In the spring of 1993, my parents received a phone call that would change everything. “This is The Oprah Winfrey Show and we would like to have you and your entire family on the show to talk about your most recent book, Teaching Your Children Values.

My parents thought it might be a joke, but by the time they started talking about flying the entire family out to Chicago, things started to get real. The next thing I remember was that a film crew came to our house to shoot some scenes from our home life. We then flew to Chicago, and I knew that something special was going on because the hotel where we stayed was much nicer than the regular motels we would squeeze into on our family trips. I remember getting up early and being driven through the foggy streets of Chicago to the studio where some really nice people in the makeup area gave me a new button-down blue shirt to wear on the show.

As we walked from the green room to the filming area, I could see that there were eight chairs on the stage (for six of the nine children and my parents). My three oldest siblings couldn’t be there because they were doing humanitarian work in Europe. The lights were bright, and the live audience gave a great amount of energy to the whole experience. It was a taped show, but it felt like we were doing it live because most of the show was filmed in one take and we included all of the commercial breaks. I was the first of the children to introduce myself. I said, “I’m Talmadge. I’m in eighth grade. I’m fourteen years old, and I play basketball.” This was, what I hoped, would be my only line on national television. But later in the show, when Oprah was talking about my parents’ method for talking with their children about sex, Oprah turned to me and asked about when my parents talked with me about sex. She asked, “Did it meet up to your expectations?” Horrified, I responded bluntly and honestly by saying with a smile, “Yeah, it was really interesting.” The audience burst out laughing and, luckily, my parents picked up the conversation from there. The rest of the show went well and I was happy I didn’t have to say anything else!

I still remember the day the show aired. My family was with me in Las Vegas where I was participating in a basketball tournament. We were at one of the large casinos to enjoy their “famous buffet lunch” and were standing in a long line that went right into the casino. The alluring slot machines were dinging all around us as we waited to enter the buffet. After some intense coaxing from me and my siblings, my parents finally relented and gave everyone a few quarters to “teach us a lesson” on how the slot machines would most likely “take all of our money.” It was just about the time my brother came back with forty dollars of winnings that some ladies approached our family and asked if we were the family they just saw on The Oprah Winfrey Show talking about family values. There we were, the family values family, gambling in Vegas!

After the show aired, Teaching Your Children Values shot to #1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list, and with its success came many opportunities for my parents to write more parenting books and do seminars all around the world. My siblings and I often helped my parents with their book tours and presentations.

At these seminars, I would often share a story that happened around the family dinner table when I was about nine years old:

As the sixth of nine children, you can imagine that it wasn’t exactly quiet or orderly at mealtime. I can still remember where I was sitting when my dad was explaining a new family initiative that he and my mom had come up with. To be honest, I don’t even remember what he was saying, but I do remember looking around the table and seeing that nobody—not a single person—was paying attention to him. I’m guessing my brothers were bickering with my sisters, a few siblings were lost in their own thoughts, and my mom was trying to get everyone to pay attention. I thought, why do my parents even try? Nobody is listening.

To their great credit, in that moment and in countless other parenting moments, they just kept trying and trying. After telling this story, I would emphasize that it is the effort that counts in parenting.

My main takeaways from my parents’ parenting are (1) consistent effort in parenting is success (2) the long view is key because in many parts along the way, it ain’t pretty. My parents failed a lot and there was lots of chaos in our day-to-day life, but they kept trying and some of their most important teachings really stuck with us. I am happy to say that to this day, I feel a warm connection with my parents and all eight of my siblings.

Somewhere along my journey to adulthood I saw the importance of helping parents in their journeys and decided I wanted to carry on this important work that my parents started over forty years ago. This unique combination of my upbringing, my fatherhood, and my education in positive psychology have helped prepare me to do so.

Parenting is so individual. There is no way to know what kinds of dynamics each dad will experience. Therefore, we need to “read the room(s)” in which we find ourselves and work to address the unique needs that present themselves. This book will give some good general guidelines, but I have purposely left lots of room for dads to tinker around and work toward connection with their children according to their own situations.

Please don’t be too worried if many efforts fail miserably. All families are a work in progress. When anyone asks me what it was like to grow up in a large family where my parents were considered “parenting experts,” I share a point they often make in their books and presentations: we are all “fellow strugglers.”

“Happiness is love. Full stop.”

GEORGE VAILLANT

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest- running longitudinal study of human well-being. It has followed men for eighty years to determine the best indicators of happiness. George Vaillant, who directed the study for over three decades, said that if he had to boil down all the learnings from this impressive study into five words, they would be, “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Vaillant elaborated by pointing out the strong correlation between “the warmth of our relationships” and our long-term health and happiness.1

Applying these learnings to dads, as we put the effort into achieving a warm and loving connection with our children, we are positioning our children (and ourselves) for a life of health and happiness.

What is Dad Mode?

Dad Mode is the art of applying consistent and focused effort toward building and maintaining a warm emotional connection with our children.

Why Dad Mode?

Maintaining a warm emotional connection with our children is arguably one of the most important things we can do as dads. It provides feelings of safety, security, meaning, purpose, joy, and motivation, and it helps us focus on something bigger than ourselves Let me give you an example: A few months ago, I watched a movie with my daughter and we both enjoyed it so much that we laughed all the way through. As we laughed, I remember thinking “it just doesn’t get better than this.” Feeling this connection with my daughter in a moment as simple as watching a movie together was priceless.

Being a dad is multifaceted. My experience has been that dads feel all three of the below depictions (overwhelmed, present and observant, and proactive) as we put effort into connection.

If I look back on my first twelve years as a dad, I would say that leaning forward and making efforts through trial and error took up the bulk of my efforts, around 60 percent. Being an observer and a mirror to my daughter took up about 30 percent of my efforts. The overwhelmed feelings of inadequacy, the guilt for not being around as much as I would have liked, and the absolute confusion on how to handle a given situation consumed about 10 percent of my experience as a dad. These percentages will be different for everyone, and they will change as your children get older, but this has been more or less what I have experienced in my twelve years as a dad.

I am well aware that being a dad is not the only thing we do in life! We all have many aspects of our lives that require attention and effort. When we are in Dad Mode, I recommend that we aim to use the majority of our efforts to proactively connect with our children. We can use a slightly smaller amount of our overall effort to simply show up and observe and act as a mirror to help them figure out who they are. It’s important to recognize that there will be times when we feel pretty overwhelmed.

Parenting Is Like Off-Roading

Life offers few pleasures better than jumping in an off-road vehicle and going to an inspiring place. The feeling of fresh air blowing through open windows while maneuvering the vehicle through challenging trails is exhilarating. Sometimes the route is straightforward; other times, an obstacle like a fallen tree or deep rut slows us down and we have to find a solution or take another trail. It is exciting to experience the challenges along the way. The euphoria of reaching the desired destination with family and friends is second to none.

Similarly, my first twelve years as a dad have felt a bit like an off-roading adventure. My partner and I split up the driving responsibilities  and it has been exhilarating to navigate through the trails of our family story. Sometimes the trail is predictable and manageable while other times we run into a tricky obstacle such as an unhelpful parenting pattern that was passed down to us. We take on these challenges together and sometimes blaze new trails in order to move forward. We have found that we can connect along the way, not just at the final destination. These challenges and obstacles along the way are what make reaching the desired destination all the better.

Much of this book is aimed at helping dads connect with their children along the many trails of being a dad. We rethink old routes and blaze some new ones. We remove obstacles in our path. Sometimes the way only needs to be tweaked, and other times it requires blazing an entirely new trail to reach that desired destination of connection.

Dad Mode is a book comprised of twenty-five ways to connect with your children. Each “way” is a 5–15-minute meditation to help achieve this goal of deeper, more meaningful connection.

Each “way” will have a similar format:
1. “Gist” to give you an overview
2. Brief personal experience from my life story
3. A deeper look at the topic
4. An illustration to reinforce one of the main points 5. Action Steps
6. Conclusion

The twenty-five “ways” are meant to be short and easy to read and comprehend. But that’s when the actual work of creating, repairing, and working toward a lifelong connection with your children really kicks in. I suggest you read this book with a pen or pencil (or with a device that allows for note-taking) so that you can write down ideas, plans, and goals that will facilitate your efforts toward connection. This process of connection, as it was for me, will entail lots of adjusting, reflecting, and failing for it to work for you.

We will explore some fundamental ways to facilitate connection. We will look at some new research that will help us repair our connection after a rupture, and we will learn how to create a family culture that fosters lifelong connection. I will draw from some of the best research on these topics and will relay how I have imple- mented some of these concepts into my own Dad Mode journey.

We all make many mistakes as dads and disconnection will happen. But if we can look back and see that we found ways to reconnect and that the overall connection was there most of the time, I believe that is a sign that our parenting was sufficient for our children to go on to have rich and meaningful lives filled with their own warm connections.