My College:
Family Life

Ode to Dads

David Tuttle


As a Baby Boomer, TV shows of yore helped shape my ideas of what a good dad was supposed to be. Mike Brady, Ward Cleaver and Tim Taylor were all presented as idealized versions of the family man.

Times changed (thank goodness) and so, too, did my idea of what a good dad looks and acts like. But times are constantly changing, so it can be hard to figure out how to be a good modern-day dad.

And yet, as a father who's sent four kids off to college, I've noticed that the immovable forces, the wind beneath everyone’s wings…are moms. Just look at the college parent forum. Who do you see? Not a lot of dads. It's not that moms are less busy; on the contrary. But dads… You know. They don’t always feel at home there. Partly this is because they know little about their child, and even less about their college. They've been busy with important things, like mock drafts and the playoffs.

But Mother’s Day is over and Father’s Day is on the horizon. So this is an ode to the dads of college students.

You are the best! If you follow sports, you dads are what are often referred to as “role players.” (If I didn’t have you at mock drafts, I bet you're sitting up now.) You aren’t the superstar (mom is) and you are not the rookie (your student is). No, you are that important piece of the puzzle. You are the glue. You help with veteran leadership. You create chemistry. You do the dirty work. Every team needs good role players, so don’t sell yourself short. You matter.

Now let me qualify this. I know that we're living in a Modern Family world. Gender, family and workplace boundaries have been shattered. Everyone has value beyond outdated roles and genders assigned at birth. Your child isn’t “he” or “she” but “they.” Get used to it, and even embrace it. Show curiosity and listen a lot.

And now is the time to let go of some of the old-fashioned “my way or the highway” ideas. This is going to take some restraint. Maybe you don’t comment on the long hair, pink hair, nose piercing and threaten to pull their college funding. (This goes for your daughters, too.) Maybe, just maybe, you can listen to some music that isn’t from your own college days (and don’t say of Billie Eilish, "I really like his music!").

As a former Student Affairs and Residential Life staff member, I have seen the dad role up close. Let’s look at the microcosm known as move-in day. While mom is (usually) swallowing her feelings, making up the residence hall bed, cleaning the bathroom, unpacking the suitcases, and organizing everything they bought over the summer to make college perfect, dad is in the background. He is thinking about how much junk (that his wife bought) he will have to move back home in the summer. He is sweating from multiple trips to the car (and, if lucky, is assigned an errand to the air-conditioned store for items forgotten).

And of course, he is building (more accurately, assembling) things: shelves, lofts, chairs, computer tables. This is the dad’s domain, and where he is most comfortable, aside from picking out classes for his child. He is fulfilling his role. He gets to work alone, choking down his own emotions, and being just a little crabby in the process.

He realizes, too late, that he should have spray-tanned his legs and purchased contemporary-looking shorts as he watches cool dads, with athletic legs, wipe their tears. And he secretly hopes his kid will not make the same mistakes he did at his age. (Probably not a high bar.)

It used to be that dad wrote the check, smacked the kid on the back, and let mom take care of the logistical and emotional details. And of course, those were NOT the good old days. Because you and I mostly know, in our hearts, that parenthood never has been and never will be the domain of any given gender. Maybe on the outside. But not down deep.

No parent is immune from common fears about the safety, success and happiness of their college-going children. And nearly all are filled with pride as their students set their new life courses. There is a saying, that we are only as happy as our least happy child. I love that, and live it, even if I don’t want to. When I packed up the car or truck for my student, I always did so with a degree of sadness and anxiety. They weren’t just going away to school. The family dynamic would be forever changed. (If only I'd known they'd move back, I could have saved myself lots of low-level depression.) And when I said goodbye to my oldest on his first day at college, I surprised myself as I burst into tears. It lasted for about an hour, until I turned my energy into finding a good restaurant for dinner. I continued this crying ritual with each kid as I said goodbye, multiple times. It was cathartic, and authentic, and real.

So, this Father’s Day, college dads, I give you a gift: Permission. Be yourself. Don’t hide your emotions. Your child is, or will soon be back home for the summer. Hopefully they'll acknowledge you for the force you have been in their lives. Tell them you care about them. Hug them, love them, and talk to them about more than grades and the best careers to make money.

Know that you aren’t like the dinosaurs of past generations. You get to be you, and be a fully engaged parent and not a bystander. Enjoy college fatherhood, and maybe jump on that college social media parent page. It really will be okay and maybe the moms will love you as their go-to-dad.

Oh, and it also wouldn’t kill you to get a little sun on those legs.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]
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