What the Entrepreneur's Modern Approach to Fatherhood Should Be
The term “father” to me has always had a low bar. Even the best portrayals in the media are likely to show men who value work over family, so that that family feels blessed just having his presence.
The worst portrayal, meanwhile, is of an angry individual whom the family simply tries to not disturb. So, often, we'll see a hybrid of a drunk and an angry 1950s door-to-door salesman. Or we'll see a character like Bobby Axlerod on Showtime’s Billions, who shows up in a helicopter to his sons' baseball games, yet doesn't visit the kids more than once a month.
The higher up the ladder a father is at work, the less family time is expected of him. Because of this portrayal, fathers who are entrepreneurs often have the lowest bar of all. Steve Jobs, who initially denied he was the father of his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs, despite a DNA test showing otherwise, often gets a pass. Some reviews of his 2011 biography don’t even mention his daughter’s existence.
These are some of the reasons why I end up hearing what I describe as low-bar father statements at social events. “It’s so good you come to her games,” one person will say. Or, “It’s so nice of you to visit for parents' and teachers' day.” But let’s face it: Society already has a low bar when it comes to fathering, reflected by the fact that just showing up from time to time is enough to win you a “congratulations!” from another parent.
Replacing "father" and "mother"
Before I dive into what I do as a father to make the most of my time with my kids, I want to start by just replacing the words “father” and “mother” with “parent.” As a parent, there is no “have-it-all” mentality. If you want your kids to grow up to be happy, self-actualized individuals who stay connected to the family, you're going to have to put in some time -- and time demands sacrifice.
In this world of ours, that kind of sacrifice needs to come from both parents, regardless of their individual roles. And those roles? We are past gender-based roles. It's time we moved into a more functional approach to parenting duties.
Beyond that, as an entrepreneur who’s a parent, you will likely have a flexibility that not all parents get. You call the shots, which means you’re fully in charge of how your time is spent. Not all entrepreneurs take advantage of this, and many take it completely for granted, opting for unproductive late nights at the office and work trips with little chance of ROI.
With that in mind, here are the ways I focus my time and optimize my life around my kids. Everyone’s situation is different -- certainly these won’t work or fit for everyone -- but they do for me in my role within our family and may be of use.
Do the math.
If time is what builds amazing family and kids, then time is our most precious resource. This exercise is easy: You have 168 hours in a week. Assuming you sleep on average 7 hours per night (and if you don’t, please do), you have roughly 119 hours per week to spend on waking activities. If your kids are in school, that really leaves just 6 hours per weekday, and 12 hours per weekend. That means a total of 52 hours per week of possible family time.
For me, the numbers break down like this: I work 8 a.m. to 5 p,m,, which is 45 hours per week. Add in my commute, and you can assume I am not 100 percent with my family those 55 hours per week.
I also have access to my kids during the week. I get one hour in the mornings on weekdays, three hours in the evenings on weekdays and all day on each day in the weekend -- totaling 52 hours a week.
This means I’m already behind. My family is my priority, so I should try to spend at least the same amount of time with my family as I spend at work. If my work time is a minimum of 55 hours per week, and I only have 52 hours per week with my kids during the school year, then something has to give: I have to be home in the evenings to grab those few precious hours.
And I need to book all weekend with them -- otherwise, I won’t even get close to matching the time I devote to work.
This means that if I want to spend those hours with them, I cannot do things like go to the gym, hang out with friends or participate in non-family outside-of-work activities during the times my children are available to me.
In addition, work dinners or time that eats into those few hours each day needs to be cut to a minimum, which means eliminating all non-essential work evening meetings.
Another result is that I can rarely travel for work, unless that's absolutely necessary. If I do travel, I need to keep the trip as short as possible and book it with back-to-back meetings until I’m back in the air.
If you're an entrepreneur who's fallen into the trap of late nights and pressure to network (even though 99 percent of networking is a waste of time), I recommend adopting this same mathematical approach to how your time is spent ,and then being fiercely protective of the time you reserve for your family.
President Obama, for example, set a rule that after he was inaugurated he would have dinner with his family five nights a week, and he enforced that rule strictly. His former body-man Reggie Love used to say that the meal was “like a meeting in the Situation Room. There’s a hard stop before that dinner.”
Establish one-on-one time with your kids.
My wife Jenn and I have two kids and want to give them equal one-on-one time. The only way we have found to do this is to switch which parent puts which child to bed each evening. One night, my wife might put our son to bed while I put our daughter to bed, and the next night we'll switch.
If you can’t get home in time for a few hours with your kids after work, then this bedtime ritual is the next most precious thing. That 30 minute-to-one-hour time before lights out is the most critical time we get with our kids. It allows one-on-one conversations, and it opens up time and a space for our children to express their feelings to us about their day.
While my daughter likes to provide a chronological expression of her day, class by class, with detail, my son prefers to play. After he plays, he relates the positive or negative experiences he had at school that day.
I try to not bring my phone to their rooms during this time -- and I try to let them set the conversation. I don’t probe; but I do work to hear more about their day. The longer we have done this as a family, the more meaningful conversations we have had.
Find shared interests.
One thing that seems universal to all kids is that they learn and thrive within play; and structured play means games. Games allow children to have a dynamic with you that is at an equal level. They can be equally matched and have the chance to beat you (which frankly they love).
When our kids were younger, we got very deep into card games. They played Pokémon, not the iPhone version, the card game. In order to connect with them, I played too. We played aggressively and competitively. I got as deep into it as they did; frankly, just talking about this makes me want to play. I saw other parents placate their kids by pretending to play; they didn't really care about the games they were playing, and they looked for opportunities to exit the game.
I took the opposite approach; I played to win. I discussed and researched strategy with them. We took our cards with us on trips. And, yes, although their first choice would be to grab my iPhone and play an iOS game, their second choice was Pokémon. By playing, we developed a wonderful rapport and competitive spirit that satisfied their desire and need to play games but also satisfied my own desire to interact directly with them and engage deeply and genuinely with what they were doing.
Then, as they aged out of Pokémon, we graduated to chess. Similarly, we traveled with our chess board and competed in chess on the road. Again, Jenn and I played to win. This was not us just humoring our kids, but us honestly engaged in gameplay.
On a related note, video games aren’t the answer, but they aren’t avoidable. As a kid who grew up gaming, I love video games. But I didn't want to lose my kids inside a monitor for eight hours a day -- which is where I often found myself as a kid. I wanted experiences where we could work together, without hearing my 10-year-old yelling “Headshot!” as he took a sniper rifle to someone's cranium.
Eventually, we found our way to League of Legends, a team oriented, five-on-five game with defined roles for each player. I learned the game with my kids, and now we play together exclusively. They don't play without me, and we always play as a team together.
As for immersive video games, we restrict any immersive video game time to two hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. At times we'll play a little less or a little more, but we use our time prescription as a guideline for our kids. And during that time, I have to be playing with them for the entire two hours. I won't tolerate seeing them locked in a room talking with strangers on a headset.
Instead, we'll talk with strangers now together, and if things get out of hand, I can cut off the conversation to keep the game civil.
Overall? As a society, I believe we need to move past the idea of separate roles for mothers and fathers. We are all just parents -- that role should not be a societally defined gender role. It should be a mutual approach to raising incredible people who go on to do amazing things in the world.
And behind all this energy stands one thing that can make it all go well, or not: time. So my best advice to current and future parents who want to lead by example, and build amazing humans, is to give them your most precious asset, time.
Cut out things that are non-essential to reduce your time away from them, and engage with them genuinely. Find activities you both love and do them together. Also find dedicated rituals where you can connect personally and have non-rushed open time to hear them. Because hearing them is what it's all about.