I met Keith Zafren at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Francisco: He kept asking questions during the discussion I led on Internet safety. We’re both dads of teenagers and we’re both passionate about keeping them safe online. Keith also wrote the book How To Be A Great Dad and is the founder of The Great Dads Project. Here’s a Q&A so you can learn more about his efforts too:
Q: Keith, does it surprise you that you created The Great Dads Project?
More than you can imagine! If you had told me when I was twenty-one years old that I would dedicate my life to teaching and coaching other men to be great dads, I would have said there was no chance in hell of that happening. And yet, here I am.
Q: Tell us a bit about your childhood and your dad.
When I was five, I remember waiting for my dad to come home from work. I sat on the fire hydrant at the corner. Some days he came home late; other days he didn’t come home at all.
My dad left our family when I was seven years old and divorced my mom when I was nine. I felt lost and confused. After that, for about nine years, he popped in and out of my life when he felt like it.
When I was fourteen, I decided while away at a summer tennis camp to become a Christian. My dad was Jewish by heritage and atheist by conviction. He experienced my conversion as a personal failure and a rejection of him. He said, “You no longer need me; you now have God to go to.” I saw him less and less after that. And even when I did, he wasn’t all there—I felt his judgment of who I was choosing to be and his disdain of what was beginning to matter to me.
When I was sixteen, my younger brother died—ending his own life as a way to escape the mess our family had become. I was in shock, and I felt guilty that I could not protect and save him. I was barely able to process my own guilt and pain. I had already shut down almost entirely at my brother’s funeral as I stood in the rain all by myself watching them lower my brother’s casket into the ground, my mother lost in her own sorrow, sitting with her boyfriend, my father separating himself and standing alone, apart from me. I had begun what became a thirteen-year journey of isolation, survivor’s guilt, and self-protection.
My dad was devastated, too. In his pain, he rejected me completely. With a look of betrayal in his eyes, he said, “I know you believe Kenny is in heaven. You can’t possibly share my grief.” My dad and I hardly spoke to each other for years after my brother’s burial.
Q: Many men would have run away from fatherhood altogether, or become mediocre or unplugged fathers like their own dads. What did you do to turn it all around?
Rough backgrounds and traumatic experiences usually produce one of two results—either we allow those events and relationships to bury us, or we choose to let those experiences push us toward healing and growth. If we don’t heal our past, we usually repeat it—we live the rest of our lives from a place of pain, repeating broken patterns and continuing the legacy of dysfunction. Some say our past can make us either bitter or better. I wanted to become better. I wanted to become the dad I wish I’d had.
So I entered therapy at the age of twenty-nine to begin sorting out my pain and resolving it. I also looked for and found older men who had solid families and great relationships with their kids and I asked them to mentor me—to teach me what it meant to be a man, a husband, and a father. I read every article and book I could get my hands on about child development, raising children, and specifically about being a dad.
Without intending it, my father actually became a teacher to me. In being absent and rejecting, he showed me how important it was for a father to be present and loving. He gave me an example of something I wanted to change.
Q: What was it like when your first son was born?
Like most first-time dads, I felt bewildered, even with all that preparation. It felt like such a great but overwhelming life change.
It’s likely no surprise that when I became a father myself at the tender age of thirty-seven, I had little idea what to do. I desperately wanted to be a good dad—a better dad to my children than I felt my dad had been to me, and to my brother, but I really didn’t know how to make that happen. Like many dads, I vowed to not repeat the mistakes I felt my father made, but I found those vows are easily broken.
When my sons were born, I resolved to do whatever it took to be the best dad I could be.
I needed a new path forward. I needed to replace bad memories with new experiences. I needed—and sometimes still need today—to replace false beliefs formed in painful childhood experiences with new truth and positive perspectives. I wanted to change bad habits into better ways of being, acting, and decision-making. I wanted to learn better relational and communication skills.
Q: Can you say a bit more about the work you did to become a better dad?
Over several years of focused attention to facing my own issues, reading, being mentored, and trying what I saw and read, I slowly became the dad I dreamed of being—the dad I wish I’d had. Though the healing is ongoing, I found I could do that inner work and be a dad at the same time. I started to believe I was a good dad. And it felt amazing to love my boys in ways that mattered and made such a difference for them, and for me. That is what I wish for you. It’s what I teach through The Great Dads Project: personal growth, acquiring three key fathering skills that will transform your life and create fantastic relationships with your kids, substantial healing, and then having a blast being a great dad for the rest of your life.
Q: What took you from being a great dad yourself to actually reaching out to help and coach other dads?
In 2004, when my boys were just two, four, and six years old, I helped a friend found the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in Houston, Texas—an awesome program designed to help incarcerated men translate already well-formed business savvy into legitimate and legal entrepreneurial business concepts they could implement once they got out of prison. Part of that program involved character-shaping, which I had the privilege of being a part of as a trainer-coach.
What we discovered was that most of these men had children from whom they had been estranged, or had abandoned. And most of these incarcerated fathers longed to know their children, to reconnect with them, and to figure out how to become better dads. I found myself drawn to help. Since my own history and commitment so closely matched theirs, we were a good fit for each other. As I grew toward becoming the dad I wanted to be, I shared everything I learned with them. And as I taught them as a group, and coached so many of them individually in private conversations, my passion for this work multiplied.
The day I stood in front of a large group of inmates and visiting executives, in prison for two days with us to sit as judges at our business plan competition, and as I told stories about my painful relationship with my father, and how I was breaking that chain with my own children, creating the legacy I wanted, I noticed weeping all over the room. It wasn’t just the men in prison-issued jumpsuits on one side of the room, it was also the men and women in business suites on the other. It hit me that these issues of pain, hope, and longing are universal. Very few of us had great relationships with our own fathers; and most of us wanted to be better parents to our children.
I wanted to take this transformative experience and teaching outside prison walls.
Q: So tell us a bit about your book and The Great Dads Project.
In the fall of 2010, I founded The Great Dads Project to inspire life transformation for men, create fantastic relationships between fathers and their children, and foster real healing of father wounds. I also began writing what became my award-winning book, How to Be a Great Dad—No Matter What Kind of Father You Had that helps men in those specific ways.
Q: How can we learn more?
If you want or need some help, I’m here. Please leave a comment and I will respond, or please download my free video training on How to Be a Great Dad from the Web site.
Close relationships with your kids that you and they will enjoy and will last a lifetime do not happen by chance. They are planted as seeds early on, nurtured throughout their lives, and carefully managed when your kids need a father’s love.