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Over the past 25 years, we have interviewed more than 300 diverse fathers[1] about the challenges and blessings of striving to be a faithful father. From thousands of pages of transcriptions and field notes we have gleaned 10 insights that have left us pondering the world’s most profound job: that of parent. 

“Kids bless you and they stress you.” A Black Baptist father from Louisiana nailed it with this one. No explanation is needed for anyone who has been a parent for more than two days.

“Kids see if faith is a Sunday thing — or if it’s a 24–7 thing.” A White, non-denominational Christian father from Pennsylvania named Jerry[2] captured the importance what we call belief-behavior congruence. For those fathers, who like us, have been called hypocrites by our own young child, we are aware that kids come equipped with manure detectors that have parent-sensitive settings. Jerry truly strived to walk the walk. His wife Jessica said of him,

It’s always great for kids to be able to look up to their Dad and see someone that they respect. . . . I’ve seen him changing over the years.  He loves the Lord and wants to do what pleases Him . . . modeling what he sees as being valuable for the kids to see. He has an important role in being like Jesus to the kids. A lot of our understanding of who God is comes through fathers, because God is presented as a father in the Bible. If a kid grows up having a father who is loving and kind and supportive and strong, I think it is easier for them to understand God and who He is.

Our Father’s Day wish is for more Dads like Jerry.

“My Grandfather didn’t act spiritual in synagogue, he was spiritual.”  Seth, a Jewish father from Delaware, called out his own parents for hypocrisy and putting on “appearances,” but he welled up with emotion when discussing the profound faith of his Grandfather whose prayers were so powerful they shook you. His remembrance included,

I have seen people who, from the outward appearance seem to center on their religion.  They say the right things but then you look at their lives and you say, “These are not spiritual people, they’re not living everyday what they’re saying.” They may read the Bible three times a day but in their relationships with their kids and their family you don’t see Godly behavior. But then I look at someone like my grandfather, he never changed. . . .  Some people go to synagogue and act holy and then go home and revert to their own lives. But . . . my grandfather never put on a front for anyone, he didn’t act spiritual in synagogue, he was spiritual.

Seth said that he had not reached his Grandfather’s level in his faith development but that his Grandfather’s example remained impressed upon his mind and heart long after his Grandfather’s passing. Seth went on to explain,

Now we say prayers before dinner every night and that was actually a decision we made when my grandfather died [at 99 years old]. One of the memories I had of him was that he wouldn’t sit down to a meal without saying a blessing, “Thanks for this bread.” When he died, we decided, “Let’s do that before each meal, that way we’ll remember him for eternity, and it really stuck. We started doing it right away and we have been doing it everyday since his passing.

As generations go, Seth’s Grandfather was his exemplar, for another father, an angelic model came in the form of his daughter.

“We wanted to come out of this being in love with God, not hating Him.” As Robert watched his six-year-old daughter Melanie succumb to leukemia, he and his wife made and kept this pact. Robert shared the following moment of learning and example:

I went to give blood at a blood drive [at our church], and our good friend Mr. Clyde was there giving blood. He’d visited Melanie in the hospital a couple of times and prayed with her. We had gone through the line and I was just happy because I’d just gotten a penicillin shot and they wouldn’t take my blood . . . [but] Mr. Clyde was there giving blood. Melanie went over and held his hand while he had that blood drawn, because she knew what it was like to have needles poked in your skin and she felt for him. She couldn’t do much but she could hold his hand and she did that. The impact that has on me just tells me that a little bit of loving concern for others goes a long way, not just in the life of either person in the interaction, but in the people who see that. It makes you want to go forth and do likewise.

Melanie’s actions recall the words of Elder Neal Maxwell, whose life included multiple battles with cancer. Elder Maxwell observed that every time we experience a new kind of pain, it allows us to empathize with a new group of people.

Robert would later reflect on his final days of hospital caregiving for Melanie and say, “You wouldn’t expect bedpan shuffling to be a wonderful memory, but it was. Melanie trusted me to do my best job to not hurt her, and that was special to me that she let me do that.”

“Every morning I look at that list and promise myself that that will never be me.” A Latter-day Saint father named Matt told us after our extensive interview with him that his own father had been distant and cold—even brutal. At 10 years of age, Matt began making a list of his father’s harsh actions. By the time Matt left home at 18, the list was more than 100 items long. Now a father of six, Matt kept the 33-year-old list in his sock drawer and read a couple of lines from it each morning while promising himself that his children will never experience what he did—and that compassion will replace cruelty in all he does. He later shared this insight that:

Having a child, this is what life is really all about.  This is the great experience in life. . . . If I’m president of the United States, if I’m a C.E.O. of a major corporation, or if I receive recognition in any particular endeavor, no matter what it may be, that will end. The time would come and I would be voted out of office, or I would resign or retire, or I would lose my position or whatever it may be . . . and yet I will always be the father of my children.

Matt is what social scientists call a transitional character. Another apt term for this kind of generational turn-around is miracle.

“If your child ever gets the idea into his head that there is something more important to you than he is, then you have no right to be surprised when something else becomes more important to the child than pleasing you.” It has been many years since the late John Cortell, an avowed atheist and devoted father of five from Oregon, offered us this pearl to contemplate. Sometimes the faith of a man consists solely of a sacred connection to his wife and children. Some might argue there few kinds of faith are more beautiful or deserving of the name.

“It seemed like church always came before family for my Dad and eventually it cost him his family.” Jackson, a young Baptist father of two from Washington, reflected with pain and sorrow on the life of his pastor and father. We are reminded of leading family therapist Bill Doherty’s warning to avoid “time affairs”—whether the time affair is with NFL football, the golf course, hunting, chasing dollars, or even one’s faith community, affairs are destructive. Jackson himself is a father of faith but is diligently striving to ensure that his church and work involvement support his efforts as a husband and father, instead of undermining them.

“God requires much more of people than their own self-interest, and recognizing this has brought me much more happiness and joy in my life than any other type of success.” Alejandro, a Latino father originally from Mexico, went through a self-reported transformation at 30 years old. He explained,

Family has been one of the greatest blessings that I have experienced but when I was twenty-nine years old, I never thought of having a family, I only thought of myself. When I first learned of the church, it became apparent to me that God requires much more of people than their own self-interest, and recognizing this has brought me much more happiness and joy in my life than any other type of success ever could have. . . . My faith definitely influences the way I see myself as a human being. For me it’s very easy to see this because I know perfectly how I was ten years ago before I became a member of my church. . . . My family (my parents and my brothers and sisters) always comment to me on the changes they see in my life. When I told them ten years ago that I was going to get married according to the teachings of my [new] church, they just laughed because I didn’t have a job or a girlfriend. Two years later, when I invited them all to my wedding they were all surprised. Three months after that, when I was appointed director of an office in the Mexican government, they were surprised again. Oh yes, there’s been a great change in my life.

Alejandra lost his old life and found a new one that came to include a wife and, in time, two daughters. 

“Now, my most important work begins! Now, my most important work begins!” This became the daily mantra of a Christian father named Jeff as he drove home from work based on ideas he read on a fathering website. He came to realize that he had been assuming that because he always worked hard at his job, he had the right to come home and kick back and watch TV while his wife did the hard work of parenting. He realized that, since he was usually tired after work, he needed to psych himself up during his drive home so he would be motivated to work as hard—or harder—at home as a husband and father. Rather than listen to music on the drive home, he thought about the meaningful things he would do with his kids during the few short hours he had with them before bedtime.

“God told me that I will live into the answer.” Brad and his wife had a son with some special needs. Then, several years after the birth of their son, they had triplet daughters who were born severely premature. One of the triplets died shortly after birth. The other two survived but had significant developmental delays in addition to visual and hearing problems. Our home-based interview was extended due to frequent and chaotic interruptions from a series of mild “emergencies” involving the girls, then age two. (Brad had given his wife a rare “girls night out”). Brad cared for his girls with a patience and easiness of manner that seemed to evenly counter the visible chaos of an exceptionally challenging parenting situation. At the conclusion of the interview, the following question burst out, 

“I know you are a man of faith, but don’t you ever shake your clenched fists at the heavens and say, ‘Why, God? Why!?

Brad looked at a point off in the distance that only he could see and said, “I did once.” 

“Well, do you feel like you got a response?”


 “Please, tell me what it was…” 

Again, Brad looked at the distant point visible only to him. And then he softly replied, “God told me that I will live into the answer.” We have been pondering this response for more than 20 years.

Our more than two decades of looking for answers regarding how to be a good father have led us to many who are seeking their own answers. In our own search, we have used two diverse tools—religious traditions and social science. Religion teaches us to believe, science teaches us to be skeptical. Perhaps the psychologist Charlotte Buhler was right when she said: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about.” But perhaps there is more. 

On this Father’s Day weekend, whether or not you believe in a Father of us all, we close with a final reflection from the 19th Century agnostic politician Robert Ingersoll, “It is difficult for a child to find a father in God, unless the child first finds something of God in his father.” 

Loren Marks is husband of Sandra and father of Mishonne, Logan, Haley, Denton, and Aliyah. David Dollahite is husband of Mary and father of Rachel, Erica, Camilla, Katy, Spencer, Jonathan, and Luke. Both Dave and Loren are professors in the School of Family Life at BYU, where they also serve as co-Directors of the American Families of Faith research project.

Article revised and significantly expanded from “Living into Fatherhood,”published in RealClearReligion.

[1] See

[2] With the exception of the late John Cortell, all names are pseudonyms.