What I Learned
When I was in prison in Texas for six years at the Cleveland Correctional Center, I learned that:
• It’s never too late to become a great dad.
• No matter what mistakes I’d made in my life, kids can be incredibly resilient and forgiving when they feel loved.
• Even though I’d had a really painful relationship with my own dad, it was still possible to become the dad I wished I’d had.
• It’s actually a lot easier than I thought it would be to become a great dad.
Well, by teaching it to other dads, most of whom had little or no relationship with their kids. And then by watching remarkable changes take place.
You see, I wasn’t locked up myself. I enjoyed the incredible honor and privilege of being a coach and teacher to about 600 inmates who were part of a larger training called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). Through teaching these men and working with them each week over six months, we quickly realized that they would be much more likely to succeed in business in the outside world if they had a meaningful family support structure and better relationships with their kids.
I will never forget the transformations I observed in these men, and in the lives of their children (about 2,000 of them). It changed me as much as it impacted them, and it shaped my life’s work.
How Did These Changes Take Place?
Here’s what I did to foster the kind of changes that made such a difference:
1. I started by creating low-risk conversations among the men in small groups. They shared the names of their kids, their ages, and a little bit about what their family situations were like, including their relationship with their own father.
2. I told lots of stories about my difficult relationship with my own father, and how I slowly overcame the negative effects of that relationship so I could become a good dad to my three sons. When I talked about my boys, I showed the men pictures of them and honestly told real stories—successes and failures.
3. In small groups, the men talked about what they loved most about their kids, how they missed them, and how great it would feel to reconnect with their kids, and to build relationships with them.
4. I encouraged the dads to write letters to their kids on a regular basis, sharing about their lives, and asking questions about what was going on in their kids’ lives. I taught them how to do it by reading some of the letters I had written to my sons.
5. Many of the men had to ask permission from their children’s mother before writing these letters. I challenged the men to do this, and I taught them how. I asked each man to write to their children’s mothers, apologizing for not being there, telling them about the positive changes they were making in their lives, and sharing their commitment to be more present as a dad, even while still in prison. I challenged them to offer more time with their kids, and financial support to their children’s mothers when they got out of prison.
6. I then encouraged the men to ask permission from their children’s moms for visitations while still locked up. Would their mom’s be willing to bring the kids to visit dad in prison?
7. I coached each man who wanted help in writing his letters to his children. I helped them figure out what to say, how to say it, what not to say, and what to promise, and not yet promise.
8. And finally, I asked the men to invite their families to their graduation in prison at the end of the PEP program.
Tears of Joy
If you have never seen a grown man cry, especially a man who has not been close to his kids, I wish you could have been there to experience one of these graduation ceremonies. Each father made a stuffed bear for each one of his children, like the Build-a-Bear brand in stores. At the end of the graduation ceremony in the gym on prison grounds, the dads stood in the front of the room while we invited their children to get out of their chairs and to come to the front to find their dad. When they did, the dads pulled the stuffed bears out from behind their backs, embraced their children (some for the first time), and they all wept together. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I tell more stories about these events in my book.
In that moment, and others like just like it, I became convinced that coaching fathers to become great dads, no matter what their family or life situation, was the most meaningful vocation I could experience. That’s why I now say that I found my life’s work in prison.
Every Father Can Become a Great Dad
When I stood in the classroom teaching—with executive volunteers in business suits on one side of me and men in prison-issued jumpsuits on the other—I realized that it doesn’t matter what our backgrounds, histories, or education levels are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a good dad or a bad dad, or a present or absent dad. Every father can become a great dad now if he desires to do so, and he gets the help he needs.
So here’s what I learned in prison: If the 600 men I coached, all of whom had such limited exposure and opportunity to connect with their kids, were able to do this, you can, too.
Here’s how you can get started today:
1. Imagine what it would feel like to have the relationship with your kids that you dream of. What would it feel like? What would you do? How would your life feel different?
2. Take a few minutes to think about and then actually write down what you love most about each of your kids.
3. Now, take 15 minutes to write that down in a short letter to each one of them.
4. Then, either give that letter to your child in person, or leave it as a surprise under their pillow or in their lunch box/bag, or mail it. If you aren’t living with or in contact with your child, mailing your letter is a great option.
5. Finally, do the same for your child’s mother. It doesn’t matter if you are deeply in love or deeply divided, or if you are not in contact at all. Writing to your kids’ mom can be very difficult in some situations, but it’s worth it. Take one small step to reach out to her and apologize for not being there more for your child (if you haven’t). Let her know how much you value and appreciate her (look for and find the positive). It will go a long way towards repairing some of the breakdown in the relationship (if it exists). You can make it better. And when you do, it opens the door for building better relationships with your kids, or seeing them more.
To learn more about the simple yet amazingly effective steps you can take towards creating fantastic relationships with your children, check out my short, free video training (link below).###
Post by Keith Zafren, founder of The Great Dads Project and author of the award-winning book, How to Be a Great Dad—No Matter What Kind of Father You Had.
Men who want to be great dads love the stories Keith Zafren tells, the practical skills he teaches, and the personal coaching he offers. Keith has spent seventeen years learning firsthand how to raise three great teenagers and stay close to them, no matter what. He coaches busy dads not to repeat the mistakes their fathers made, but instead, to create fantastic relationships with their kids. Check out his FREE Great Dad video training course.