Craig Kessler is the chief operating officer at Topgolf. Two summers ago, he reached out to some of his friends for advice on being a dad. That advice is now a full book filled with messages from 42 dads, including PGA Tour golfers, a former B-2 Stealth Bomber pilot, and a former CEO of Venmo. These are condensed excerpts from some of the notable Dallas dads.
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Children: 5-, 3-, and 1-year-old sons
Career: COO of Topgolf
Several years after business school, I was offered the chance of a lifetime: to help lead a business called Topgolf as its chief operating officer. At the time, I was 31 years old. With a bit of luck and a series of incredible mentors, I was off to the races helping to lead a growing entertainment company. And as Topgolf grew from 5,000 associates to 20,000, my wife and I had three children—all boys and all within four years. I realized early on that I was clueless when it came to raising our kids.
Fast forward to May of 2019. Inspired by a letter that a mentor’s father had written to him, I asked a few friends to write me a note on how to be a good dad. Unsure what to expect, I received some remarkable responses.
The notes ranged from David Letterman-style top 10 lists that were funny yet thoughtful to letters my friends had written to their children. In total, the five or so notes that my friends created—along with an unproductive online search in pursuit of “dad tips”—helped me recognize a few things:
Moms have endless content on how to be better moms, but the content available for dads is thin. Parenting is a humbling journey, and while most dads begin their journey with the goal of being great, there’s no manual to help us get there. Most dads in my friend group agree that fatherhood is the ride of a lifetime, yet we often find ourselves flying blind with very little pattern recognition to help us navigate whatever comes our way.
As the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and turned normal life upside down, and as my wife and I—like so many other families—navigated parenting our 1-, 3-, and 5-year-old boys, the dad advice submissions began to pick up steam. Friends from different parts of my life found themselves more reflective than ever before and thankfully willing to put their thoughts about fatherhood down on paper. And so, The Dad Advice Project was born.
My hope is that this collection of stories and advice, all put together by real dads whom I am proud to call friends, will help you navigate fatherhood. And, if successful, perhaps these words of wisdom will help our kids live better lives.
Children: 27- and 25-year-old sons; 21-year-old daughter
Career: Sales and business development leader, entrepreneur, coach, and athlete
In our family, parenting is a team effort with complementary roles, strengths, and support for and from each other—like an orchestra with two conductors. My wife, Chris, has been our rock and the foundation of love and consistency for me and all three of our children. She is there every day to love, support, encourage, teach, and provide direction. I have primarily provided support for our kids through time (being home most of their childhood), one-on-one interaction and experiences with each of them, and providing as many opportunities as possible for them to explore their interests.
For our boys, I was able to do most of the teaching by example, and Chris provided other types of support. For our daughter, it was the other way around. And when girls become teenagers, all bets are off. It’s day-to-day survival with all hands on deck!
The other major transition for us was going from “man-to-man” to “zone” offense and defense: when we had two kids, it was easy to split up and each take one. When No. 3 arrives, parents have to figure out how to parent in group settings, which required a lot of adjustments and learning for us.
Fortunately, it ultimately made us all more effective and comfortable in group settings.
Here are five pieces of advice to share with kids:
- Be the best you can be, and strive to get a little better every day. Always remember that perfect does not exist, but it is a great target. Our boys both became professional athletes who took different paths on different timelines, and both were successful to the best of their abilities doing something they loved to do. As those careers end, they are well positioned to employ a similar approach to future adventures in life.
- First impressions are powerful. Always strive to make a great first impression. Example: proper grammar, like using “I” and “me” correctly. This is a very simple skill that makes a great first impression. To this day, my boys intentionally use them incorrectly in front of me as a reminder of how much they had to hear me preach this simple grammar lesson! I love it because it worked!
- Write your goals down (on paper and in your smartphone). Review and update them as appropriate. Some goals are day to day, some annual, and some over a career. Have all three short/medium/long-term goals that you are focused on written somewhere you can revisit them regularly. Our boys do this and often reference these roadmaps and reminders as a big part of their successes in school and professionally.
- Find something you love to do and then do it with passion. Careers, hobbies, and community service should be about passion and fun, not about money or status.
- Surround yourself with the best team possible. Befriend, hire, and/or get to know others who are better at something than you are so you can learn and get a little better every day through those interactions. Then adjust the team as appropriate to meet new goals and challenges.
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Children: 32- and 29-year-old daughters; 30-year-old son
Career: President and CEO of the Dallas Regional Chamber, former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, senior vice president at National Geographic, and assistant White House press secretary to President Ronald Reagan
Like many others, I suspect, I always question whether I am a good dad, as I have tried to balance work and the many other responsibilities of life with being a parent. To be honest, if I could go back and do some things differently, I would. So I’m far from perfect. But our children all love me, and I love them more every day because I realize more fully what a gift they have been to my wife, Ann, and me.
That said, here are three bits of advice:
- I learned this from Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, during my time as president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame: “Nurturing a child is like holding a baby bird in your hand. It’s a delicate balance: if you squeeze it too hard, you suffocate it; if your grip is too loose, it flies away. The key is to hold it with enough firmness so it doesn’t fly away and gently enough so you don’t suffocate it.”
- My best friend in Cooperstown, Bruce Pohl, said something to me one day that was so profound it has always stuck with me. He said: “We’re not raising children; we’re raising the parents of our grandchildren.” In other words, in every action as a parent, know that you are teaching for the long term, not just for today.
- Life is like two scales—one side is weighted with God-given talent, the other with work ethic. You can’t do anything about the God-given talent you were born with, but you have 100 percent control over your work ethic. Your success and satisfaction in life will depend on how hard and how smart you are willing to work to get the most out of your God-given talent.
Children: 17-, 14-, and 12-year-old daughters; 9-year-old son
Career: Commercial real estate executive, entrepreneur, and civic leader
I don’t think I’ve been that great of a dad. I am fairly certain if you caught any two of my children on a good day and told them Craig had asked me to share my thoughts on fathering, they would respond, “Why?” On a bad day, they’d probably just text back, “WTF.” When I show this opening paragraph to my wife, she smirks and suggests one of those kids would actually say, “He’s a bitch.”
Given that qualification, here are some ideas based on my own experiences as both a son and a father.
No matter what has happened, no matter how tough things feel, keep going. Look forward. Today and tomorrow are all you can impact, and if nothing seems to have worked so far, keep trying. Don’t beat yourself up about the past. It’s OK.
All of my kids are different. Way different. What works for one child has not always worked with the next child.
I am a huge Cowboys fan. For years, we have traveled annually to a road game. My Sundays revolve around the Cowboys. I did everything humanly possible to make these kids Cowboys fans. None of my kids are Cowboys fans, and my son just bought a Russell Wilson jersey. Children’s interests are their interests, and it is fun to help them identify their own, too. May you be so lucky that your interests are also their interests. In any event, join them where they are. In my case, it is time for me to get a Seahawks jersey, though I have been told I am receiving one for Christmas.
Traveling with my children and my wife has been one of our greatest joys. Nothing levels the playing field more evenly between parent and child than seeing something or experiencing something together, each for the first time. Also, there’s something about leaving town and changing up the context that seems to yield a higher percentage of better behavior—by both child and parent.
Ultimately, I think my job is to love these kids (and make sure they feel loved), and do my best to keep them inside the lines of the playing field as often as possible. I wish I would have done a lot less of the “command and control” style and approached their upbringing with the “loving” style more often. I also wish I would have been less focused on pleasing others (my parents, friends, co-workers, our pediatrician) in how I was raising my children. I have definitely learned it is not productive to compare your progress or results of your family with some other family’s best day.
I bet your wife is like my wife and has a better read on how the children are doing than you do. Trust her, support her, and defer to her.
As your kids age, discuss your own mistakes and how you resolved them. This shows kids it is not about the mistakes you make; it is about how you overcome them. Let your kids make their own mistakes.
Teach your kids that reading is fun, and have them read as much as they can.
All in all, no matter what has happened up to this point, do your best moving forward.
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Children: 16- and 14-year-old daughters
Career: CEO of The Beck Group, member of the USGA Executive Committee, and chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council
Sorry this memo took some time. I wanted to keep working on my thoughts to make sure that they were clear and brief. I did not want to write a long note; I wanted to write a short note. So I’ve boiled my advice to you, as a young father, down to three things that I’ve learned.
- Make them productive. To me, the key to being a good father is not to make my kids happy every day but to make them productive. At the end of the day, I think we need to answer the question: what are we solving for as fathers? I would suggest to you that some of the worst parenting I’ve observed is from people who are constantly trying to make their kids happy. I have had to say to my kids on a regular basis that my objective as their father is not to make them happy but to make them productive, decent human beings. Contributors to this world. People who would be a net benefit to humanity. In order to do this, discipline is necessary. Sacrifice is necessary. Being unhappy and uncomfortable is necessary. Not every day is a day for happiness with children, and I think over time, they will understand that love equals discipline, and discipline equals discomfort, and when they observe that we are willing to be uncomfortable with them to achieve this discipline, it becomes the highest form of love. So, make them productive, not happy.
- My second observation as a father is that you cannot outsource some of this. There are so many cottage industries where people are outsourcing all of the hard work of being a father. Tutors, specialty coaches, nannies, drivers—the list goes on in affluent communities. All of the ways in which fathers are outsourcing the hard work of parenting. I see this all the time with fathers. Kids in the barbershop glued to iPads, kids in the airport with headphones on, not talking or interacting with their fathers, but the hard work and the discomfort that comes with fatherhood is being outsourced. I’m here to tell you that if you’re going to be a great father, there are some things that just take your time, and in order to apply that time, you’re going to have to be willing to sacrifice. Your kids will understand the sacrifice, and because it is the embodiment of love, it cannot be outsourced.
- My third and final point on fatherhood has to do with integrity. I like to think about integrity as transparency and consistency. That we actually set rules for our kids, and we’re willing to hold them accountable to the rules, but we also have to hold ourselves accountable to the same set of rules. If we want kids that are respectful of others, we have to be respectful of others. If we want sons that will treat their mothers and other women correctly, then we have to treat all women correctly. Every day our children are watching our behavior and what is acceptable from us to determine what is acceptable from them. This gets down to who we idolize, who we support, and which behaviors we glorify in our personal and private lives. Our kids are not watching what we say, but what we do.
Children: 6-year-old daughter; 4-year-old boy and girl twins; 8-month-old son
Career: Partner at Hicks Equity Partners
When I was asked to talk about my parenting as a dad, I realized that I owe a lot of it to my old man. My mother was a saint to us boys growing up, but I find myself becoming my father with my own children. I’m not saying that my father had it figured out in any way—quite the opposite, actually—but given the bond a father and son have in their developmental years, I realized that my parenting style was hardcoded in me well before my wife and I entered the delivery room.
I find myself saying the same dorky shit my dad used to say to me, both for encouragement and to instill discipline with my four kids. I have made his bedtime rituals of singing “The Eyes of Texas” and “You Are My Sunshine” my own; stolen the go-to move of bringing my kids to the golf course to get out and play; watching movies with them that will probably give them nightmares; and cannot wait to duplicate the most ritualistic American father-son experience in the world, a game of catch in the front yard. My dad used to rub our cheeks and ask what it meant. We’d always respond, “I love you,” which would give him the window to say, “I love you, too.” I find myself doing most all of these things that I experienced as a child because I cherished them, and as a father now, I can leverage all of the positivity that my dad contributed to my childhood and edit out any of his perceived mistakes, and of course, make my own.
My old man was big on teaching us accountability, manners, grammar, and discipline. Everything was “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am.”Mack Hicks
I have loved being a father. Every day that I get to spend with my kids has been life’s biggest adventure, and I find myself looking forward to future days when our crew can experience different things that they cannot appreciate or do today. I believe all dads hit their stride with their kids when they get past the baby phase and can start experiencing the world together, and I am just getting started. If parenting is this fun today, imagine when I can take my crew skiing!
My old man was big on teaching us accountability, manners, grammar, and discipline. It started at a young age and was absolutely drilled into all of us along the way throughout our development. Everything was “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am.” We had to present every report card to him in an incredibly intimidating environment (his home office) and explain every positive or negative aspect about our performance during the term. Every grammatical error we made was instantly corrected in my house, and still is to this day! We screwed up a lot growing up, and regardless of what happened, it was my dad that made us face the repercussions.
When I think about what that taught me at the core, I want the same for my children. I want them to know that they are responsible for what they do and the implications it may have on others. I try to teach my children that there are consequences for their choices, both good and bad in this world, and that you should always own your actions and live with the results. My wife and I always preach Cinderella’s mom’s parting advice before she died: to “have courage and be kind.” If that is something my children grow up emulating, I have succeeded as a parent.
Write to [email protected]. This story originally ran in the June issue of D Magazine with the title “Major Dads.”