing experience of being a father or stepfather, no wonder it’s so hard to talk with—and access support and wisdom from—other fathers.
Nowadays, I finish this exercise by saying: “If your father or stepfather is still alive, go home tonight and call him and ask him: ‘Dad, how were you changed as a man/person because I am your son?’ It will take a lot of courage to make that call and ask that question. It may take even more courage for you father to answer it. But I’m willing to bet it’ll be an amazing conversation in which you will learn something very important about him—and yourself.”
Alvin: What personal advice do you have for fathers and men navigating their way through fatherhood and manhood?
Joe: First: Listen to your children. Remember what my grade school nuns used to say: “There’s a reason God gave you twice as many ears as mouths.”
Second, talk to other fathers and stepfathers. Each of us is a walking encyclopedia of fathering experience and wisdom—e.g., with two 30-year-olds, I have 60 years experience as a dad…even though I’m only 55! Have the courage to open your encyclopedia for others and to ask them to open their encyclopedia to you.0